The Interview – a new play about Princess Diana’s bombshell 1995 interview with Martin Bashir

Image above: The Interview at Park Theatre

Jonathan Maitland talks to The Chiswick Calendar about his new play

Jonathan Maitland, Chiswick resident, journalist (BBC Today programme and ITV Tonight reporter), author of several books (including How to Make your Million from the Internet, and what to do if you don’t and How to Survive your Mother) and now playwright, first tried his hand at writing for theatre eight years ago.

He has now written four plays, all of them successful, either political satire or on tabloid topics – Dead Sheep about Geoffrey Howe’s political assassination of Margaret Thatcher; An Audience with Jimmy Saville; Deny, Deny, Deny, about medical and ethical dilemmas and The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson.

All have been critically acclaimed and successful at pulling in audiences. His fifth, opening at the end of October at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, where all his plays have been produced so far, looks like it might be his best yet.

Again he has gone for a tabloid audience grabber – The Interview is about the infamous interview with Martin Bashir and Princess Diana from 1995, watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, in which she famously declared: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

But the play is based on what she didn’t say, as well as what she did, and whether it is right that the royal family, principally Prince William, have successfully pressured the BBC into agreeing it will not be shown again.

Once the lies and deceit Martin Bashir used to persuade her to do the interview were uncovered, the BBC’s right to carry on showing it became questionable, but whether or not it loses validity as an important historical testimony is another matter – the matter which Maitland explores in the play, which gives it some dramatic heft beyond just a titivating re-enactment.

Jonathan Maitland spoke to The Chiswick Calendar about The Interview and the questions it raises.

Image above: Jonathan Maitland

“A work of imagination based on real stuff”

I want to know how he knew what Princess Diana had said off camera. If he didn’t have access to the rushes (which he doesn’t) and wasn’t there to witness it (which he wasn’t), how does he know? Or is it completely imagined?

The answer, he says, is that the play is based on “highly informed guesswork”. He has done a lot of research – read articles and watched documentaries – and there are interviews with those who were there, such as the camera crew, and the editor of Panorama at the time, Steve Hewlett, who have talked about what she said that was left out of the documentary.

I bring up The Crown, which has been criticised for portraying fiction as if it were what really happened, and I wonder if he might be in the same boat, open to similar criticism.

Not at all, he says. “The Crown made me laugh” he said, describing the TV drama series’ departures from the truth as “egregious”.

He describes his play as “a work of imagination based on real stuff. Not made up to the extent that The Crown was. A lot of the key scenes of him with her are imagined because I wasn’t there, but that’s what drama’s for. It stays as closely as possible to what we know to be true.”

There are also passages which he says are “literally fantastical, out of this world sequences”.

Why resurrect the subject now?

“The criteria of success are – what will the critics think? and will it sell well? It’s already selling well.”

Images above: Jonathan in his reporting days; The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson

“The ultimate fairy story come horror story”

Maitland has an eye for what will be commercially successful and knows there is an enduring interest in Princess Diana.

His debut show Dead Sheep became the most successful play in the theatre’s history when it was performed at the Park in 2015, and he took it on tour the following year off the back of that success. His next play, An Audience with Jimmy Savile, broke the previous record set by Dead Sheep and transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe.

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, set at the infamous Islington dinner party with Michael Gove in February 2016 when Boris Johnson decided to vote ‘leave’, examines the machinations of Tory party politics and Johnson’s eventual downfall (which came true much as the play predicted). After its initial sold out run at the Park theatre in May 2019, again breaking all their previous records, it also went on a national tour.

He thinks he is on to a winner with The Interview because the Princess Diana story is “the ultimate fairy story come horror story.

“I would argue she’s been a bit forgotten” he says, what with the coronation and all, and “partly due to her son”, which gives the tale another twist – the irony of Prince William suppressing her story when she had taken a huge risk in speaking out and had brought them up to stand up for themselves.

‘Why should I stay silent? They’ve been trying to shut me up from day one. This way I’ll finally be heard.’

“It’s fascinating” says Jonathan Maitland, “because she was before her time in many ways, talking about mental health issues for example. She provides a really interesting case study for feminism and remains enduringly fascinating because she was a shining example of a woman who stood up for herself.”

Why else might we want to go and see it?

“The tickets aren’t very expensive and it’s not too long.”

And it’s produced by award-winning theatre company Original Theatre (The End of the Night, The Mirror Crack’d, The Habit of Art) with an excellent director, Michael Fentiman, who spent three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and whose production of Amelie was nominated for three Olivier awards including best new musical.

The Interview is on at the Park theatre from Friday 27 October – Saturday 25 November.

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