“There is no subject that is off limits.” The promise of a no-holds-barred take on palace drama has made Oprah Winfrey’s headline-hogging interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which debuts in the United States on Sunday and is set to air on ITV on Monday night, one of the most anticipated royal tell-alls of all time.
In sitting down with Winfrey to share their story, the Sussexes join a long line of royals who’ve opened up about life behind palace doors on television - often to explosive effect.
From an ill-advised lament about the family’s finances to the on-air revelations delivered by both of Harry’s parents and yes,that Newsnight interview, these are some of the most memorable royal TV moments of all time...
Royal Family documentary, 1969
OK, it’s not strictly a straightforward interview - but the Queen was so unconvinced by this enlightening BBC film, which marked the first time that cameras were invited behind the scenes at the palace, that she blocked it from being repeated soon after. Royal Family was filmed over the course of 75 days, across 172 separate locations, and featured candid scenes of Prince Philip barbecuing at Balmoral, Prince Charles playing the cello and Her Majesty pondering out loud whether her youngest son’s ice cream would “make a mess on the car seat.”
The two-hour documentary was supposed to cast the Windsors in a more relatable light, but it arguably ended up fulfilling that mission too well. David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two, reportedly told the director that the film was “killing the monarchy,” as “the whole institution depends on a mystique.” It seems that the Queen agreed with his assessment, as Royal Family has not been broadcast since 1972 and remains something of a white whale for royal fans (though it did briefly crop up on YouTube last summer - only to be promptly removed). Once again, if this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s probably thanks to The Crown,” which devoted an episode to imagining the events surrounding filming.
Prince Charles talks to Jonathan Dimbleby, 1994
Charles and Diana had already announced their separation back in 1992, but the Prince of Wales’s sit down with his biographerJonathan Dimbleby for an ITV special bulldozed any illusions that their marriage had ever been a fairytale. Charles finally admitted what had been rumoured all along - that he had been unfaithful to his wife - but made sure to include a major caveat, stating that this had only happened once their relationship “became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried.”
It was a bombshell that would have dominated the following day’s papers on any other occasion - until Diana made a dramatic appearance at a Vanity Fair party the same night wearing the notorious off-the-shoulder ‘revenge’ dress, and photos of the smiling People’s Princess pushed Charles off the front page (“The Thrilla He Left To Woo Camilla!” screamed one headline).
Princess Diana on Panorama, 1995
“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” Even if you’ve never watched Martin Bashir’s interview with Diana, Princess of Wales in full, you’ve almost definitely heard her utter those words, which sent shockwaves around the world in 1995. As well as discussing her husband’s infidelity - and admitting to an affair with James Hewitt - Diana discussed everything from the pressures of royal life to her experiences of bulimia and post-natal depression. She also revealed that she’d been involved in the making of Andrew Morton’s bombshell biography (“I was at the end of my tether. I was desperate”).
The tide of public opinion was already in her favour, but her candour in the Panorama special certainly helped crown Diana as, in her words, “the queen of people’s hearts.” A report last year, however, claimed that falsified bank statements, implying that members of royal staff had been paid to leak information, were shown to Diana in a bid to secure her participation. The BBC launched an investigation into the allegations soon after, vowing to “get to the truth,” though the police have since confirmed that Bashir will not face a criminal inquiry. The journalist has not yet addressed the case as he is currently recovering from a heart operation.
Sarah Ferguson talks to Oprah Winfrey, 1996
Meghan’s chat with the queen of talk shows is not the first time that Winfrey has secured an exclusive interview with a Duchess with a story to share. Back in 1996, shortly before her divorce from Prince Andrew was made official following a four-year separation, Sarah Ferguson appeared on Winfrey’s show to spell it out that royal life “is no fairytale.” She railed against the “vicious” British tabloid treatment of her and her sister-in-law Diana, bemoaned the “very dark” 30 amp light bulbs used in the palace and revealed that she’d been reprimanded for opening windows too wide.
The pair clearly struck up a rapport, as Fergie returned to drink tea and eat scones on the programme a few years later; in 2010, she gave Winfrey her first interview after being embroiled in a cash for access sting.
Prince Andrew talks to Emily Maitlis, 2019
Cast your minds back to November 2019, when real-life royal drama managed to firmly upstage the brand new series of The Crown that had only just landed on Netflix. Airing in a prime time slot on a Saturday night, Emily Maitlis’s grilling of Prince Andrew was excruciating, can’t-look-away viewing that set the gold standard for car crash interviews. The Duke of York maintained that he did not regret his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein (their association was “actually very useful,” he said, while Epstein’s New York residence was “a convenient place to stay”), told Maitlis that he had never met accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre as he was attending a children’s birthday party at Pizza Express in Woking on the night in question (the restaurant’s TripAdvisor page was later flooded with fake reviews) and claimed he was physically incapable of sweating after an incident involving “an overdose of adrenaline” during the Falklands War. Maitlis later said she channelled Line of Duty anti-corruption officer Kate Fleming while the tape was running. Prince Andrew has repeatedly denied the allegations made by Roberts Giuffre.
Harry and Meghan on ITV, 2019
Months before ‘Megxit,’ this interview with ITV’s Tom Bradby was an early warning sign that all was not well with camp Sussex. In a special hour-long film subtitled An African Journey, Bradby followed the couple on a tour of Southern Africa, their first with their baby son Archie. In a quiet moment in between charity engagements, Bradby asked the Duchess how she had been coping with intense media scrutiny while grappling with new motherhood. “Not many people have asked if I’m OK, but it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes,” she said, visibly emotional. Elsewhere in the film, Prince Harry alluded to rumoured tensions between him and his older brother William, noting that they will “always be brothers” but were “certainly on different paths at the moment.”