What I Really Want You To Know About The Infamous Prince Andrew Interview

I set up the Newsnight interview - this is what actually happened...


by Sam McAlister |
Published on

Can you imagine yourself in Buckingham Palace, sitting 15 feet behind Prince Andrew during that BBC Newsnight interview in November 2019? Because that’s exactly what happened to me.

It’s still hard to believe he said ‘yes’ to the infamous interview, even though it was my job, as a ‘booker’ at Newsnight, to convince people to come on the show. To be honest, most of the time it was a thankless task – endless rejection, often working for months on something, only for it to fall at the last hurdle.

This was the culmination of over a year of negotiations, visits to the Palace, hoping against hope, countless emails and eternal optimism. But I will be honest with you, I never actually thought he would say yes.

But he did.

And then, four years later, I’m sitting in Buckingham Palace again. Except this time, it’s an exquisitely reconstructed one, on a film set near Luton. Andrew and Emily Maitlis are in the room again, except now it’s the usually exquisitely chiselled actor Rufus Sewell (three hours of prosthetics) and the iconic Gillian Anderson (wig, no prosthetics) as the fictional Prince and presenter. We are on the set of the movie Scoop based on my book. Billie Piper is now ‘Sam’ –and she’s shaking her blonde curls (wig) in the fake room, in the Netflix version of my life. We look so alike, some crew members even confuse us. A paper prints a picture of Billie. It’s actually me! The days are a whirl of set changes, trailers, cameras, action.

It's next level surreal. It’s next level wonderful.

Of course, the film version, out last week, is a dramatisation, so there’s some moments of difference (watching me write 100 emails wouldn’t be much fun to watch). It’s penned by the masterful screenwriter, Peter Moffat (Silks and Your Honor) but so many moments are exactly what happened. Some of which may surprise you…

The last negotiation was indeed face to face in Buckingham Palace. With Prince Andrew himself and his private secretary, Amanda Thirsk (played by Keeley Hawes). Three Newsnighters (myself, Emily and the Deputy Editor) crammed into a tiny room, within touching distance of one another. And yes, there was a surprise appearance from his daughter, Princess Beatrice (played by the gorgeous Charity Wakefield). Her attendance was a total curveball – imagine talking about the allegations of sexual assault and the Prince’s friendship with the convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, in front of his child…

Perhaps the most unbelievable part is where ‘Sam’ calls HRH ‘Randy Andy’ to his face. But I absolutely did. There’s a point in a negotiation when you know you have a rapport, where it’s all or nothing, and I calculated that honesty was the best policy – my argument was that the public saw him as guilty and, if he wanted to change the conversation about him, it was up to him to do so. My colleagues collectively inhaled when I said it, but, luckily for me, he responded with a laugh. My bluntness didn’t faze him. He said ‘yes’ just 24 hours later.

On the day, a lot of things happened that couldn’t fit into 102 minutes. Most magically, I got offered a martini (my beverage of choice) by one of the lovely Palace staff; I had arrived looking ashen, so she offered me a drink, and I glibly asked for a martini. I had to decline – I was delirious at this point – but she kindly told me it was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite tipples too.

As the interview room was being set up with the vast detritus of television production, Prince Andrew suddenly appeared. I went to chat to him. You’re really trying to keep to small talk, given the seriousness of the occasion, so I asked about the room. Turns out, he said, that the Palace cinema club was going to be convened there later that evening. A giant cinema projector was hidden behind some heavy wooden vaulted doors. The prince told me what the film was going to be – Judy with Renée Zellweger. He asked if I’d seen it (I hadn’t) and then opened the giant doors to show me the projector. A small, but unforgettable, moment.

Then Emily arrived. In the movie he bellows ‘trousers!’ as she’s usually wearing a skirt or dress. But that didn’t happen. Or at least I didn’t hear it (a large number of people were spoken to by the productions teams at Voltage and Lighthouse Productions, so someone else may have heard that).

The interview scene – with Rufus and Gillian – is verbatim. The room is immaculately reconstructed by the crew. Every detail is the same – from the chairs and art, to the tiny table and ‘ER’ marked glasses and water bottle between them. And all of the accoutrements of TV are also the same – each camera and light a replica of what the actual crews used, based on months of research.

What happened after was also the same, but of course, the world hadn’t seen that. As the cameras stopped rolling, the journalists all looked ashen. After that avalanche of terrible answers, we knew we had something extraordinary and important. Emily looked professional but perturbed. And Prince Andrew? He looked pleased as punch. It’s true that he took Emily on a tour of the Palace. True also that those iconic pictures of them both striding the place corridors were taken after this terrible interview occurred. Zoom in on his face. See how happy he looks….

As for me, I left the Palace and made my way back to the BBC. We could all barely believe what we had witnessed.

It’s mad that in just two years, I’ve gone from Newsnight to Netflix.

Our film is an homage to the BBC, to the team at Newsnight, to Emily and to the brilliant Editor at the time, Esme Wren (played by Romola Garai). And to the women journalists who made it all happen.

It’s a tribute to the power and importance of journalism and truth in these uncertain times. If you value it, please consume it. Or the powerful will sleep more soundly at night.

Stream 'Scoop' on Netflix now

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