Context is all, they say. And when you broadcast a documentary about the king’s paedophile-affiliated brother five days before the former’s coronation, they may be right. Context is certainly the greatest ally of Channel 4’s Andrew: The Problem Prince. It is based on an anatomisation of the before, during and after of the now and probably for ever infamous interview that Prince Andrew gave to Emily Maitlis on Newsnight in 2019. I know. Four years ago. And still the memory of him claiming to be unable to sweat as a result of trauma in the Falklands, and taking the kids to Pizza Express in Woking on the evening he was alleged to be having sex with a trafficked 17-year-old, is as crystal-clear as it ever was. Time has not done its gentle work. If it catches you unawares, you still jack-knife unstoppably in horror as it unleashes all the rest of its vicarious humiliation. “It was a convenient place to stay.” “A very ordinary shooting weekend.” “I’m too honourable.” Amazing.
The same disbelief clearly still attends the even more extensive recollections of Maitlis and her producer, Sam McAlister. The latter received the first approach from Amanda Thirsk, the prince’s chief of staff, in 2018, which was before Jeffrey Epstein – though by then a convicted sex offender – had come into UK public consciousness. When Newsnight declined the offer of what was essentially a puff piece, word came back that they were open to “a wider discussion”. He would talk about anything except his friendship with Epstein. Newsnight didn’t fancy being dictated to, so declined again. “Best decision ever,” says McAlister. It is clear that, quite rightly, the joy will never leave her. The prince and the “playboy” – AKA man-arrested-for-20-years-of-sex-trafficking-in-plain-sight – became headline news and Andrew became determined to use the interview to clear his name. It is not overtly stated but it is obvious that from then on, the main task of McAlister and Maitlis was to tread softly and not shatter the man’s illusions.
Others tried to – notably Andrew’s lawyer Paul Tweed, a twitchy man quick to affirm his advice to the prince to say nothing to no one about nothing, nothing at all – but the hubristic heart wants what it wants. Andrew went on telly and told everyone everything about all of it.
Various talking heads explain the man and his decision, first to become close to Epstein and then to chat about it on national television. The former press secretary to the queen Dicky Arbiter and the royal correspondent Valentine Low limn the extra-privileged childhood as the queen’s favourite, the inescapable resentment at being the spare not the heir, and the compensatory pleasures of being a handsome young prince about town (“Girls on tap,” explains Dickie, succinctly) without having to worry about his reputation too much.
The most powerful testimony, though, is wordless and comes from contemporary footage of him in interviews. The easy charm (if you allow for 80s social mores) of the twentysomething prince being interviewed by/flirting with Selina Scott curdles into something more smug over the years until you can see the monstrous entitlement lurking beneath, threatening at any moment to break the bounds of decorum. The trade envoy years showed there was no beginning to his talents, and when he was stripped of his titles by the queen after pictures of him strolling through Central Park with a post-conviction Epstein hit the papers, Low (deliciously viciously) points out that this is bound to hit a man “without a hinterland … no rich inner life” particularly hard. Whatever judgment or willingness to take advice he might have had was eroded further, and his loss was Maitlis’s gain.
This is not a documentary in which Epstein’s victims are central, and the claims of Virginia Giuffre about having to have sex on three occasions with the prince are only just given enough attention here, most of it in the second episode. What saves Andrew: The Problem Prince – although it’s still a close-run thing – from being an unforgivable media masturbatory session, allowing the people involved with the interview to cover themselves in further glory and pontificate about the power of journalism to hold the privileged and protected to account, is the proximity of its broadcast to the coronation. It reminds us all that the monarchy contains and tolerates the likes of the Duke of York. He isn’t the first dodgy royal and he won’t be the last. That’s how they roll, and Charles would like us to pledge public allegiance to it. Good luck with that, fella. Good luck with that.