Hallmark/William and Catherine: A Royal Romance
Spare a passing thought today for writer, director and producer Linda Yellen, architect of the latest royal TV drama, William and Catherine: A Royal Romance, which airs on the Hallmark Channel in America on Saturday night.
By taking responsibility for this fresh addition to the royal made for TV movie lexicon, she is placing herself in the artistic equivalent of a coconut shy - and she is the coconut. Everyone can have a throw - and everyone’s a winner. The critics have already savaged the low budget movie, made with a largely unknown cast in Bucharet, Romania.
"What’s this film about?" asked Brian Lowry of Variety magazine rhetorically. "About 87 minutes." Ouch! On Saturday night audiences will be able to squirm in their seats at the stilted dialogue, the improbable sets and bogus set pieces - and probably love every clunking minute of it.
As Lowry points out, if the Hallmark Channel’s movie is to be believed, William and Catherine are two of the most famous and famously boring people on the planet. This cuts to the heart of director Linda Yellen’s dilemma. How to make the romance dramatic when there was precious real life drama about their story? They met at St Andrew’s University, lived together, stayed together after college, broke up for the briefest period and then continued on their way. Even during their engagement interview they seemed like an old married couple.
Unless there is real drama, anyone trying to dramatise a royal romance - or the royal family for that matter - is buying a one way ticket for the coconut shy. The Oscar success of The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, and the King’s Speech prove that there is an appetite for royal drama when there is conflict and tension. Madonna’s movie about Wallis Simpson and her tragic romance with Edward Vlll that led to his abdication has plenty of dramatic friction. It remains to be seen if the singer can tease it out.
I have to confess that I have done my time in the coconut shy. Nearly 20 years ago Hollywood producer Martin Poll made a TV movie from my ground breaking biography, Diana, Her True Story. Prince Charles was played by David Threlfall (left), a Manchester City supporter who later went on to make the stellar drama, Shameless. Diana was played by Serena Scott Thomas (left), sister of the Oscar nominated Kristin. When Serena was first asked to play the role, her sister advised her to turn it down.I don’t see why. It never did her any harm - I notice that 20 years later she snagged the role of Carole Middleton in another William and Kate bio pic!
During the filming of Diana, Her True Story, the big problem was Diana’s wig. Wardrobe must have made five or six versions to mimic the real Diana’s hairstyle. It was a hopeless task. The movie was due to have its premiere at a film festival in Monaco, but the royal family showed solidarity with the Windsors and banned it.
Instead several busloads of critics and journalists decamped to the Villa Rothschild on Cap Ferrat in France to watch this epic drama. My publisher Mike O’Mara and I had already seen it, so rather than sit through it all again, we smoked cigars on the terrace and watched the full moon rise over the wine dark Mediterranean. Inside we could hear the muffled guffaws of the hack pack and the grinding of axes.
The reviews were of course terrible. Entirely predictable. In the end the joke was on them. Ironically the dialogue that elicited the most laughter were the genuine quotes from the Princess of Wales. Not that anyone knew at the time that I had spoken with her. The movie went on to be the biggest ratings winner the then new British broadcaster Sky TV had ever produced.
My next foray into the royal made for TV movie world came when German producer Christian Siedel suggested making a film based on how I had written the first Diana book. Given the subterfuge, undercover meetings and tension
which surrounded the making of the book, which, as I revealed after her death, was with her cooperation, this was a genuine dramatic possibility. His vision was to make a royal equivalent of All the President's’Men, the story, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, of how two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein pursued the Watergate affair orchestrated by President Nixon. The end result was The Biographer: The Secret Life of Princess Di.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Colin Firth was approached to play me. He turned down the opportunity of a lifetime. Foolish man. Where is he now I wonder. When asked by journalists who should play me, I suggested Danny DeVito. It was a joke. You see I am 6ft 4ins and he is 4ft 9ins. I thought it was funny. No one else did. Last year I met him at a wedding in Hollywood and told him the height story. He listened politely. But he didn’t laugh either. What is it with you Americans? And by the way he is a lot smaller in real life.
In the end Liverpudlian actor Paul McGann (Dr. Who) was the screen version of Andrew Morton, spending an inordinate amount of time riding around London on his bicycle. Brian Cox, fresh from his rendition as the murdering cannibal Hannibal Lecter, played my publisher. So there was no need to come out of character. Faye Dunaway was enrolled as an American journalist and, as expected, played the diva off screen to the hilt. She insisted for example in having her favourite ice cream flown in from the States. Or some such nonsense.
Unlike the first Diana film, there was no issue with the wig. The producer and director neatly skirted around the issue by never showing Diana’s face. When she was being interviewed there were lingering shots of her shapely knees and legs and animated hands.
While it was a CBS movie of the week, it did not trouble the critics over much. Nor was it ever screened in Britain. Everything and everyone was too raw and too deferential towards the royal family after Diana’s death to dare. It is interesting that only now, 20 years after the book and 14 years after her death, TV film makers are looking at the story once again. Proposals are afoot, meetings are being hatched. Being telly who knows what the outcome will be.
If they do decide to make another TV movie about those dramatic days, I will be lining up to take my turn in the coconut shy - again.