Prince Andrew vs Emily Maitlis: Prepare to cringe as Rufus Sewell and Gillian Anderson re-create the car-crash interview

webnexttech | Prince Andrew vs Emily Maitlis: Prepare to cringe as Rufus Sewell and Gillian Anderson re-create the car-crash interview

On Saturday, November 16th, 2019, almost two million people tuned in to a special edition of Newsnight, on BBC television, to see an interview with Prince Andrew. Sam McAlister, Newsnight’s interviews producer, sat metres from the journalist Emily Maitlis as she quizzed the duke of York about his friendship with the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. “I was about 15ft behind Prince Andrew’s head, in the south drawing room of Buckingham Palace, listening to all of his answers,” says McAlister. “It was just an incredible moment, because I have the two parts of myself competing for space. I have the ex-lawyer thinking, Oh my God, lawyers have won the lottery with his interview. And then I’ve got the journalist who’s thinking, oh my God, we have won the lottery with these answers. The answers were, in my entire career, the most exceptional in terms of impact. And the most inappropriate. I was just trying to keep a poker face and not show any emotion or do any eye-rolling. It was the most sensational moment of my journalistic career but also quite bizarre.” The encounter did not go well for the prince, the middle son of the late Queen Elizabeth. Several unexpected remarks, including about a visit to Pizza Express, “a straightforward shooting weekend” and his inability to “sweat at the time”, were widely scorned. Four days after the broadcast Andrew stepped down from royal duties. Maitlis subsequently won the Royal Television Society Award for interview of the year; McAlister, who secured the interview, was profiled in numerous newspapers. “Even when it’s a big story, it’s unusual for us to get that level of exposure,” she says. “I think what specifically happened was my editor, Esmé Wren, sent a tweet: “Full credit to our indefatigable interview producer @SamMcAlister1 for securing this world exclusive.” In the industry it’s quite rare for producers to be credited. But I was lucky enough to have, you know, 15 seconds where people understood the work that goes into bringing these kinds of moments of television to life. Not just my work but a whole team.” McAlister’s book, Scoops: The BBC’s Most Shocking Interviews from Prince Andrew to Steven Seagal, was published in 2022. Her account of Newnight’s efforts to secure and record the interview with Prince Andrew is the basis for Scoop, an enjoyable drama starring Billie Piper as McAlister, Gillian Anderson as Maitlis, Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew and Romola Garai as Wren. “It’s about who those women are,” says Piper. “How the interview made its way to screen, how it was signed off, all the process of getting it up and running and this idea of bouncing between two huge British institutions, the BBC and the palace. But mostly it’s about the women behind the scoop itself.” For the film’s director, Philip Martin, the familiarity of the people and places involved made dramatising the events simultaneously exciting and terrifying. “It’s very interesting territory for a drama, but it’s also challenging,” he says. “People know the interview. People are familiar with how the characters look and sound. The other technical and creative task was figuring out how to reconstruct the world. Buckingham Palace is obviously big. It’s hard to do it justice. And the BBC is enormous. It’s the world’s biggest news organisation. Our characters shuffle between those two epic worlds, and they are contemporary spaces that the audience is familiar with. They know what the palace looks like, and they can see the BBC news centre in the background of every news broadcast.” Anderson says she found playing Maitlis more daunting than portraying Margaret Thatcher in The Crown. Sewell was equally intimidated by the prospect of playing Andrew. “I didn’t watch it when it was live, but I heard the rumbles,” says the actor. “When I finally did see it, like everyone else I was fascinated. And when I was sent the script it wasn’t an easy yes. But the script was so extraordinary. I found that I needed to do it. After I said yes there was a long process of: ‘Jesus Christ, what did I just say yes to?’ But it’s a very important story. The script itself didn’t claim any more knowledge than we actually have. It was the story of the women who brought it about. I loved it. It was such a good read. I just wanted to be part of it.” Scoop details McAlister’s negotiations with Andrew and his representatives, headed by Amanda Thirsk (played by Keeley Hawes). As McAlister notes, Peter Moffat’s script necessarily omits 13 months of WhatsApp messages and emails. Conversely, many of the spicier scenes are drawn from life. Andrew’s daughter Princess Beatrice, as the film depicts, was in the room when he first met the Newsnight team. And McAlister did tell him that the public views him as “Air Miles Andy: all sex and girls and planes and private islands”. “There was that particular moment when we managed to get in front of Prince Andrew and his team after all those months and months of negotiation,” says McAlister. “And in that final negotiation, as you’ll see from Billie’s interpretation, I did call him Randy Andy to his face. That created a significant rapport, and that’s what negotiation is about. It’s about making the impossible possible. My entire career was about trying to convince people to do something that is theoretically a bad idea or not a great idea. This was the most extreme example of someone who should have said no. But who said yes.” Cinematic representations of investigative journalism typically involve the shadowy or reluctant informants of All the President’s Men or the relentless poring over documents of Spotlight or Dark Waters. Scoop is jollied along by office politics, extensive BBC rehearsals and a brief survey of the after-effects of the broadcast. The most compelling chapter of the drama, however, is a thrilling re-creation of the car-crash interview. “We went to great lengths to sort of restage it,” says Martin. “We built an exact facsimile of the room and we worked hard for Rufus and Gillian to resemble Emily and Andrew. And then this amazing thing happened. In the script the interview was broken down into maybe 20 smaller scenes. But halfway through the shoot Rufus and Gillian sat down together and ran through it in real time. It was completely breathtaking and brilliant. We had multiple cameras filming. Two extraordinary performers were turning the script into a piece of live theatre.” [ Prince Andrew key quotes – from Pizza Express to why he didn’t sweat ] Martin sensibly suggests that Andrew was keen for the Epstein questions to go away and that an hour-long interview with Newsnight would give him a platform to explain his position. This still doesn’t explain why Prince Andrew thought the interview had gone swimmingly. He even invited the Newsnight team on a post-interview tour of Buckingham Palace, promising that, “Next time you come, we’ll talk about Prince Albert. He was the entrepreneur of the family.” “Reading the script, I felt the same as I did when I watched the interview,” says Piper. “Like, how did this happen? How did anyone sign off on this? Just all of that. There were a few things that I didn’t know about the story, which I think you’ll see when you watch it. But the more I know about it, the more amazing and alarming it is that it all ended up as it did.” “I’m still scratching my head,” adds McAlister. “And I was the person involved in the process. The truth is, this was just a very unusual set of circumstances. He was in some sense the forgotten prince. I was out there, trying my best, as a single parent working part-time in a news organisation that I loved. It was a combination of luck, hard work and that particular moment when eyes were off him and we managed to get him in front of a camera.” [ From the Irish Times archive: How can Prince Andrew judge the Epstein interview a success? ] Remarkably, although we know the outcome, Scoop is a white-knuckle watch. There’s a genuine sense of breath-holding in the drawing room as the cameras roll. Piper’s McAlister remains a nervous wreck until the interview airs. “There was real anxiety and stress,” says McAlister. “I don’t want to be dramatic, but, you know, factually, there was a lot on the line for myself, for Emily, for everyone on the Newsnight team, because if we got this wrong, this was going to be a big problem, with consequences for the BBC. Negotiating with a member of the royal family in Buckingham Palace has profound significance for a journalist. But we also have accountability to the alleged victims.” Time has not softened the impact of Prince Andrew’s infamous account of a trip to “Pizza Express in Woking”, a tale that continues to inspire pilgrimages to the Surrey restaurant and satirical TripAdvisor reviews. Millions of memes and replays later, the re-created interview will make your toes curl. “What is fascinating, having watched it in the flesh and then over and over, is that I never don’t wince,” says McAlister. “After this long, extraordinary collaboration with Netflix and Gillian and Rufus to make the film, I’ve watched the clips so many times. And each time it’s a fresh experience of awkwardness and wincing. I still keep expecting Prince Andrew to not say those answers, and I’m surprised when he does.” Scoop is streaming on Netflix

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