EastEnders fans apparently have been misled believing that EastEnders was Princess Diana's favourite TV programme.
No, that honour instead went to another Brit soap, Brookside, Paul Burrell, former royal butler to Diana, Princess of Wales, tells Huffington Post UK and the Walford Gazette in an exclusive interview.
He apologises for refuting the often-repeated tale of her fandom), but at EastEnders' broadcast times of 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., "I was often pushing a trolley with meal for one, so that she could sit in front of the TV and watch it. So I can tell you this is definitely the truth. It was just me and her."
Coinciding nearly a month after the 15th anniversary of Diana's death, Burrell will be speaking later this week at three university fundraising events sponsored by the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) under the umbrella "A Royal Experience." A gala dinner costs $150 a plate, utilising a grand palace menu. Two other events, priced at $75 a ticket, will feature Burrell speaking about the lost traditions of etiquette to an audience of hotel, restaurant and hospitality professionals, and leading a Buckingham Palace-style fancy tea.
In his 21 years of royal duty, Burrell first served Her Majesty the Queen as personal as personal footman from 1976 to 1987 when he moved to Highgrove to become butler to the Prince and Princess of Wales. It was in 1992, following the couple's separation, that he moved to Kensington Palace at the personal request of Princess Diana. He then spearheaded a fundraising campaign for her official memorial fund that raised £100 million.
NYIT CFO Len Aubrey explains that Burrell was invited for his considerable service expertise, which the school thought would be useful to expose to students in its hospitality studies programme. An additional draw, he notes, was Britain's recent omnipresence, including Andy Murray winning the U.S. Open men's tennis championship, this summer's 2012 London Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee celebration in June and last year's Royal Wedding. The proceeds from the NYIT fundraising events will be used for hospitality scholarships.
Back to the soap revelation, I point out to Burrell that when EastEnders first was broadcast in the US in late 1987, the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers led their articles about how Diana was a fan. "Maybe in the very beginning she did tune into it, but it wasn't something that she would want to watch regularly," Burrell says.
"Brookside was her favourite and she met most of the cast. She went to the set of Brookside and got to know some of the cast very well, especially Dean Sullivan, who played Jimmy Corkhill on the show. He became a friend, who she regularly telephoned."
At some point, Diana most definitely also visited the EastEnders set, as retold by the late Wendy Richard, in her 2000 autobiography. The princess was invited by EastEnders founder Julia Smith, and stayed for several hours. "Diana revealed that Den and Angie were her favourite characters and so she especially enjoyed chatting to Leslie [Grantham and Anita [Dobson]," wrote Richard, who died in February 2009.
Burrell points out that he was at Buckingham Palace when EastEnders debuted on 19 February 1985, and vividly remembers the night. "It was a firm favourite of Buckingham Palace from the word 'Go'. Everything would stop, and everyone would watch EastEnders - and Dallas that you could not miss."
"All the staff got together to watch it in someone's room on the very top floor of the palace. It was a huge thing for Britain - EastEnders' first episode . A momentous
Burrell mentions two of his own EastEnders connections. "When Barbara Windsor first joined EastEnders [in 1994], she used to read bedtime stories to my boys at Kensington Palace. She used to come to see my boys when they were about 10 and 7. They were fully aware of who she was. She's charming. Barbara is still a good friend of mine. We've had a lot of fun."
Windsor explains in her 2000 autobiography All of Me that she attended "one of the best charity nights I'd ever attended: a masquerade ball in the aid of the Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, organised by Paul Burrell. Since the Princess died, Paul and I had become friends: he had been to my home and I've been to his in Kensington Palace, and met his wife, Maria, and his sons."
Burrell says he was also good friends with Wendy Richard. "It wasn't easy to be friends with both; they weren't the best of friends. I went to the book launches of both of their autobiographies, and I had to be very diplomatic. I've got nothing but nice to things to say about Barbara and Wendy. Wendy always was the queen of EastEnders, and then suddenly Barbara turns up and she thought she tried to usurp her position. I think they saw each other as rivals."
Burrell's memoir, A Royal Duty, sold 2 million copies worldwide and was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. The book recounts how he was accused of stealing Diana's possessions, then acquitted following the intervention of the monarch.
Of his time serving the Queen as a footman for 11 years, and then Prince Charles and Diana and their boys, as well as Diana after the royal couple's split, Burrell tells the Walford Gazette: "I'm just an ordinary man; I've been through extraordinary circumstances."
He answered some other questions about life with the Royals:
WG: Are you surprised how interested Americans in British culture?
PB: Many Americans view Britain as the mother country so it does not surprise me that they are so interested in their history.
WG: In the 21st century, do you find Americans lacking more than the British in terms of respecting tradition and etiquette?
PB: The British have a strong sense of tradition and etiquette which would be hard to match anywhere in the world but Americans do have a respect for them.
WG: Had Princess Diana not died do you think she would have moved to the U.S., and would have you and your family joined her as she suggested?
PB: She was certainly looking at a home in the US and had shown me details of properties in which she had indicated accommodation for my family so I do think that we would have joined her.
WG: Downton Abbey captured Americans' fancy earlier this year, the most popular programme in PBS's history. I realise it's a period piece, circa World War I, and does not depict the same level of Royal life that you experienced, but how well does the show capture the relationship between the upper classes and their servants?
PB: Downton captures the two worlds very well. It mirrors the relationships that still exist in Royal households today. Much in Royal service remains as it was in Victorian times.
WG: Regarding your nightmarish prosecution, once you were exonerated did you receive back the gifts that you were accused of stealing?
PB: Yes, the majority of items were returned to me and those I held in trust for the Princes were passed to them.
WG: Did you write your book to clear your name (i.e., set the record straight)?
PB: When my trial collapsed and the charges against me dropped, only the prosecution had been heard and I had not given my version of events and felt the need for my side of the story to be told. In addition, I had no money whatsoever with which to support my family as I been unable to work from the day my house was raided by the police some two years previously and had been dependent on the goodwill of family and friends.
WG: While you were unfairly being accused, as the Queen's footman, as well as Charles and Diana's butler, weren't you privy to private telephone numbers that could connect you directly to Her Majesty herself or the Prince, or do they never answer their own telephones? Granted, your service to them was long before mobile phone became ubiquitous.
PB: It was impossible to reach members of the Royal family direct. Her Majesty, for instance, would ask the operator on the palace switchboard to connect her to whomever she wanted. Likewise, all calls to Her Majesty were first passed to a member of her staff who would connect the call to the Queen.
WG: Have you had any contact with Prince William since his wedding?
PB: I have had no contact but I have nothing but good wishes for the Prince and Princess.
WG: Had Diana ever talked about her boys getting married some day?
PB: The Princess always assumed that her boys would be married some day and would often remark to the boys that they should be kind, thoughtful and considerate to the opposite sex.
WG: Any comment about Prince Harry's recent Las Vegas transgression?
PB: Prince Harry is only a young man enjoying life and he was at a private party. The only question I would ask is: Where were his security who are there to protect him?
WG: How has it felt being portrayed by an actor in the upcoming film about Diana starring Naomi Watts?
PB: I know nothing of the film but it will be very strange to see an actor portraying me in circumstances to which only I was privy.
Follow Larry Jaffee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lsjaffee