WHEN you write about the royal family you can expect to be reviled and respected in equal measure – ask Penny Junor.
“People take sides,” says the royal biographer, who’s been castigated for challenging the late Princess Diana’s version of her marriage in her most controversial biography Charles: Victim or Villain?
Penny applies a precision for fact with a passion for integrity acquired in pre- Leveson days – as the daughter of one of the late great lions of journalism: John Junor.
Workaholic Junor ruled his home with the same rod of iron with which he controlled the Daily Express newsroom.
Whatever his failings as a father, Beaverbrook’s trusted lieutenant instilled in his daughter the need to get it right first time. Just the facts, ma’am.
Penny admits: “As a biographer – and possibly because of my own upbringing – I’m fascinated by people and the way they come into the world, human relationships and influences which shape them.”
Penny is promoting her latest book, Prince William: Born to be King, at an afternoon tea hosted at Hoghton Tower by Kirkham bookshop Silverdell this month. The Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles are in Lancashire tomorrow, in Burnley as part of a UK tour to celebrate 60 years of the Queen’s reign.
She’s fallen “under the spell” of William and Harry, but never subscribed to the near-mythical qualities attributed to late mother, Diana.
Her father was an iconoclast and Penny adds: “I didn’t grow up an admirer of royalty; I watched the coronation on TV on a tiny black and white set acquired for the occasion. The Queen was the Queen and didn’t affect my life at all.”
A bizarre twist of fate led to her first royal assignment. While working as a freelance journalist for the London Evening News, a feature made such an impression she was head- hunted for a biography on Princess Diana.
“The feature was about a woman who had been bitten by a rabid dog in Katmandu,” says Penny. “It’s a huge leap from rabid dog to royal biographer, but was too great an opportunity to miss. I was freelance, so took what I could.
“Diana was 23 and had spent 19 of those years in relative obscurity. She was very young to have a biography. The papers were jam packed, but hardly anybody knew anything about her.
“As a journalist, I researched every subject, but just after I signed this magnificent contract, her friends and family decided they had been used, trampled over and milked dry by the media in the run up to the wedding, and were not talking to anyone again.
“A whole lot of other people started writing about her. Just scissor, cut and paste jobs from information cobbled together. I wrote to Buckingham Palace and pointed out I was trying to write a decent book about this woman and had the door slammed in my face many times. I was trying to do it properly.”
The Queen’s press secretary asked her for a list of questions to put to Diana.
“The book, Diana, Princess of Wales became a best seller, but I vowed never again, and wrote about Margaret Thatcher and Richard Burton. Then the Daily Mirror got a new editor who wanted a series of features on Charles. As a freelance, I said yes. When I asked the Palace for help they must have liked the first book, because they put me in touch with all sorts of people.
“I gained an interview with Prince Charles which overran by two hours. I soon found I was learning about a man I just didn’t recognise – and also liked immensely. I decided I wasn’t going to waste it on a paper, but wrote a book Charles: Victim or Villain? which did extremely well. It caused a stir because no one had talked about the problems in the marriage before. The public were in love with Diana, still are, won’t or can’t listen to anything that doesn’t support the myth.
“My TV career also took off, too, because whenever something royal happened I was being asked for my opinion.
“As a biographer you try to write a responsible book, but others sometimes distort it for their own ends.
“The only reason I got this new book out was because of contacts going back years and if I was getting it wrong I wouldn’t still have those contacts. The older I get the less I want to go for the sensationalist headline. I also like to keep copy control.
“I’ve become a staunch supporter of Charles. He’s had a bad press, but gives heart and soul to doing the right thing. William is much the same: delightful, charming, more at ease.
“I suppose I have become a monarchist. I am convinced they are a good thing for the country. Forget the sceptical south or the Fleet Street cynics – royals bring genuine delight everywhere. They go to disaster zones, and people are comforted by a royal presence where they wouldn’t by a politician or elected president.
“The royals have duty stamped through them. I was at school with Princess Anne and she is one of the rudest women I have ever met, but she is fantastic.
“I went to Pakistan with her, one of very few journalists who wasn’t following Diana cuddling babies somewhere else. She kept her gloved hands firmly behind her back, as all these beautiful brown-eyed very sick children, strapped to planks of wood to sit bolt upright for her, stared at her.
“She pointed at them like exhibits A, B and C, and never once touched a child as Diana – or now her sons – would have. And part of you wishes she would just reach out, for pity’s sake, but she would say what child wants a complete stranger touching them?
“Her role, as she sees it, is to understand, to go away and talk to people who can make a difference. She’s cerebral and gets things done that way. Cuddles don’t come into it.
“William and Harry really impress me. To come through that childhood and emerge with such sanity, equilibrium and emotional honesty is a credit to the best of both parents and the support of people who love them. Harry has really blossomed, too, he gets a bad press, but often the tabloids use the same papers time and again. He’s not falling out of nightclubs on a weekly basis.
“Harry’s his own man, and William will eventually rule with Harry, as well as Kate at his side, and the House of Windsor and, indeed the country, will be the stronger and the better for it.”
Is there any royal she would have loved to have met? “Queen Elizabeth the First would have been interesting – but I’ve got to say our own Queen Elizabeth is doing a superb job.”
n Prince William: Born to be King by Penny Junor (Hodder and Stoughton, £19.99). Join Penny at Hoghton Tower, from 2pm-4pm, May 31, tickets £35 include signed book and afternoon tea by St Annes chef Paul Rowley. For details ring Silverdell Books on 01772 683444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org