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The story behind Princess Diana's secret tapes

Long-time friend helped facilitate the recordings

Secret tapes recorded by Princess Diana in Kensington Palace in 1991 were later used by Andrew Morton to write the book “Diana: Her true story.”

Clips of these tapes were obtained exclusively by NBC, in which Diana talks about everything from her battle of bulimia, dealing with Charles‘ ongoing affair with long-time companion Camilla Parker-Bowles, and her suicide attempts. These never-before heard tapes provide the very first look inside Diana‘s life in her own words. 

Dr. James Colthurst, a long-time friend of Princess Diana recorded these secret tapes for Diana, and then smuggled them out of Kensington Palace. In an exclusive interview from London, he talked to MSNBC’s Deborah Norville about these tapes. Read the interview, below:


DR. JAMES COLTHURST, LONG-TIME FRIEND AND CONFIDANT OF PRINCESS DIANA'S:  I first met her on a skiing trip when she was about 17.  And we sort of kept in touch for a while after that, really, until she got married. 

NORVILLE:  And then it was some time after that, quite a few years actually, before these tapes were made.  Did you keep up the acquaintance all those years?

COLTHURST:  It was called the quiet years after the marriage started, I think, when she tried to find her feet and things weren‘t maybe going so well.   And then a number of friends slowly but surely began to get back in touch with her.  And that gradually reopened the acquaintance. 

NORVILLE:  And Diana approached you about working with her to try to get her story out.  How did she do that?

COLTHURST:  There were many discussions about her kind of position in it.  But I think a growing level of frustration in her life, and she was attempting to explode news, which I don‘t think it would have been very helpful for her to suddenly release the story to a newspaper in an explosive fashion. 

NORVILLE:  So did she come up with the idea of doing a book?

COLTHURST:  She came up with the idea a bit of a sort of tempering down of the initial wish to explode the news. 

So I think it was a gradual realization by her that she needed to have some control over what was said and so on.  And that wasn‘t going to be possible in a newspaper.   So it was better, in fact, to do that through a book for.  And really that was a decision that she gradually came to over some months. 

NORVILLE:  And Andrew Morton was selected by the Princess of Wales as being the person who might be most sympathetic to her situation, is that correct?

COLTHURST:  That‘s right.  He‘d already done some books on her.  I‘m afraid I hadn‘t read any of them, so I wasn‘t able to referee those.  But he had done some books on her, and she felt they were sympathetic, although they were quite lightweight in the subject matter.  They were sort of more about her appearance and so on, and lifestyle books. 

But he was kind of a young guy.  And I think she felt more sympathetic that she‘d have her view properly portrayed by somebody who was younger and therefore possibly more understanding of her generation.  Than somebody older. 

The recording process
NORVILLE:  Tell me how this worked.  Your name is James Colthurst, but you sort of acted like James Bond in all of this.  It‘s a real cloak and dagger story as to how you got the questions from Andrew Morton and got them into the palace to Princess Diana. 

COLTHURST:  I peddled in with a briefcase in the bicycle basket.  And you know, initially, I sat and I read out the questions, but that was too slow for Diana.  She snatched the questions away from me and then clipped the microphone on to herself and the tape recorder was on and away she went. 

She sometimes interrupted with a lot of laughter as she said things.  And so on.  And then the tape recorder back in the briefcase and out again. 

It was really rather not so James Bond.  I think it was much simpler than people imagine. 

NORVILLE:  But there must have been some sort of cover story. 

COLTHURST:  James is coming to lunch.  That was it. 

NORVILLE:  So you guys had a lot of lunches?

COLTHURST:  We had a lot of lunches, yes, over many months.  Before and after the book. 

On her marriage
NORVILLE:  There‘s one tape where you presented the questions to Diana, and she was talking about how hesitant she was at the beginning of her relationship with the Prince of Wales and really how dumbfounded she was the day he proposed. 

DIANA:  So he said, “Will you marry me?”  And I laughed.  I remember thinking this is a joke.  So I said, “yes, OK.”  I laughed.   And he was deadly serious.  He said, “You do mean, you do realize that one day you‘ll be queen?”   And a voice said to me inside, “You won‘t be queen, but you‘ll have a tough role.”  So I thought to myself, “OK,” so I said, “Yes.”

NORVILLE:  Just as matter-of-factly as that.  Did you talk more about that with her?

COLTHURST:  We talked a lot about many aspects of her life, both that and other ones.  So, yes, I think, you know.  But he was 19 then; that‘s a young age to enter that kind of a situation. 

NORVILLE:  Do you think she was unaware of all the responsibility, as well as all the baggage that went with saying yes to a proposal from the Prince of Wales?

COLTHURST:  I think she was extremely aware of the lifestyle that might be involved.  I think she was probably extremely unaware of how popular she might become.

And the enormous—for want of a better word—corporate load that she‘s acquire.  And I think was even more surprised when that corporate role grew.  She didn‘t have the kind of support organization behind her to help her cope with it. I think that took everyone by surprise. 

NORVILLE:  The fact that she became such a mega media figure?

COLTHURST:  Exactly, and therefore the role grew way beyond anything that she probably ever envisaged and, you know, really continued to grow each year, year on year. 

I mean, she was patron of many organizations.  She had enormous demand.  Her diary was jammed.  It was almost every minute of every day was occupied with some function or other.  And I think that was completely unexpected. 

NORVILLE:  And what kind of support did she have?  Who was there for her?   Was her husband there to stand up for her and hold her up?  Or was he busy off doing all the many responsibilities he had by virtue of his office?

COLTHURST:  He had exactly that.  I mean, he had a fairly heavy workload, too.  So the support structure was expecting that, because he‘d been doing that for awhile.  And I think what they weren‘t geared for at all was the enormous takeoff that happened in her life. 

NORVILLE:  And the result for Princess Diana was that she experienced all kinds of problems, one of which she talked about even having presented before she was married. 

On the bulimia
NORVILLE: She talked about during their honeymoon, when they were on their cruise, honeymoon vacation, she was suffering terrible bouts of bulimia. 

DIANA:  The bulimia was appalling.  Absolutely appalling.  It was rife.  It was four times a day on the yacht.  Anything I could find I would gobble up and be sick two minutes later.  Very tired.

NORVILLE:  She had bulimia as early as on her honeymoon.  Did you and the other friends of the princess notice that she was having these problems?  Did anybody step up and say, “You look like heck, you look like you need some help, what can we do for you?”

COLTHURST:  I know that two of her girlfriends did it.  But in a way, she also shut herself away from some of the other friends.  And partly, as she admitted later to me, partly so that people wouldn‘t notice. 

I think  it became very obvious and was being reported quite openly that she looked terribly thin, at that stage it became clear that something needed to happen to support her. 

I think there was a need to have a strategy around her, a little bit of a support group that could help move it.  I think various  experts had been hauled in.  But I think it was actually the situation that she was faced with.  You know, not a particularly happy situation at home, but with this massive workload.  And I should think the workload had a lot to do with it.  I think it would have been a great deal easier for her to take if she had actually had the support structure around her. 

NORVILLE:  Is she‘d had the support structure, if the workload hadn‘t been as enormous as it was for a young mother, and if, as she said in the televised interview she gave, if there hadn‘t been a third person in the marriage. 

On Camilla Parker-Bowles
NORVILLE: She talked at length with you about the presence of Camilla Parker-Bowles and one particular instance when she and the Prince of Wales were going through things and she was confronted by it. 

DIANA:  We were opening our diaries to discuss various things; out comes two pictures of Camilla.  And on our honeymoon we have our white-tie dinner for President Sadat, cuff links arrive on his wrist, two “C‘s” entwined like the Chanel “C.”COLTHURST:  Oh, right.DIANA:  Got it in one, knew exactly.  So I said, “Camilla gave you those, didn‘t she?”He said, “Yes, so what‘s wrong with that?  They‘re a present from a friend.”  And boy did we have a row.  Jealously.  Total jealousy.

NORVILLE:  Total jealousy.  Was she in love with her husband?

COLTHURST:  Yes, she was.  Very strongly.   And I don‘t think that—I don‘t think that ever stopped, really. 

NORVILLE:  So she loved him till the end?

COLTHURST:  I think so. 

NORVILLE:  Was this book an effort to try to bring him back?  What was her motivation in recording these statements and getting them to Andrew Morton for the publication of the book?

COLTHURST:  I think it was partly the result of the frustration she felt and the kind of anger she felt.  But I think it also covered an aspect that she talked about very often, of not feeling very well understood. 

And I think she wanted to paint the full picture of sort of her roots right through to the present day as it was then, of who she was as a person.  And I think a lot of people could identify with that. 

The firestorm upon publication
NORVILLE: Dr. Colthurst, when this book came out, it was a worldwide event.  How did the princess feel about the book?

COLTHURST:  I think she was very shaken by the kind of media, you know, activity.  Initially, I think it was a tremendous attack that shook her the most.  But after about a week or so, the post bag started to fill with supportive letters.  I think she realized that kind of a movement had begun.  And I think she found that quite heartening. 

You have to remember that the process of creating the book had been spread over many months.  And that had actually led to quite a build-up, you know, for her and others. 

So when it came out, in a way, she had already had a lot of criticism and stuff had she been involved, had she not been involved and so on.  And sort of within the system, as she used to keep describing it.  You know, she had quite a lot of attacks from there.  So she was expecting a few knocks, and she received them. 

But I think what changed a great deal for her was the support that came almost, 100 percent supportive, from the post bag. 

NORVILLE:  How did you feel about it, knowing what your own secret role had been, and not being able to say word one about it?

COLTHURST:  The most I could do was try and support from where I was.  I mean, she rang up a lot of times.  You know, the first couple of days were pretty hard, and then gradually, you know, as the pattern began to open up, the most support I could give and really explain, really, what the process was. 

Once she understood what was happening and this kind of classic British thing where if one outfit get a story, the rest knock that outfit.   Then she understood why she was coming under attack quite so much. 

NORVILLE:  And did she have any regrets about it?

COLTHURST:  I think she was a bit startled those first two or three days.  But because she felt she was being attacked somewhat unfairly for stating the truth.  Of course, at that stage also, it wasn‘t known the extent to which she had, you know, created the book. 

NORVILLE:  Did the people in the palace have any idea how this all came together?  Did they suspect you?  Did they suspect that she‘d been dictating this at her lunches with friends?

COLTHURST:  I don‘t know.  I don‘t think they understood that side of it.  I think there was a very strong sense that she had cooperated in some way, absolutely. 

Diana's legacy
NORVILLE:  With the release of these tapes, Sarah Ferguson spoke earlier this week about it.  And here‘s what she had to say about the secret tapes from Princess Diana being made public.

SARAH FERGUSON, DUCHESS OF YORK:  Why are we continually trying to pull her down or trying to make a story when quite frankly that was a long time ago.  And you know what?  She might be here today saying well, that was then but now I‘ve changed my life. 

NORVILLE:  Do you think the publication of these tapes in any way pulls the Princess of Wales or her memory down?

COLTHURST:  I don‘t think it does.  It wasn‘t my decision for these tapes to come out.  I‘ll say that first. 

NORVILLE:  Are you happy about it?  Or do you wish they‘d stayed quiet?

COLTHURST:  No, I think there‘s a side which is a positive side.  I think it‘s helpful to look at the good side.  And I think they range from the story of a girl who was in a pretty desperate situation and then follow through to a pretty amazing outcome afterwards.  And I think to look at it from that point of view, here was someone who was down.  And yes, indeed she changed her life. 

I think that‘s covered by the story.  So I like to look for the good side in what happened.  And I think the good side was that this tracked somebody in a process of emerging from the chrysalis. 

NORVILLE:  Did the publication of the book, and knowing it wouldn‘t have happened if she hadn‘t vetted it and made in occur, in some way free her to become the media icon and the strong woman for the causes that she espoused?

COLTHURST:  I think it would be hard to say it didn‘t.  I think it certainly raised a sense of a lady who was determined to do things and made them happen.  And I think that led to her gaining a lot of support from many people. 

NORVILLE:  Which is why I want to play this sound bite from an interview where she talked about how difficult it was being under the microscope very early on in her public life. 

DIANA:  The whole world were focusing on me.  Every day I was in the front page of the papers.  And I thought this was just so appalling.  I hadn‘t actually done anything specific like climb Mt. Everest or done something wonderful like that.”

NORVILLE:  I‘m curious to hear your opinion of how she felt about the scrutiny that she was ultimately able to deal with and manipulate that her two sons are now under, William and Harry.

COLTHURST:  I think she set them a pretty good example of someone who entered a life that she might not really have chosen to have in a strange way because she was unaware of many facets of it, but who came out and came through and came good really in the end.  I mean, the work she did has, in my view, has to be admired. 

I think the work with the HIV, which was then a very much shunned area.  Nobody really wanted to dabble.  It was treated close to leprosy in the early days. And also with land mines, which was an extremely sensitive political area.  And I think, you know, I have to admire her completely for taking on areas which were so unpopular and making them come good. 

NORVILLE:  Now that people know of your role in this entire affair, even though it was back in 1991-1992, have you heard anything directly or more likely indirectly from those connected with Buckingham Palace?

COLTHURST:  No.  I think there‘s been a fair bit of interest from the press and the media and so on, but, you know, I don‘t think Buckingham Palace are likely to get in touch. 

NORVILLE:  And finally, what do you think would have become of Lady Diana Spencer, had she not met and married the Prince of Wales?  What life would you have predicted for the girl you knew first meeting on a trip when she was 16 or 17?

COLTHURST:  It‘s difficult dealing with possibles, but I think I can only say that she was a lady who had tremendous charisma from the beginning.  So in a way, she was inevitably going to end up somewhere in a role where that charisma could shine. 

And it was always impressive.  I remember when she came to open a new scanner in the hospital I was working in.  And people just followed her.  There was a kind of aura around her.  And you know, a number of people, I can remember senior members of the staff actually being lost for words.  She just entertained and warmed people up.  And I don‘t think that was directly imposed by the role she was in.  I think that‘s the extraordinary lady she was. 

NORVILLE:  Dr. James Colthurst, even years after her death, Princess Diana continues to fascinate.  Thank you for sharing with us your role in this extraordinary story. 

NBC airs Diana's secret tapes on Thursday, 10 p.m. ET.
airs weeknights, 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.