Traditionally there are two types of royal documentary in the UK:
- the ‘authorised’ kind, a TV company puts an idea to Buckingham Palace who like it and agree to co-operate subject to certain conditions
- the ‘unauthorised’ kind, the Palace aren’t interested in the project, don’t try to stop it but don’t co-operate either.
Over the past 40 years I’ve made or appeared in both.
The ‘Harry and Meghan’ series on Netflix uses a different although not entirely new model. The American film-maker, Liz Garbus, working with her husband Dan Cogan, calls it a ‘collaboration’ According to the New York Times: “When pressed as to whether the couple had final approval over the series, she responded: “It was a collaboration. You can keep asking me, but that’s what I’ll say.”
Another documentary-maker Garrett Bradley had dropped out off the project because “Ms. Bradley’s vérité style did not mesh with the couple’s interests”. Instead, according to the New York Times, “Ms. Garbus said that Harry and Meghan were interested in telling their love story within the historical context of the British monarchy. Ms. Garbus wanted to expand on that and explore how their personal pasts affected their present.”
TV folk will read into this that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have effectively had the programmes made in the way they want by professionals they’ve decided to work with about the subjects they want and with, at the very least, some measure of editorial control.
There are huge advantages to this, they can say and include whatever they want subject only to the law of libel. They are free to give their side of the story, uncomplicated by any other side.
There are two downsides, one is that the royals lose any deniability. There can be no complaints such as ‘my answers were taken out of context’ or ‘I didn’t realise the programme-makers would use that picture’. Meghan and Harry are therefore accountable for every element of the content.
So the sequence about the British Empire in Episode 3, which personally I have no problem with but has enraged others in the UK, was clearly part of the deal with Ms Garbus and Mr Cogan.
The other downside is that omitting anything relevant from the programmes also looks like a conscious decision. For example in the episodes shown so far there is no mention of Meghan having been married and divorced before she met Harry, even in a powerful sequence about divorce. Which serious ‘documentarian’, as some American film-makers prefer to be called, would omit that fact unless they had to.
When the next set of episodes are released I suspect there will be more questions to Ms Garbus about whether Harry and Meghan have the last say in what goes in ‘Harry and Meghan’.
Declaration of interest; in the 1980s I made three programmes for ITV with the then Prince and Princess of Wales: an interview called ‘Talking Personally’ and a two-part documentary ‘In Private, In Public’. Extracts were shown in the archive sequences of ‘Harry and Meghan’. The Royal Family held a contactual right to editorial control of the programmes and required the removal of certain sequences shot with the Prince and Princess which I had included in the first cut. Since then I have never been involved in any documentaries where editorial control was shared with a contributor.
The only interesting commentary I have read thus far on this story.