in focus

Scoop: What is fact and what is fiction in Netflix’s Prince Andrew Newsnight film?

From the tower of teddies on the Duke of York’s bed to the sudden departure of the royal’s PR guru, there are many moments in this new film that almost seem too wild to be genuine. Ellie Harrison looks at the truth behind the drama

Sunday 07 April 2024 13:11 BST
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‘Scoop’ gives a new perspective on one of the most famous interviews of the century
‘Scoop’ gives a new perspective on one of the most famous interviews of the century (Netflix)

By now, we are all familiar with the grim, absurd details of Prince Andrew’s 2019 Newsnight interview. Yes, he claimed he couldn’t have had sex with 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre because he was at a Pizza Express in Woking. Yes, he insisted he was physically unable to sweat after an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands war. And yes, he said he had visited convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in New York because he hadn’t wanted to take the “chicken’s way out” and dump his old friend over the phone.

But what the new Netflix film Scoop shows us, for the first time on screen, is the nail-biting behind-the-scenes operation to get the story. It shows us how the BBC convinced Andrew to agree to an interview so disastrous that it resulted in the duke stepping back from royal duties and eventually being stripped of his military titles and patronages.

The movie is based on the memoir of former Newsnight booker Sam McAlister, who negotiated and secured the interview. McAlister – with her distinctive dress sense (big gold hoops, leopard-print boots) – is portrayed in the film by Billie Piper. Then there’s the face of Newsnight, a coiffed, low-voiced Gillian Anderson as presenter Emily Maitlis, alongside a prosthetic-covered Rufus Sewell as Andrew and a wide-eyed Keeley Hawes as his then private secretary, Amanda Thirsk.

Whether it’s the insight that Scoop offers into Maitlis’s psyche, or the subplot about the dogged British photographer who captured Epstein and Andrew’s walk in the park, the film gives a new perspective on one of the most famous interviews of the century. But some moments in Scoop seem too wild to be true. So, what is fact and what is fiction in the film? We’ve unravelled what really happened below...

Who was photographer Jae Donnelly?

The opening shot in Scoop is not what you’d expect. There’s no sign of Maitlis shuffling her papers at the start of Newsnight, nor do we see McAlister chasing leads around London – the film instead begins with young British photographer Jae Donnelly scrambling to get the photo of Epstein and Andrew together in New York that would change everything.

Donnelly (Connor Swindells) is central to the story of how the interview came to be. What we don’t learn in the film is that he is a “hostile-environment-trained” photographer, who views his jobs as missions and his photographs as “evidence”. A 2021 Vanity Fair feature detailed how he “learned endurance under pressure, during a week of intense military-style training in Virginia”, where he and a group were “taken hostage ... with explosives going off and bags put over our heads ... and marched through forest”. After the training was complete, he said, he could be trusted and insured to “go to these places and cover the dangerous stuff”.

Connor Swindells as Jae Donnelly, the man who captured the photo that changed everything
Connor Swindells as Jae Donnelly, the man who captured the photo that changed everything (Netflix)

As we see in the film, on the afternoon of Sunday 5 December 2010, Donnelly was waiting outside Epstein’s seven-storey, 40-room Manhattan mansion, with News of the World reporter Annette Witheridge. The pair saw Epstein and Andrew emerge from the building, but struggled to get a clear shot of them, so followed them to Central Park in a black SUV. Donnelly jumped out to race after them on foot, but because he couldn’t get close to the two men without being spotted by their bodyguards, he clambered onto a high rock overlooking Epstein and Andrew’s path.

It was there, teetering on a rock, that Donnelly took the photo of “Prince Andy and the Paedo” – as the News of the World headline read – meaning that the pair could never deny knowing each other. The existence of the photo also meant that, in the Newsnight interview nine years later, Andrew would have to answer why he was spending time with the financier after Epstein had pleaded guilty to child sex charges and served 13 months behind bars.

Did Prince Andrew’s PR guru really quit?

In Scoop, we meet Jason Stein, a PR guru brought in just weeks before Andrew’s Newsnight interview to help put the royal’s “Playboy Prince” reputation to bed, as it were. His plan had been to invite “friendly” journalists into Buckingham Palace for meet-ups with the prince, so they could get to know him and have a chance to warm to him. But when he hears that the duke’s private secretary, Thirsk, is working behind his back with Newsnight’s McAlister to organise a filmed interview, he dramatically quits, declaring “I’m out!”

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In reality, Stein had indeed been hired to help Andrew in September, just weeks before the Newsnight interview took place in November. That same month, he had lost his previous job as a special adviser to Amber Rudd, after she quit as work and pensions secretary.

According to The Times, Stein left his role in Andrew’s office “by mutual consent”, after advising the duke not to speak to Newsnight, warning it could backfire. He was right – it has gone down as one of the most disastrous PR moves in the 21st century.

Does Emily Maitlis have a whippet called Moody?

Everywhere Maitlis goes in Scoop, so too goes her grey whippet Moody. The film shows the journalist and her pooch wearing matching blue knitwear on a run. We also see the dog present during rehearsals for the big interview. And we see Moody being brought into the Newsnight studio itself – on a short lead. “Three women and a whippet? Wouldn’t have seen that in a BBC studio when I started,” quips Maitlis.

‘Three women and a whippet’: Emily Maitlis does have a dog named Moody in real life
‘Three women and a whippet’: Emily Maitlis does have a dog named Moody in real life (Netflix)

The real Maitlis does have a whippet called Moody. And she did often bring him to work. As one BBC insider told the Daily Mail: “Emily loves that dog so much, and he would often be at her side when she came to work. It was just one of those things that happened.”

But the constant presence of Moody the “newshound” at Maitlis’s side hasn’t always gone down well. In the summer of 2019, just months before the Newsnight interview, Maitlis was photographed with her laptop at a table on a GWR train with her whippet curled up on the seat beside her. “Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis slammed for letting dog sleep on seat of packed train” ran a Daily Mirror headline at the time.

Maitlis nicknames the pooch “Moods” – and he can be seen all over her Instagram feed, enjoying wet walks on the beach.

Does Andrew have a teddy collection?

According to Scoop, Andrew never grew out of teddies. In the film, we see dozens of them piled up on his bed in Buckingham Palace, and at one point he scolds a female aide for putting a fluffy kangaroo back in the wrong place.

In 2022, it was revealed in The Sun that the duke’s teddy collection was so big it took a whole day for staff to be trained how to arrange them. The newspaper reported claims from Andrew’s former maid Charlotte Briggs, who said he had a total of 72 soft toys that had to be painstakingly placed in size order every morning.

Briggs, who worked for Andrew in the Nineties – when the duke was in his thirties – said: “As soon as I got the job, I was told about the teddies and it was drilled into me how he wanted them. I even had a day’s training. Everything had to be just right. It was so peculiar.”

There have also been reports that there was a laminated diagram showing clear instructions on the correct placement of each teddy.

Was Andrew really friends with Jimmy Savile?

One of the strangest scenes in the film sees Andrew tell an astonished Maitlis: “I don’t know why everyone’s so upset about my friendship with Epstein – I knew Jimmy Savile so much better.”

While it is unknown whether Andrew and Savile were close, it is true that the duke was called on to help in an episode of Jim’ll Fix It after an eight-year-old girl asked if she could visit a warship; Andrew hosted her on the minehunter HMS Cottesmore.

Prince Andrew and Jimmy Savile – it was known that Savile was close to the royal family, particularly Charles
Prince Andrew and Jimmy Savile – it was known that Savile was close to the royal family, particularly Charles (Getty)

The notorious Savile inveigled his way into many of Britain’s leading institutions, and the royal family was no exception. Prince Charles repeatedly sought Savile’s advice, according to claims in the 2022 Netflix documentary Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story. Notes from Charles to Savile uncovered by the documentary’s producers showed that, over the course of about 20 years, Savile became an unofficial adviser to the man who would become King.

In one instance, Savile was brought in to give PR advice to the royal family after Andrew made insensitive comments about the Lockerbie bombing during a visit to the disaster site in 1988. The duke had been filmed saying how the disaster involving the Frankfurt-to-Detroit flight was “much worse for the Americans”, adding: “I suppose, statistically, something like this has got to happen at some stage on a town. Of course, it only affects the community in a very small way.”

In a five-page, hand-written dossier titled “Guidelines for Members of the Royal Family and Their Staffs”, which was shown to the late Queen, Savile laid out his vision for how the royal family should respond to significant incidents. He suggested the hiring of “a special person with considerable experience in such matters” and advised: “There must be an ‘incident room’ with several independent phone lines, teletext etc ... The Queen should be informed in advance of any proposed action by family members.”

What happened when Maitlis interviewed Bill Clinton?

In the film, Maitlis’s regret over not asking Bill Clinton about his affair with Monica Lewinsky is a key driver in her desire to get the Andrew interview right. We see her say that she felt she had “let women down” by not asking the former president about the White House intern with whom he had a sexual relationship.

It is true that, in 2014, while accompanying Clinton on a trip to India, Maitlis refrained from bringing up Lewinsky. She made the last-minute decision not to ask him about her after Clinton’s aides told her he had just had a “funny turn” and said they might pull the interview tapes altogether if “anything happens on camera”.

Maitlis wrote about the situation in her 2019 book Airhead, saying that suddenly her priority on the day stopped being the Lewinsky question. Instead, she was worrying about whether Clinton would keel over with the cameras rolling. “One thing I learnt in that split second: the belief that you have any control is mythical,” she wrote. “Like those children’s books where you choose your own adventure but ultimately end up at the same place whatever you do.”

A coiffed Gillian Anderson portrays Maitlis in the film
A coiffed Gillian Anderson portrays Maitlis in the film (Netflix/Channel 4)

In an interview on the podcast Desperately Seeking Wisdom earlier this year, she said: “Quite frankly, I should have [asked the question]. You know, I look back, and I’m not a brave person physically. I’m really pathetic. But generally, in an interview, I don’t pull my punches. And so that was an example of where I was actually embedded in the Clinton campaign, we were in the middle of a goat farm in Uttar Pradesh in India. So I didn’t have a lot of autonomy to make the interview about Monica Lewinsky.”

She continued: “It’s surprising how little autonomy you have in that situation. You can’t sort of have a hissy fit when you’re standing on a goat farm... you know, surrounded by the president’s security people.”

She said she wrote about the moment in her book because she wanted to give an example that “every journalist” will understand, of coming away “slightly crushed and feeling pathetic and weak because you didn’t get to ask the question you wanted to, and that really hurts”.

Where is Amanda Thirsk?

Hawes portrays Andrew’s private secretary as a woman completely spellbound by Andrew, as someone desperate for the world to see the funny and kind man she sees. In Scoop, she is the person who meets with McAlister and presses the duke to agree to the interview.

Thirsk started working as Andrew’s private secretary in 2012; she was a key part of Andrew’s all-female inner circle of aides and advisers, dubbed “Andy’s Angels”.

Keeley Hawes is Andrew’s wide-eyed private secretary in ‘Scoop’
Keeley Hawes is Andrew’s wide-eyed private secretary in ‘Scoop’ (PA)

In 2020, just two months after the disastrous interview, it was reported that Thirsk had reached a legal settlement to end her employment in the royal household.

She is now working in a senior business development role at JD.com, one of China’s biggest ecommerce groups.

Was Andrew in the bath when ‘Newsnight’ was on?

Was Andrew really so relaxed about the Newsnight interview that he was luxuriating in the bath while it aired? It’s impossible to know unless you were in Buckingham Palace that night.

But in Scoop, he’s shown ensconced in a cloud of suds when his phone begins to flash and bleep as the world reacts to the car-crash interview.

Unfortunately, we see Andrew’s curiosity get the better of him and he gets out of the bath to fetch his phone. Cue a scene of Sewell (in prosthetics) stepping onto a plush palace rug – pale, dripping and butt-naked.

‘Scoop’ is out now on Netflix

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