How many royal cliches can you fit into a single Channel 4 documentary?

The claim of The Other Prince William that 'you can have the woman or you can have the throne but you can't have both' might have been stronger if Prince William of Gloucester ever had any chance of the throne

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

In 2011, the Daily Mail carried a long story about how the Queen’s cousin Prince William of Gloucester, who died in a plane crash aged 30, had been Prince Charles’s boyhood idol. (Our own Prince William, it claimed, was named after him.) In passing, it tactfully informed us that William’s ex-girlfriend Zsuzsi Starkloff ‘no longer wishes to be reminded of her lost love’.

Well, the good news is that Zsuzsi has certainly changed her mind since. The following year she gave the Mail an interview describing their relationship in some detail. And on Thursday, she appeared in The Other Prince William: Secret History to tell all over again what Channel 4 unblushingly called ‘the untold story’ of their time together.

The result was an archetypal Channel 4 royal documentary. Which is to say that the makers added a narration apparently written by Sylvie Krin of Private Eye and threw in a few royal commentators demonstrating their usual gifts for telepathy (or, if you prefer, complete guesswork). Above all, though, the programme took an intriguing slice of history and cramped it to fit a pre-existing template so rigid that, by the end, it was impossible to know how much of what we’d heard was true.

The blizzard of clichés began immediately when we were introduced to ‘the playboy prince’ with the ‘movie-star looks’ whose great love affair ‘was destined to end in tragedy’. We then cut to a wistful-looking Zsuzsi, whose home in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is, the narrator shrewdly noted, ‘a long way from Buckingham Palace’.

The two met in Tokyo in 1968, where William impressed the ladies by arriving for his British-embassy posting in a plane he’d piloted himself. For her part, Zsuzsi was a model and former air hostess with a neat line in flirty banter. Before long, love had duly ‘blossomed’ and they’d found themselves ‘a private love nest’ — always better than a public one, I find.

But, as the template demands, it was now time for those stuffed shirts at the palace to stand in the way of romance — merely because Zsuzsi was a twice-divorced Hungarian single mother, seven years William’s senior. According to those telepathic royal commentators, the prince was still determined to marry her, but just as he was about to pop the undocumented question, his father the Duke suffered a stroke and William had to return to Britain.

He did invite Zsuzsi to join him for a while, but with the dark forces of protocol closing in, ‘he decided to put the affair on hold’ — by the undeniably effective means of taking her to the airport and waving her off on a one-way trip to New York. Like Edward VIII, the programme lamented, William was forced to realise that ‘you can have the woman or you can have the throne, but you can’t have both’ — a parallel that might have been stronger if William had ever had any chance of the throne.

Even so, the couple ‘kept alive their hopes of a happy ending’ — but only because ‘neither could have predicted the cruel twist of fate that lay ahead’. At a Wolverhampton air show in August 1972, William crashed his plane and was killed instantly. In fact, one of the programme’s coups was to show us film of the incident — even if the decision to screen it for Zsuzsi in her Colorado house was maybe more questionable.

Right at the beginning Zsuzsi declared that we were about to hear ‘a true fairy tale’: a piece of inadvertent ambiguity that was perhaps more telling than she realised. For all I know, the story did unfold exactly as the programme said — although a quick read round afterwards unsurprisingly suggested that things might have been more complicated than we were told, with Zsuzsi’s memories not entirely reliable. (Nor, oddly, did anybody mention that William had been diagnosed with porphyria, as made famous by George III.) That’s the trouble with royal documentaries that so slavishly follow a pre-ordained pattern: rather than being able to trust them, you end up peering between the clichés and just making a guess.

But possibly the biggest act of self-sabotage came when the programme tried to add yet another layer of tragedy by concluding that, had he lived, William and Zsuzsi would have been able to marry — because not long afterwards the palace became far more relaxed about such matters. After all, it clinchingly reminded us, the later Prince William was free to marry Kate ‘for reasons of the heart’.

Admittedly, I can’t claim to be a royal expert myself. Nonetheless, I’m willing to bet that if our William had brought home his own twice-divorced Hungarian single mother, seven years his senior, we wouldn’t have seen her walking down the aisle of Westminster Abbey.

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Show comments
  • John P Hughes

    Thank you very much for this excellent article. It saves us from needing to think whether we should bother to watch the programme (when it turns up on Youtube). No we don’t.
    The picture is interesting – One had forgotten what Prince W of G looked like. A bit of Errol Flynn but more like Johnny Hallyday.

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      A decent head of hair and sideburns unlike the fluff on the orbs of the present
      bunch of royals- except Prince Harry.

      • Gilbert White

        Tis a toupee old boy.

    • TUC

      How the hell can you go by a review that clearly has an agenda with its bile and pointless criticism. Do you have a mind of your own.? Was a great programme.

  • ViolinSonaten b minor.

    Thank you for the enlightening review, saves the trouble of watching.
    A handsome man, apparently. Looking nothing like the horsey current bunch.
    Suffered from hereditary Porphyria- the royal disease- purple urine is a sign.
    Probably caused by marrying cousins.

    • TUC

      You should watch it, instead of believing the views of a journalistic troll. If you have nothing nice to say….

  • Peter Smart

    The programme was somewhat more interesting and of infinitely more merit than the rather bitter review.

  • Hugo Vickers

    It was a curious documentary – I was in Tokyo in 1970 and people spoke well of Zsuzsi, a sweet girl, but somewhat unsuitable on paper. The documentary was rather odd in not mentioning that by 1972 he had a new high profile girlfriend called Nicole Sieff, now Bulgari. That makes me doubtful that Prince William invited Szuzsi to fly with him, and also explains why she did not rush over for the funeral. The film makers must have chosen to ignore this rather significant detail.

    • Sherrilan Laroche

      Now that is interesting. Would like to know if Nicole Sieff Bulgari has seen the documentary and what her thoughts are. Also if she has her own stories to tell up to the end of the Prince’s life.

      • Hugo Vickers

        Sadly I now learn that she died in 2011.

        • Catherine

          Another girlfriend, Susie Osborne, the one in the photo often shown of him dancing, is very much alive and living in Australia

          • Hugo Vickers

            That is good to know. All the Gloucesters loved Australia. William’s mother relished being able to travel about without a lady in waiting. She paid several visits in her old age.

  • Callipygian

    Blimey. Either the picture is distorting his dimensions or a Paranthropus boisei with an unusually long nose has stepped out of the matrix and usurped the royal status. You can even spot the sagittal crest! :^0

  • TUC

    A particularly nasty review, written by an anti royal with an agenda, and particularly empty life it seems.