Melissa Doyle: The Diana we never knew

Melissa Doyle

I’m sitting in a country golf club in a tiny town in southwest England waiting for the phone to ping with instructions for a rendezvous.

We’re here to meet James Hewitt, the former lover of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The man labelled everything from a cad to a love rat.

He’s now a recluse living a quiet life with his elderly mother in Devon.

He is paranoid about the media, hence why our meeting had to be discreet.

Before he agrees to a sit-down interview he wants to meet in person, to establish trust.

Ping! The address comes through and we’re whisked off in a car and driven along narrow winding roads lined with hedges.

Soon after, we arrive at a rustic oak-beamed pub in the tiniest of villages not far from where he and Diana shared secret weekends together.

James was Diana's riding instructor in the late 1980s.

Inside, the atmosphere is casual and cosy, my head almost grazing the ceiling. We find James propped up against the bar, savouring a glass of red wine. He’s quite the connoisseur.

At 58, James is still distinguished. I had read so much about him prior to our meeting, not all good. And must admit I had formed a not-so-shiny opinion.

How wrong I was. I am almost surprised by the man I meet – tall, charming, attentive, a great conversationalist, and wickedly funny. He is an old-fashioned English gentleman.

James wears one of those old-style hunting vests, the ones with all the pockets for gentlemanly accoutrements. And an impressive moustache – which he often twirls, nervously – makes him look just like the retired army captain he is.

Diana was renowned for her sense of fun and James had a great sense of humour, too. I can see how he won the heart of the most famous woman in the world.

We sit down to a good old-fashioned pub feed and James opens up about his life and his regrets.

He seems forlorn, a broken man. He never married and still walks the country moors he once strolled hand-in-hand with a young Diana.

For James, Diana was the love of his life.

Diana was the love of his life. He wanted to whisk her away from the palace and give her a quiet country life with children and dogs. But he fell in love with a woman he could never have.

James is self-deprecating and thoughtful. He says his biggest regret is ever speaking publically about Diana. He wishes he’d never said a word, never jumped on the fame rollercoaster, and never betrayed her confidence.

And I believe him. I actually felt sad for him. And in case I was worried I’d been inadvertently charmed – the blokes in our crew shared my sentiment.

Diana’s death is one of those moments in time we all remember where we were when we heard the news.

And we didn’t even know her.

For the people closest to her it was even more of a shock. A huge loss still felt to this day.

That such a luminary, the most famous woman in the world, could die in such an ordinary way. In the end the most investigated car crash in history came down to a speeding drunk driver and passengers not wearing seatbelts.

This year marks the 20 years since Diana’s death.

Paul Burrell was Diana's butler in the 80s and 90s.

To remember the People’s Princess, Sunday Night has spoken to Hewitt and other key people in her life. And how they have all moved forward is so very different.

Another stop on our trip was in Chester to visit a quaint florist and gift shop run by Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell.

It’s in the type of pretty village we see in so many of those British dramas, and Paul is its star attraction. His name scrawled in giant gold calligraphy on the awning above the store.

Locals in gumboots leave their dogs outside and stop by as much for a chat as they do to order flowers.

Amidst the bouquets, risqué greeting cards and porcelain dolls are framed photos of Paul and Diana.

Paul entertains the older ladies with his bawdy English sense of humour. “Oh yes, Diana liked a sausage”, he tells one little old lady with a wink as she shows him her dinner just picked up from the butcher around the corner.

He lives nearby in a little English cottage with antique furniture, tapestry cushions and plenty of photos of him with the woman he calls The Boss.

Paul shared letters that Diana had written to him.

Paul tells me he doesn’t live with a ghost, rather a beautiful memory. But for a man who says he was set free after her death, he certainly hangs on to the limelight cast from a very glamourous period in his life – he now travels the world talking about Diana and frequents China to teach businessmen western etiquette.

Paul describes Diana as volatile, moody and petulant all dressed up in a beautiful package. I love hearing his stories, but I know I’m not the first to hear them, and won’t be the last.

Paul is determined to keep Diana’s memory alive: “There is a whole generation now of young people growing up who never knew Diana and I feel a responsibility to say, ‘this is who the woman was, this is how beautiful she was’, and she really was.”

Her bodyguard, Ken Wharfe, now also makes a living speaking about his time keeping the most famous woman in the world safe. He does the cruise ship circuit. You can imagine how middle-aged American travellers would lap up every word as he describes play wrestling with William and Harry when they were little. Or on a more lascivious note, sleeping on a camp bed in a hallway, while inside their bedroom Diana and James cavort between the sheets.

He’s a kind man with a gentle face and a naughty sense of humour. He says his time with Diana was full of laughter and fun, but it was also incredibly challenging trying to keep the world’s most photographed woman undercover.

Paul Burrell's home in Cheshire.

Ken speaks warmly about Diana’s lack of pretension. Despite a comfortable and privileged upbringing as the daughter of an Earl, Diana broke the mould, taking her boys to theme parks to be normal kids, or visiting the homeless to teach them compassion.

Journalist Richard Kay, on the other hand, has kept his relationship with Diana close to his chest. He was a handsome young royal reporter when she first appeared on the scene.

Remember that warm, candid shot of her at the kindergarten where she worked, before her engagement? Posing in a long skirt, the sun silhouetting her fabulous legs? “Glamour on sticks” is how Richard described that moment.

And he says the royals were never the same after that. She “sprinkled fairy dust” over the stuffy House of Windsor.

In time, Richard went from being a reporter to a close friend. And he’s pretty honest in his appraisal of Diana. He says she was fabulous fun, but complicated. And all she really craved was ordinariness, anonymity. When outed in public, she’d playfully explain how she was mistaken for Diana all the time.

The wicked laugh, cracking humour and complicated personality seem to be words used by everyone I speak to. I heard so many stories about her jumping into swimming pools fully dressed, playing pranks on friends, or leaving the palace in disguise.

Richard Kay was a royal reporter when he first met Diana.

But also the amazing charity work she did. She shook the hands of AIDS sufferers at a time when touching them was taboo. She walked through a field in Angola that had recently been cleared of landmines in an effort to raise awareness. She snuck into homeless shelters under the cover of night to comfort the destitute.

But behind the fame was a fragile young woman. And no one knew this side better than her best friend, Rosa Monckton. She tells me Diana was complicated and emotionally insecure, but a true friend.

Rosa holidayed with Diana in Greece just two weeks before that fateful trip to Paris with Dodi Fayed. And like all girlfriends, she shared the secrets about her private life – and new boyfriend.

Rosa today wears a broach. A little gold sword with a cloak wrapped around it. Diana wore one too because when the girls went out to lunch with Diana in disguise they called themselves the “Cloak and Dagger Club”.

I will remember Diana as glamorous and charismatic.

I will also remember her as a mum. Her two gorgeous boys who have grown into fine young men. I remember that envelope on her coffin … “mummy” – it broke everyone’s heart.

Diana captured the hearts of the public and became known as the 'People's Princess'

And I remember the sea of flowers piled up against the gates of Kensington Palace after her death. How we all grieved for someone we didn’t actually know.

Diana was just 36 when she died.

Everyone I spoke to talks about her legacy. From the causes she championed to the strangers she hugged, the hands she shook and the next generation of dazzling, but slightly more real, royals she influenced.

Melissa Doyle is a senior correspondent and the host of Seven’s Sunday Night. The Diana We Never Knew: A Sunday Night Royal Event airs on Sunday at 8.30pm on Seven and PLUS7 Live.