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The last thing Britain needed in 1980 was a big public row with Saudi Arabia. But to everyone’s surprise, Death Of A Princess – an ATV dramatised documentary film by Anthony Thomas about the public execution of a princess who had adopted some Western ideas and thereby questioned the strict traditional Islamic way of life – brought the worst one yet.
No television programme had ever caused a stink like it.
The two-hour programme was shown in Britain in April. It had actors and actresses playing witnesses describing life under Islam (Saudi Arabia was never mentioned).
Egyptian actress Suzanne Abou Taleb played Princess Misha’al as a Joan of Arc who went to the stake for women’s rights, Judy Parfitt played a German nanny telling how women were cooped up in palaces all day watching foreign videos (“we must have seen The Sound Of Music” twelve times”, she said), Paul Freeman played the film-maker (called Ryder) asking questions about how and why such reactionary regimes were supported and something as barbaric as this happened.
It turned out that ATV had refused the Saudi’s request for the film to be withdrawn, or a sequence – believed to be the one in which veiled women in chauffeur-driven cars cruised around picking up men – cut out.
It led to the British Ambassador in Jeddah being sent home, King Khaled cancelling his plan to visit Britain that summer and £200 million in exports being lost. Diplomatic relations were restored at the end of July after Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington condemned the film and did what was generally seen as a bit of grovelling to the Arabs.
But the story of the princess’s death in 1977 (allegedly for taking a young student lover who was also shot) had not been new. A British carpenter had witnessed it, and his photographs had appeared in British newspapers.
Anthony Thomas, a film-maker with a reputation for passionate concern, heard the story from a minister of an Arab state and began four months of research, interviewing the carpenter, the German nanny who had known the princess and people at the university in Beirut where she had studied.
He also travelled extensively in Saudi Arabia, noting the extremes of poverty and wealth, never pretending to understand the culture, and aware that he was becoming obsessed with a dead girl who had become a folk hero.
As if the political rumpus was not enough, a controversy raged in the letters pages of The Times and the New Statesman between Thomas and novelist Penelope Mortimer who had been involved early in the making of the film but had disagreed with some of Thomas’s decisions and dropped out of the project.
She wrote saying the interviews in the film were ‘fabrications’ and later, when challenged, wrote that she had not meant they were ‘invented’ but simply that they should have made a feature film so that evidence wouldn’t have to be defended.
Her original remarks were reprinted in American newspaper advertisements placed by Mobil urging the Public Broadcasting Service there not to show the film.