Death of a Princess 

2 July 2005

The controversy surrounding this ground-breaking film – 25 years on

25 years ago, ATV broadcast one of the most controversial TV documentaries of all time.

Whatever Melvyn Bragg might tell you, from its beginnings, ITV was not purely mass-market light entertainment shows such as Sunday Night At The London Palladium. Nor was it wall-to-wall Double Your Money or Take Your Pick. The channel lost millions of pounds in its early years, but in spite of this, carried ground-breaking current affairs programming such as Rediffusion’s This Week, and the ITV ‘youth club of the air’, Sunday Break from ABC Weekend. Regional programmes increased as ITV expanded, and all kinds of feature programmes – including Survival on nature and the environment, or arts programmes like The South Bank Show, edited and fronted by Bragg himself now for over 25 years – made their debuts.

ATV Colour frontcap unusual

Lew Grade, the mogul at ATV, with his entertainment background, loved TV variety and big-budget drama made for his ITC subsidiary that would sell well in the US and elsewhere. But under successive programme controllers, like Charles Denton, ATV also provided a broad range of more regular worthy programmes, including Schools and Adult Education programmes, highbrow drama including Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with Cockney comic Tommy Steele, and a significant number of groundbreaking documentary programmes. Screened in the 10.30pm slot each Tuesday for most of the year, The Tuesday Documentary – a strand of unique films on a broad range of topics – was always fully networked.

These films were sourced from various ITV companies, but a good many from ATV dominated the schedule, and they brought in significant post-News At Ten audiences of up to 10 million or more. Such audience figures are enormous by today’s fragmented digital multichannel standards, but for much of this period there was only ITV, BBC1 and, post-1964, a fledgling BBC2 on 625 lines, until Channel 4 arrived in the 80s to change the dynamics.

An ATV documentary in the 70’s on freethinking artist Andy Warhol was deleted from the schedules following an injunction granted by then Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, following pre-screening complaints from Mary Whitehouse. When ATV soon after had the High Court injunction overturned on appeal, they screened the Warhol film. So intrigued was the nation, after all the national media coverage, to know what the so-called fuss was about, that a documentary film that might otherwise have been seen by a million viewers (a brilliant figure for such a film), actually made the ITV Top Twenty that week and was seen by many times the normal audience.

It was to ATV and Charles Denton that Mirror investigative reporter John Pilger turned to when he had a key visual human story to tell, and Pilger remained a filmmaker for ITV’s Midlands contractor right through the ATV, Central and Carlton periods. Filmmakers such as Adrian Cowell brought to viewers a unique peek into the lives of Amazon rain forest people, never before seen, with his superlative filming of the Krina-Krora villagers in the BAFTA-award-winning The Tribe That Hides From Man, filmed and networked by ATV.

And then, there was Death of a Princess. This groundbreaking TV film was a co-production between the WGBH Educational Foundation, an arm of Boston-based PBS station WGBH-TV, and ATV. David Fanning of WGBH, the executive producer of PBS’s documentary series World, co-authored the script with Anthony Thomas, who served as the film’s director. ATV contributed £100,000 and WGBH provided one quarter of the total $430,000 cost, while additional monies came from television companies in Holland, the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

ATV Death of a Princess 1

Death of a Princess took a year and a half to make and was Thomas’s attempt to tell, in dramatized form, the true story behind the public execution in July 1977 of Princess Mishaal bint Fahd bin Mohammed and her adulterous lover Khalid Mahallal. The film was based on transcripts from interviews conducted by Anthony Thomas on his journey though the Arab world in search of the truth and meaning of this event.

Thomas was already a renowned filmmaker for ITV by the time he went to Saudi Arabia to research for the film, including writing and directing the acclaimed three-part The Japanese Experience, also for the 10.30pm Tuesday documentary slot, in 1969 for the then newly-franchised Yorkshire Television. He amassed a terrific amount of background interviews in Saudi, but there was no chance of cutting these interviews into a traditional documentary format as none of the contributors would ever want to be identified, for obvious reasons. So a decision was made to make the film as a drama-documentary, using actors to speak the transcribed words of the original contributors, whose identities were hidden. Thomas, himself a trained actor, had another actor portray him in the film, under the assumed name of Christopher Rider.

The docudrama was filmed on location in Beirut, Lebanon Cairo, Egypt and London. Apart from its direct subject matter, the film exposed the status of women as a whole in Saudi Arabia as it was in the 1980’s, where women were veiled and segregated, unable to drive or vote, and unable to marry without approval from a male family member.

Both before and after transmission, the film caused international uproar around the world. The storm in the UK was agitated by Saudi government anger over a story they would rather had remained untold abroad. They made various attempts to pressure the UK government to censor or block any screening of the film in the UK, including threats to tear up contracts worth millions of pounds.

ATV Death of a Princess 4

Grade and his programme controller Denton remained wholly supportive of Thomas. Both ITV and WGBH refused to budge or bow to the pressure, and ATV duly transmitted the film to the entire ITV network on April 9th 1980. Death of a Princess achieved a huge audience, estimated at 10 million. Although “rejecting Saudi pleas that the film be amended or scrapped…”, ATV agreed to include an introductory comment that said: “The programme you are about to see is a dramatized reconstruction of certain events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world.”

On April 11th, the Saudi Embassy in London called Death of a Princess “…an unprincipled attack on the religion of Islam and its 600 million people, and on the way of life of Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of the world of Islam.” On the April 23rd, the government of Saudi Arabia requested Great Britain to withdraw its Ambassador to Jeddah, James Craig. Although a serious step, it was thought to be temporary. The British Foreign Office said that Embassy staff would stay in Jeddah and that the Embassy would remain open.

On May 12, 1980, PBS showed the film across most of the US, as part of the World series, with other countries buying rights to show the film from Telepictures, Inc. The Saudis protested once again, while Mobil Oil, which had extensive interests in Saudi Arabia and was also a significant PBS funder, ran ads in the New York Times criticizing the film. Many PBS stations in the country resisted pressure and expressions of concern. PBS spokesman Mark Harrad said: “Mobil and others are in the business of marketing oil products, and we’re in the business of the free flow of information and the First Amendment.”

Such “free flow” did not occur everywhere. Altogether, 38 PBS stations in 13 states did not carry the film, while 46 stations delayed its broadcast. But some of these stations never intended to carry it in the first place: 14 of the 158 licensees did not contribute to funding for the World series, and thus did not plan to show the film. However, five PBS stations in South Carolina – where Saudi investors have large holdings in real estate in Hilton Head and other coastal resorts, and where then U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John West, once served as governor – refused to air the programme.

During the weeks following the screening in the UK, new limitations were placed on visas issued to British company executives in Saudi Arabia. In addition, a large U.S. construction firm was instructed not to subcontract to the British. Other pressures were brought to bear. British Airways was suddenly told that no further supersonic flights would be allowed over Saudi Arabia, wiping out the profit from the Concorde’s London-Singapore route. Lebanon also banned British supersonic flights over its territory and the British were forced to seek new eastern air lanes.

Various British officials and members of Parliament took ATV to task for the film. The Financial Times reported remarks by Deputy Foreign Secretary Sir Ian Gilmore and others: “Sir Ian said that the whole [dramatised documentary] genre was something to which the Independent Broadcasting Authority and BBC should be giving very careful attention.” Mr. Nicholas Winterton, a Conservative from Macclesfield called upon the Government to “apologize to the Saudi Government and Royal Family for the film”. Alleging that Mr. Thomas “had a history of producing inaccurate and biased films,” he wanted the government to ensure that “these Left-wingers do not have the power to undermine the best interests of the U.K.”

ATV Death of a Princess part 3

At the end of May, then-Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington remarked that the film was “deeply offensive” and said that he “wished it had never been shown.” Speaking at a meeting sponsored by the Middle East Association, he noted, however, that it was not the government’s job “to ban a film because we do not like it or even because it hurts our friends.” Asked whether his statement should be regarded as an apology, Carrington said it was “a statement of what Her Majesty’s Government thinks.” By July, the British ambassador was back in Jeddah, and within a few months normal privileges were restored to British businesses operating there.

At BAFTA, in the Princes Anne Lecture Theatre on 25th May 2005, there was a special 25th anniversary screening of Anthony Thomas’s film before an invited audience. The event, called Other Voices, Other Lives: Death of a Princess, followed the screening with a Q&A session with the writer/director. This was the only showing of the film in the UK to mark its 25th anniversary: unlike the US Public Broadcasting System which elected to show the film again, no interest was shown either by ITV or by any other UK broadcaster. Thomas had not seen his original film for a quarter of a century, but is now investigating re-dubbing a UK version, with the original ATV front programme ident and closing credits.

The screening at BAFTA was accompanied by a new examination of the controversy surrounding the original broadcast and an analysis of the politics behind the protests against the film, and of what the film reveals about the struggles of Arab women.

Death of a Princess had a 25th anniversary return to US television screens on Friday, June 3, at 9pm on WGBH 2 with a repeat two days later at 2am. Approaches were made by WGBH Boston’s Frontline programme to film a reaction from the Saudi Ambassador to the US, but the Saudi authorities had nothing to say regarding this second outing 25 years after the event. Frontline added sequences to the end of the film, raising questions about whether or not the status of women had changed for the better in Saudi Arabia over the intervening 25 years, and noting that in many ways they had not.

ATV Colour Production 1980

In 2005, Anthony Thomas is still making groundbreaking films. His latest, Middle Sex, a provocative and moving study of human sexuality, examines key influences that shape sexual identity and sexual orientation, with often startling conclusions. It was originally financed by Granada Media Manchester, chief shareholders of what is now ITV. But because ITV appears to have less room these days to screen challenging documentaries, the film was commissioned by Channel 4 and screened at 9pm on 26th May this year.

• Read the full WGBH PBS transcript of Anthony Thomas’s Death of a Princess, including their 2005 update and other material. Further technical details on the film can be found in the Internet Movie Database.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Peter Goerman 20 August 2014 at 4:52 am

Is there any place where I can buy a DVD of this docudrama?

Joseph Iacopelli 6 May 2015 at 1:50 pm

Sirs : Is there any source when I can acquire a copy of this film for educational purposes to show an adult class the distinction between different cultures in regard to the treatment of women? Please advise.

mike mckenzie 9 October 2017 at 4:06 pm

At least two versions of “Death of a Princess” exist on YouTube.
One is continuous, one is broken into 15-minute segments.
One of the versions has better picture quality, presumably the other was copied from a bootleg tape.
Cassettes of the programme, with Arabic subtitles, were on sale in London and elsewhere, shortly after the first transmission.

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