My interview with Prince Philip and why it almost didn't happen - Christa Ackroyd

Of the hundreds, probably thousands, of interviews I have carried out over the years, my chat with Prince Philip was among the most memorable. And it nearly didn’t happen.

Prince Philip was a formidable interviewee, says Christa, but he was also fun. (PA).

For two days at Yorkshire Television we had filmed the international carriage-driving championships on the Sandringham estate because YTV covered Norfolk too.

His Royal Highness was taking part, driving a team of four of the Queen’s home-bred Fell ponies. His dressage test had, as always, been immaculate.

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His cross-country phase was a disaster and so, explained a rather nervous equerry, Prince Philip was not “in the best of moods”.

We had gathered as much. He appeared to almost tip over as he guided his team at breakneck speed through the water. His reaction was, shall we say, rather colourful, much to the delight of the spectators.

The prince, however, was not so amused and there was now the danger this highly competitive character might not want to be interviewed.

Which gave us a problem. The whole half-hour programme was already filmed with me saying on almost every recorded link “And in a little while we’ll be hearing from Prince Philip himself”. Only there was the distinct possibility we would not.

And then we saw him marching towards us, face like thunder. “Get ready to roll, lads,” I shouted at the crew. The interview did not start well.

“What is it about carriage driving you enjoy, Sir?” I asked having performed the obligatory curtsy and used the correct address of Your Royal Highness.

“What kind of a question is that?” he roared. I could see our director flinching as two days of filming looked set to go down the pan.

But not only had I done my research, I also had been taught to carriage drive by stalwarts at the Yorkshire Driving Club. And it’s not easy.

Firstly, forget what you see in the movies. You do not drive with a rein in each hand. You drive with, in Prince Philip’s case that day, four reins in one hand, threaded securely through your fingers, with your second hand to guide.

However, because of his arthritis, this meant, even with the smaller ponies, he now drove the weight of at least a ton of galloping horse on four straps of leather. And it’s damn difficult. So here goes, I thought.

“Sir, last week I drove a pair in the gig you helped design for the world championships,” I ventured. “Did you indeed?” he replied.

“And what pair were they?” “Cleveland bays, Sir,” I said, knowing they were also the prince’s favourite carriage horse since he took a pair of the Queen’s out of the stables in the early 70s when he was forced to give up polo aged 50.

“Damn good horses, the Clevelands. Did you know my wife has been breeding them for years?” he inquired. “I did, Sir.”

“Her Majesty began when the breed was in danger of dying out.” “Very good” was his response. “You’ve obviously done your research. Now what do you want to ask me?”

We were off. For an hour we chatted about all things equestrian. He was charming, funny and, above all, interested in my humble attempts to master the sport he virtually invented.

I don’t know if it is appropriate to say it but he was also incredibly handsome and charismatic. In the end it was his equerry who had to interrupt and remind him he still needed to compete in the final stage of the competition, the cones.

“Well, I can’t make as much of a ruddy mess of it as I did this morning,” he laughed. “Keep driving,” he said. “It’s a great sport and one you can do till the day you die.”

Which he did – right up until he was hospitalised earlier this year.

Over his lifetime of service, Prince Philip completed more than 22,000 solo engagements and heaven knows how many standing alongside the Queen, her “strength and stay” as she described him in a marriage that endured for more than 70 years.

And today is his funeral. I hope and pray the Queen will not be sitting alone as she lays her beloved Philip to rest, restricted by Covid requirements of social distancing and 30 guests.

But let us remember that today is not about those guests and the dynamics of their relationships.

It is about a man and his wife who have dedicated themselves to service, this country and each other. I hope the Royal commentators will remember that, as they speculate on who wears what uniform, or who is not speaking to whom.

Prince Philip once said: “My job first, second and last is never to let the Queen down”. And I am sure he never did. “Cheer up, sausage”, he once said in the early days of their marriage when the searing heat of Australia was overwhelming.

And when someone joked while being introduced to the Royal couple that he was only there because his wife was “much more important than I am”, quick as a flash the Duke replied: “Ah, yes. We have that trouble in the family too.” On his own popularity, he explained: “Safer not to be too popular. You can’t fall too far.”

But I think even he would have been surprised this last week to discover just how popular he obviously was. And for those of us lucky enough to meet him in person how entertaining he was too.

I will watch his funeral and remember those days 20 years ago when I was lucky enough to spend time gleaning his knowledge of a sport I never took up.

But, above all, I will remember a man who once said of himself: “I am rude but it’s fun.”

RIP, Your Royal Highness. And thanks for the interview. Fun it certainly was.