Friday, September 29, 2017

Interview: In conversation with James Clements from The Diana Tapes

James Clements is the creator of The Diana tapes, now playing in Toronto at the Red Sandcastle theatre. The production runs from September 20th to October 7th. He is Co-Artistic Director of the theatre company, What Will the Neighbors Say For more information visit

What inspired you to create this show?

Being from Scotland, and certainly not raised in a monarchist household, I always found the concept of monarchy fascinating - why it meant so much to so many people, why it had such a powerful hold over popular imagination, why the taxpayer continued to fund it. It just says so much about class, deference, identity in Britain - it's endlessly fascinating to me, really. At university at NYU, I studied drama and history, and my focus in both tended to centre on unpacking or analyzing iconic, impactful figures (Eva Peron, Arthur Balfour, Margaret Thatcher), culminating in a senior thesis about Princess Diana, which became the basis for this play. I also see her stamp on our modern world - politics as celebrity, confession as nobility, image as story, presentation as reality, emotion as currency. She, to me, embodied these shifts.

What research is involved in putting a show like this together?

I did a great deal of research in preparation for The Diana Tapes. With the support of an NYU DURF Research Grant, I holed up in the British Library scanning hundreds of pages of media coverage concerning the Princess. I also heavily utilized Andrew Morton's biography, which the play is about - the 1997 edition had the transcripts of all the tapes, which are featured in our play, and even some scans of her handwritten edits. I approached it as a loaded source rather than a gospel - a manifesto for both of them. Then, for the more impartial, factual context, I perused countless external sources (especially helpful were Tina Brown's fantastic biography, "After Diana" edited by Mandy Merck, and "The Abolition of Britain: from Winston Churchill to Princess Diana" by Peter Hitchens) in addition to documentaries featuring interviews with key players. Once I had gathered all my materials, it was about switching off my historian brain and deciding, as a playwright and actor, what the core human story of it all was.

How long have you been developing this show?

I began my research in 2014, and completed the first draft of the script in 2016.I then assembled the cast and design team (half Scottish and half American), and we then selected the wonderful Wednesday Derrico to direct the Edinburgh Fringe workshop that summer. The experience was so positive that we ended up forming our company, What Will the Neighbours Say?,and unanimously agreed to continue working with our design and director team. From then on, I've been regularly re-drafting and editing as we have toured the show through North America.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Diana's death, what are your thoughts about her?

She is an incredibly complex figure. On a superficial level, its very easy to dismiss her as this white, heteronormative figure from a quaint and archaic institution. Critics, perhaps correctly, note her excessive privilege, her self-indulgence, her shallowness. She is decried as a manipulator. People think she shouldn’t have mattered to people in the late 20th century. In a sense, I don’t really disagree with any of that. To me, though, it just makes her all the more important, fascinating and real. She was all of those things - and yet she emphatically did matter, both despite and because of them. I think there is something very sexist and academic and high-and-mighty about dismissing her as vapid. To me, she went to war with the army she had, and through responding to her circumstances, whether by accident or design, she altered contemporary society. I also think her specific experiences imbibed with her with exceptional compassion, kindness, and care. So I think I’m cautiously, hopefully realistically, supportive of her. As a writer, you end up falling in love with all of your characters, at least to some extent. But more than anything else, I’m just fascinated. 

What did you think of the original book?

I think Andrew Morton, as a writer, was given the opportunity of a lifetime with that story, and he ran with it; he created the perfect book for the situation and the moment. I think, between those two kindred spirits, they created a book that precisely and accurately presented her version of events. He was the right man for the job, for sure. Of course, its not totally useful as historical record - the Princess, the book’s source, had a very flexible relationship to truth. But it is a perfect example of a skilled, compelling, tightly constructed piece of propaganda, and is the blueprint for the modern celebrity tell-all memoir. So, in that sense, the book industry owes Mr. Morton a huge debt. Between them, they created a new genre, and a highly profitable and influential one at that.

Do you think the tapes should have been made public?

I’m in two minds. I completely understand the argument that it was exploitative to release them, but I think, overall, I disagree. By releasing them, Morton was fully giving Princess Diana agency in death, something she fought for throughout her life. How many of us get a chance to leave a manifesto for the world to read, to present ourselves exactly and precisely as we wish to be seen and remembered? Also, from an academic standpoint, this is how history is written - journals, letters, secret government papers - they leak over time, and those things that were never intended to be seen come to light, and round out the historical record concerning these individuals. Ultimately, I think the greatest defence of their release is that it’s all true - even when she lies, its her truth. And its been very good for our theatre company, so I’m hesitant to bite the hand that feeds me. Obviously, if it really bothered me morally, I wouldn’t have created a show around it, I suppose.

What effect do you think the tapes had on the monarchy?

They were devastating. I think, for all the exaggeration and victimization they contain, they were a damning indictment of an institution, and a family, incapable of functioning in the modern world. It painted the Windsors as cold, callous, cruel and out of touch with their people, which I think they were. I also think the revelations about Charles, as a future king, really made people question the whole principle of hereditary privilege - clearly this man was objectively not the most fitting or deserving man for the job of Head of State, and yet he was going to get it anyway. They highlighted the inherent injustices of monarchy. The House of Windsor has responded to them - becoming a more transparent, human, emotive institution in the 25 years since. Thought she didn’t live to see it, they are performing Diana’s idea of monarchy. Isn’t that an exceptional victory for someone who was “thick as a plank,” a divorced Princess without a HRH?

Has Andrew Morton reached out to you about the show?

Andrew re-tweeted us when we reached out to him from Edinburgh in 2016, and over this past summer I got in touch with him and sent him the script. He has given us further support on his social media accounts, so he must have liked what he read - or at least not found it horribly offensive! I would love to have him be more involved dramaturgically, and hope to get in touch with him when I go back to Scotland after we wrap up here in Toronto. I believe he said something to the effect of “curious being a stage character” and called it a “fascinating four hander,” so thats great.

What has been the response? Has there been any criticism of the topic?

Its been interesting. We've had a range of responses, everything from people congratulating us for what they perceive as our negative portrayal of her, to people praising what they consider to be our generous portrays of her, to pro-monarchists loving it, to republicans loving it - which I, as a writer and actor, think is fantastic. I wanted to create a piece that encouraged questions and debate, and didn't answer anything for anyone. I don't think thats the purpose of art. Some people have told us they found it exploitative, but, as with the question about the release of the tapes themselves, I respond that its all true. Its her story, told on her terms. One person did tell us we were too young to be considering themes, ideas and stories such as this one - I'd never heard that as a criticism, and it did give me pause. But then I thought - well, we did do it! So take that!

You have taken the show to New York and Toronto. Where is the next stop?

As I said, I’m heading across to the UK next month, so hope to find a home for a London run next Spring ahead of our Off-Broadway premiere in New York in May. We have also completed filming on a SAG New Media web series version of the show, and are currently in discussion with distribution partners for a 2018 release on various digital platforms. We really believe that this show can continue to grow, develop and remain relevant to our audiences in the coming years. Watch this space!

© Marilyn Braun 2017

 Thank you for enjoying this article. If you use the information for research purposes, a link to credit the work I've put into writing it would be appreciated.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Royal Focus: Battenberg Cake

It started out as a dessert I planned to bring to a party. Little did I know it would become a character building exercise.

When my first attempt failed, making this cake became a mission. I was going to succeed in baking this cake. There it was, perfectly photographed on the internet and I was determined to make a reasonable facsimile. If it happened to taste OK, that would just be an added bonus.

The first incarnation was misshapen and when I tried to trim it to equal sizes, the whole thing fell apart. Trying to find marzipan was harder than I thought, but making homemade marzipan turned out to be harder. So I regrouped.

My second attempt, the taste turned out...well, if you've ever wondered what carpet under-padding tastes like, it might just be close. Trying to trim this cake turned into a disaster. Which I now realize is perfectly understandable considering I cannot draw a straight line to save my life.

My third attempt was a success, mainly thanks to a certain recipe and the technique of using one pan and dividing the batter using a piece of tin foil. The cakes came out almost perfectly. One required a small trim to even it out but otherwise the cake maintained structural integrity while I moved on to the marzipan. My store bought marzipan rolling job is not perfect but hey, that is what photoshop is for.

Ta Dah! And it tastes pretty good too!

Depending on which website you read, the origins of Battenberg cake vary. The most frequently repeated theory is the cake was invented for the 1884 wedding of Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine to Prince Louis of Battenberg. The four squares of the cake are said to represent the four Battenberg princes - Louis, Henry, Alexander and Francis Joseph. It makes for a nice story but it isn't necessarily true. There are knowledgable food historians who cannot find a plausible link between the Battenberg wedding and the invention of the cake. I've included some very detailed posts about the history of the cake in the sources listed below.

Although the definitive origins are lost to the sands of time, the cake did eventually find its way to the royal table. According to an anecdote from in Darren McGrady's book Eating Royally: Recipes and Remembrances from a Palace KitchenSarah Ferguson, Duchess of York loved this cake and would request it whenever she held a tea at Buckingham palace. He once sent up an absolutely perfect Battenberg cake, only to have it returned uneaten, with instructions not to serve her a store bought cake again. With a new appreciation for what goes into making this cake, I shake a virtual fist at Fergie.

The recipe and technique I followed worked charm. The recipe is reproduced with kind permission from Titli from Titli's Busy Kitchen. The video demonstration is entertaining to boot! Note, some of the terms, amounts and temperature have been changed for North American bakers.


  • 450 g (1lb) marzipan
  • 175 g / 6 oz (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 175 g / 6 oz (3/4 cup) caster sugar (superfine granulated sugar)
  • 175 g / 6 oz (3/4 cup) self-raising flour (or plain flour + 1 tsp baking powder)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2-3 tsp apricot glaze (or sieved apricot jam)
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • Red or pink food colouring
  • Icing sugar

  1. Cream together butter and sugar
  2. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl together with the vanilla essence. Add half the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat in.
  3. Sieve in half the four and beat well. Now beat in, consecutively, the remaining egg and flour.
  4. Lightly grease and line an 8" (20cm) square cake pan with parchment paper. Make a divider from baking foil and place down the centre of the pan.
  5. Pour one half of the mixture into one half of the cake pan.
  6. Beat in enough food colouring into the remaining mixture to give it a strong pink colour, then pour it into the other half of the cake tin.
  7. Bake at 170°C (338°F) for 25-30 minutes and allow to cool before turning the cake out of the pan.
  8. Carefully trim the two sponge cakes to give neat rectangles of cake. Place one cake on top of the other and cut down the centre so you have four evenly sized oblongs. Using warm apricot glaze, stick the oblongs together into a checkerboard pattern. Trim further if necessary. 
  9. Sprinkle icing sugar onto a flat surface and roll out the marzipan to around 5 mm (1 1/4") thick. spread apricot glaze onto the marzipan and slide the cake into the middle of the marzipan. Fold up the sides and make a neat seam on the top of the cake.
  10. Turn the cake over so that the seam is on the bottom and trim the ends of the cake. Place on a serving plate/board and dust with icing sugar.

Battenberg Cake history sources:

Wikiwand - Battenberg Cake 

Battenberg Cake - The Truth

Battenberg Cake - History Again!

The Queen and Her Cakes

Wikipedia - Battenberg Cake

© Marilyn Braun 2017

Thank you for enjoying this article. If you use the information for research purposes, a link to credit the work I've put into writing it would be appreciated.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Royal Focus: The Royal Chocolate Biscuit Cake

Behold, the Chocolate Biscuit cake. This cake may sound familiar to royal watchers as it is a royal favourite of the Queen and Prince William. He even chose it as one of the royal wedding cakes!

The 'groom's cake' at the royal wedding reception was made by McVitie's Cake Company using a royal family recipe. Now part of United Biscuits, the Royal Warrant holders have been making cakes for royal weddings and christenings since the wedding of Prince George, Duke of York and Princess May of Teck in 1893. The company, then known as McVitie and Price Ltd, also made the official royal wedding cake for Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and the official cake for the Queen and Prince Philip's 60th wedding anniversary in 2007.

This cake is no bake and super easy to make. As you can see, my icing and moulding skills need some work but luckily it doesn't affect the taste. You can find this recipe in Darren McGrady's excellent cookbook, Eating Royally: Recipes and Remembrances from a Palace Kitchen. Note that Darren has said that his book will be coming out in seventh printing soon for $24.99

This recipe is reproduced with kind permission from Darren McGrady.


1/2 teaspoon butter, for greasing pan
8 ounces McVities Rich Tea biscuits (I found them at the Bulk Food Barn in Canada)
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 ounces of dark chocolate
1 egg, beaten
8 ounces dark chocolate, for icing
1 ounces white chocolate, for decoration


Lightly grease a small (6 x 2/1/2-inch) cake ring with 1/2 teaspoon of butter and place on a parchment-lined tray. Break each of the biscuits into almond-sized pieces by hand and set aside (do not process the biscuits). Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until the mixture is a light lemon color.

Melt the 4 ounces of dark chocolate in a double boiler. If you don't have a double boiler you can use a metal bowl on top of a pot of simmering water. Add the butter and sugar mixture to the chocolate and stir constantly. Ad the egg and continue stirring. Fold in the biscuit pieces until they are all coated with the chocolate mixture.

Spoon the chocolate biscuit mixture into the prepared cake ring. Try to fill all of the gaps in the bottom of the ring, because this will be the top when it is unmolded. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least three hours.

Remove the cake from the refrigerator, and let it stand while you melt the 8 ounces of dark chocolate for the icing. Slide the ring off the cake and turn the cake upside down onto a cooling/wire rack. Pour the 8 ounces of melted dark chocolate over the cake, and smooth the top and sides using an offset-spatula. Allow the chocolate icing to set at room temperature. Carefully run a knife around the bottom of the cake where it has stuck to the cooling rack, and transfer cake to a cake dish. Melt the white chocolate and drizzle on top of the cake in a decorative pattern.

Cut and serve!

© Marilyn Braun 2017

Thank you for enjoying this article. If you use the information for research purposes, a link to credit the work I've put into writing it would be appreciated.

Monday, September 04, 2017

William and Catherine are expecting royal baby number 3!!

My take on it.

Congratulations to the Cambridge family.


© Marilyn Braun 2017

 Thank you for enjoying this article. If you use the information for research purposes, a link to credit the work I've put into writing it would be appreciated.