As far as journalists’ assignments go, it was a dream story. It had literally everything one could ask for and more – adventure, romance, royalty, glamour, grinding poverty, horrors of war, backdropped by an exotic fable-like landscape going back in time.
Not long after the death of Princess Diana and her Egyptian boyfriend Dodi in a Paris car crash in 1997, the BBC commissioned renowned documentary producer/director Gerry Troyna (read about his fame in GerryTroyna.com) to do a documentary on the ‘Train Journey’ through Cambodia with Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer as the presenter.
Gerry Troyna is the world famous award-winning producer/director of the “Great Train Journey through India” series and many other famous documentaries. Earl Spencer, a former TV journalist, as the whole world knows, is the guy who delivered the biting eulogy at her sister’s royal funeral.
A blockbuster documentary was assured by the combination of the two personalities and the news-shattering background. In fact such was their drawing power, the BBC had already sold the documentary to major American and Australian TV networks before production began.
Prior to her tragic and untimely death Princess Diana as head of the world demining programme was to visit Cambodia, which has one of the highest number of mine casualties in the world. Now her brother was to take her place, come to Cambodia, see the demining work (neutralizing and clearance of minefields), visit the mine casualties and talk about his sister Princess Diana’s wonderful work that had touched the hearts of so many.
It was not exactly serendipity that brought me into the production team, but being there at the right time and knowing the ‘Big Boss’. Director Troyna was looking for a researcher/field producer with local knowledge and experience. Language skills were also an advantage.
I happened to cover the war right from the beginning when the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime on Christmas Day 1978. I had known the producer/director and worked for him on some of his documentaries.
Together with Jim Gerald and the late Peter Swan, both documentary makers and Cambodian old-hands, I was recruited into the production team to assist Troyna in research and formulating the story.
In 1997 Cambodia was relatively peaceful after decades of war. The country was led by pro Vietnamese strongman Hun Sen, even though he lost the UN brokered elections to Prince Ranaridth of the Royalist Party. The election was boycotted by the Khmer Rouge which still controlled some parts of the countryside. Banditry and landmines dominated a good part of the landscape.
Train locomotives were armor plated and travelled with an empty wagon in front as added protection landmines. The notoriety of Cambodian trains was made worse when months earlier, several westerners were kidnapped near Kampot and murdered, supposedly by the Khmer Rouge.
Against this backdrop we signed a work contract with the BBC. Pre production and production work would take over a month and we were provided insurance against death or injuries.
We checked into the Holiday Mansion (hotel), near the British Embassy in Bangkok and awaited the arrival of two ex Royal Marine commandos ostensibly to teach us how to avoid danger and ambushes and act as our bodyguards. They were from Centurion, a British private company formed to provide training and protection for journalists in war zones. After so many journalists were killed in Bosnia, the Western media were taking no chances, said Troyna.
Meanwhile Earl Spencer was taking the same one-week course from Centurion in his estate in England. After two days we flew to Phnom Penh to continue the training there while we conducted the research and recce (location scouting) in Cambodia. The ‘R & R’ would take about 10 days after which the Earl would arrive with the film crew from London and shooting would begin.
In 1997 Cambodia was still the world top news story. Phnom Penh was swarming with hacks. It was important to keep our work secret. We envisaged a media circus when the Earl arrived at the airport when words got out. We checked into the Hotel Royale, Phnom Penh’s top hotel. The English manager was pleased to know about the Earl coming to stay, and offered us a good deal – junior suites with breakfast thrown in.
We took the train and ran the whole gamut of railway lines or what were left, from Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) on the southern coast to Sisophon towards the Thai border.
Cambodian trains were not for the faint-hearted. They were the poor man’s transport – just old coaches with wooden benches and open wagons piled with logs and goods. In the daytime it was hot and crowded right up to the rooftop. Many could not afford the fare, and the rooftops were always crowded.
We thought we had the most fantastic storyline worked out. Briefly, Earl Spencer would arrive in the deep-water port of Kampong Som and board the train and travel towards Phnom Penh. He would see the devastation of war and plenty of the countryside – an English aristocrat among the crowded bodies in the hot stuffy train. Noise, people and faces… fried grasshoppers, barbecued tarantula… all the exotic and weird food he would encounter.
In Phnom Penh he would do the Princess Diana stuff – see the demining work, the casualties, the officials and talk of his sister’s work and selfless contribution. The Earl would board the train again in Phnom Penh and go north towards the Thai border. He would get off at Battambang and walk towards the Bassac River where he would board a motorised sampan and travel to the great lake Tonle Sap and Angkor Wat.
The boat hugged the river bank, passing Cham villages, fishing nets, and boisterous naked children and water buffaloes. The Chams are Muslims, ethnic Malays, and they are mostly settled along river banks and estuaries.
On the left bank, a bright mosque freshly painted white and green comes into view. The Earl would signal for the boat to slow down and stop. He would climb the steep bank and walk towards the building as the melodic sound of children reciting Quranic verses filled the air.
The camera would pan towards the faces of little boys and girls in headscarves. The Cham children with their middle-eastern mixture, many are exceptionally beautiful. The Imam and village elders would greet the Earl and little children stare in curiosity. The Earl is told the mosque had recently been repaired and repainted by the Malaysian army.
“This would be great! It would be the highlight of the documentary,” exclaimed the director. “It would remind the British people that Princess Diana’s boyfriend Dodi was a Muslim. If they were alive, would Britain accept Princess Diana if she converted and married him?”
Another highlight was the splendour of Angkor Wat where the Earl would end his journey. Happy with the outcome of the Research and Recce, we returned to the splendour of the Hotel Royale to enjoy a beer and laze around the swimming pool while waiting for his ‘Highness’ to arrive from London.
Alas, on the eve of his arrival we were told the Earl had backed out and cancelled the trip citing security and danger as the reason. We suspected the British ambassador might have had a hand in it. When we went to see him to request his help to apply for firearms permits for the two British bodyguards, he was uncooperative and unfriendly.
“He might have written a negative report to London about us crazy journalists!” I said.
Anyway we were really disappointed for missing out on a great documentary in the making…. but not that disappointed after all, for we were all paid in full because of the contract.
Postscript: There was an attempt to save the documentary with a replacement for Earl Spencer who withdrew at the 12th hour. The risk to his personal safety and the erroneously held view that the Khmer Rouge were still a threat in the countryside were the reasons. Troyna said there was still a chance it could be salvaged with a ‘star’ or well-known personality to replace him.
A few names were proposed: Vietnam war photographer/author, Tim Page; award-winning journalist, Jon Swain of killing Fields fame; and movie-star comedian, Mr Bean.
But alas! the Earl proved to be irreplaceable. Without him the ‘shine’ would be lost. Troyna could not persuade the backers to accept a replacement. The American TV made it clear that without the Earl, they would withdraw. BBC was prepared for the loss incurred so far; the project was buried for good.