OK Rippon, what are you going to ask the most unaccomplished woman in the world?"
The "woman" in question, was the then Lady Diana Spencer. The question came from one of my senior producers assigned to BBC television's coverage of her forthcoming marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, on July 29 1981. I was the BBC's main anchor for the studio production on the day, so had landed the prime assignment of interviewing the couple, along with ITV's Andrew Gardner, in the days leading up to their wedding.
I ignored the chauvinist cynicism and started to reel off a rapid half-dozen questions that I, and I would bet, most of the population would love to put to the enigmatic "shy Di". Let's face it, there had been a feeding frenzy since the press had got wind of their relationship months before and, although we had seen hundreds of photographs of the bride, there had been hardly a word from Lady Di herself.
"How was she adjusting to life inside the Palace?" "How did she feel about going from a nursery school assistant to the most famous young woman in the world?" "How did she see her role as Princess of Wales and a future Queen?"
The producer was clearly unimpressed. He leaned across his desk as I was in mid-flow, and said, without irony, "Sorry. I just can't take seriously any woman who dresses like a lamb chop", referring to the high-neck frilled blouses that were her trademark style at the time.
I remember wondering if my co-interviewer was having the same negative response from his team.
But it turned out that this was nothing compared to the obstacles placed in our path by Buckingham Palace and, in particular, Michael Shea, the Queen's press secretary. Two days before the interview, the press office got in touch to say not one of the questions we had submitted was acceptable. We were shocked. All we had been aiming for was a fairly informal conversation that would help viewers get to know Diana better, set the scene for the big day and reflect some of the happiness felt by two people on the brink of a new life together.
But Shea and his team made it clear the only reason His Royal Highness and Lady Diana were doing the interview was to say "Thank you" to the tens of thousands of people from all over the world who had sent them cards and presents. How they thought this would make compelling television or fill 15 minutes of airtime, I've no idea.
Of course, as we now know, and as will be suggested in the fantastic new season of The Crown, which launches next Sunday, there were other reasons why the Palace didn't want us to ask the couple any personal questions.
Diana had only met Charles 13 times before the announcement of their engagement in February of that year and Charles had been away on royal duties in Australia, New Zealand and America between the engagement and the wedding, leaving Diana alone in the Palace where she received few communiqués from her fiancé and precious little support from his family.
She revealed to Andrew Morton, her biographer, years later, that she became painfully aware during this time that Charles was still in love with Camilla Shand, an old girlfriend whom he had continued to see, even after Camilla's marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973, a realisation that hit home when she discovered a bracelet he had bought for Camilla as a parting gift. It was engraved with the letters F and G, which stood for Fred and Gladys, their pet names for each other.
We also now know that, with just hours to go before the wedding, she confided in her closest confidants that she could not go ahead with the marriage. That it had to be stopped.
Of the sheer pain and loneliness, she felt before making that long walk up the aisle of St Paul's on her father's arm. Charles was not marrying Diana for love, as the public thought, but out of duty. And Diana – in the grip of bulimia – was ill-prepared for the stresses and strains of life in the public eye.
Watching the interview now, in the light of these revelations, a number of moments which we dismissed as "shy Di" gestures or good-natured joshing are freighted with meaning.
At first, the conversation was quite anodyne. Charles, relaxed and confident, was armed with statistics about the number of letters they had received – 15,000 a week over the last month, 25,000 in the week just gone – and both he and Diana expressed their astonishment at the public's generosity and thoughtfulness. Diana chose, not surprisingly, to concentrate on things sent to her by the children from the nursery where she'd worked.
Then we moved on to the music for the wedding. Diana, quiet and subdued and sitting for most of the interview with her legs crossed and her shoulders hunched, told us she had requested her favourite hymn, I Vow to Thee My Country. Charles waxed lyrical about the St Paul's acoustics. At all times, Shea remained behind me, just out of shot but directly in Diana's eye line, ready to pounce if either Andrew or I strayed from the revised list of questions. No wonder Diana seemed so nervous.
She came to life briefly when I asked about her work with children, and she spoke with genuine affection about the nursery and the "little American baby boy" she had been looking after as a nanny two days a week who was "very special". But on reflection I now see that her response to my question about media scrutiny and the advice she'd received from her fiancé was particularly revealing.
Prince Charles must have been a great help to you, I said.
"Oh, he's been a tower of strength!" she replied sarcastically, before turning to him and exclaiming, "I have to say that because you're sitting there!" Underneath that apparently light-hearted barb, was that a sharp reprove for the lack of support which she so desperately needed from a man she hardly knew?
The convention in royal interviews where two broadcasters are involved is for the presenters to toss a coin to see who should have the first, or last question. I won the toss and opted to have the last word. So, with a broad smile on my face, I brought the interview to a close by thanking them both and saying, in effect, "On behalf of the whole nation, our warmest congratulations to you both. And we all wish you a long and happy life together."
Charles looked affectionately towards Diana. She looked away to the left and down at the floor. At the time I took it to be another classic "shy Di" gesture.
Today, I read that reaction quite differently, and with genuine sadness.