My Favorite Mistake: Jeremy Irons on Smoking Next to Princess Diana

Jeremy Irons. Sven Banziger

For most of my life, apart from a few lengthy periods during which I have stopped, just to make sure I still can, I have enjoyed smoking my hand-rolled cigarettes.

Twenty-five years ago, while playing Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I and other members of the company were invited to a lunch supporting one of Princess Diana’s favorite charities, that, as I recall, supported breast-cancer research. As I was playing the king, I was seated at the high table, to the right hand of the princess.

Like many actors and dancers, a number of the company were, like me, cigarette smokers. Faced with the prospect of a long lunch, there was a concerned interest about when after the meal it would be permissible to light up. Normally at such occasions, the accepted moment was after the loyal toast to the queen, but I had heard a rumor that there were to be no toasts or speeches at this particular lunch, since the princess favored informality. I promised to inquire of her during the meal, before lighting up myself, at what she deemed the propitious moment, so that my fellows could feel free to follow suit.

As dessert was being removed and coffee dispensed, I inquired of Her Royal Highness, “May I smoke, ma’am, or would it disturb you?” To which she replied although it wouldn’t disturb her, I really shouldn’t, for the sake of my health. Agreeing with her in outline, I explained that my profession put many strains on my health, some of which were alleviated by my habit. So saying, I lit up, and across the room, along with almost audible relief, little plumes of smoke erupted and began their slow ascent toward the chandeliers.

The following day, I was gently pilloried in the national press for my behavior. It was only then I realized that it had been National No Smoking Day, and there I had been, puffing away next to our adored national icon. She never let me forget it.

In truth, there really wasn’t a lesson there. There really wasn’t a conclusion. I still smoke now. What did I learn from it? I learned there are still the rare occasions when I shouldn’t smoke. If I had waited half an hour, I could have avoided the whole thing. Maybe the lesson was I should value sitting next to a beautiful woman more than I value a cigarette.

Interview by Ramin Setoodeh