by Bryn Haworth*
The twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s untimely death in a car crash in Paris has led to much reflection in Britain and to two very remarkable documentaries, one supervised by her sons, Princes William and Harry, and the other based on recordings the princess made for her voice coach, Peter Settelen. What they prove is that, twenty years on, the struggle over Diana’s public image is far from over.
‘Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy’ (ITV) is easily the least controversial of the two films – quite an achievement, given the fierce controversy that generally attends all matters Diana. Overseen by her sons, it has a tender and forgiving tone throughout. We see the boys gently ribbing each other over a picture of a pregnant Diana with the young Prince William. “Believe it or not, you and I are both in this photograph,” William tells his brother, “you’re in the tummy!” “Oh, nice,” replies Harry, “you look excited that you’ve got a brother or sister coming!” William replies, “I think I was looking forward to beating you up.”
The view this programme gives us is of a loving mother and a caring public figure still greatly admired by those who came into contact with her, however fleetingly. There is no mention of the difficult subject of Camilla, the famous third person in the marriage. Somehow, by accentuating the positive, the sons manage to give their mother the best of all possible accounts. Her influence was perhaps most movingly summed up by the sentiments of a Bosnian victim of a land mine who recalled her kind words and said that to this day they gave him the strength to carry on, while other amputees had succumbed to despair and killed themselves. This was exactly the saintly, charming, funny, beautiful and loving version of Diana one might expect from her own bereft children, but no less convincing for all that.
In stark contrast, the second film, ‘Diana In Her Own Words’ (Channel 4), is shamelessly controversial. An inferior film, it is nonetheless more interesting. A tabloid quality presides over it, with gloomy music and an air of foreboding. First broadcast in the States, there was controversy even over whether to show it in the UK.
The film is loosely based on informal interviews, with Diana sitting on a sofa, ostensibly learning to improve her public speaking but incidentally telling her voice coach a very great deal about the failure of her relations with Charles and with the rest of the royal family. During breaks in the sofa dialogue we see footage from the times, and what strange, overwrought times they seem. Twenty years ago looks surprisingly unfamiliar. There are no mobile phones (as pointed out by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland) in the pictures of the crowds of mourners. More significantly, Prince Harry is reported to have remarked on the cruelty of being required to walk behind his mother’s coffin, saying it wouldn’t happen now.
But more than anything it is the scenes from the period that create such a distance. It is hard to escape the feeling that the documentary’s makers had overdosed on Adam Curtis, a celebrated figure in the world of documentaries. In emulating their master they raided the archives for alarming footage to simulate the country’s emotional turbulence. The familiar narrative is interspersed with dire events of the period, such as the inner city riots or mad cow’s disease, creating an apocalyptic backdrop to the high drama played out by the royal family. This device serves to underline the distressing sensation of breakdown that attended the dawning realisation among the adoring public that their fairy tale princess was trapped in a loveless marriage. But in truth the apocalypse is imaginary. The idea that people got on with their lives throughout the period would not have served the film’s purpose. Diana was the ‘people’s princess’ after all: it goes without saying that ‘the people’ had been on the edge of their seats all the way along, as feverishly intrigued by every twist of Diana’s story as the tabloid press.
That is not to say the press and the cult of celebrity were not at the heart of this story. They may even have been involved in its tragic conclusion. Since the pretext for this documentary was the recordings made of her sessions with a voice coach, it seems like the right time to consider the way Diana turned herself, quite consciously, from a shy and reluctant public figure into a very skilled performer.
In these curious snatches of personal revelation we can see the birth of a communicator, and yet there is nothing obvious about the type of communicator Diana wanted to become. Just as her charities were unconventional and outside the usual preoccupations of the royal clan, so the celebrity she crafted had a great deal of her own initiative behind it. There was a natural ease about her empathy. Like her sons, she had seemingly endless funds of emotional intelligence, but it was the way this innate talent contrasted with the stiff formality of ‘the firm’ (as the royals are known) which really marked her out. She benefited from the contrast, just as diamonds shimmer against a black necklace display.
The Windsors, meanwhile, seem to have obliged by playing the serious, dignified card in a vain attempt to downplay Diana’s importance. As the rift between Charles and Diana became ever more obvious, they began to distance themselves from her. When the rift culminated in divorce, open war was declared, not just by the Windsors, tight-lipped and unemotional as ever, but by Diana herself. The footage of her voice lessons shows us the preparation for that war, like one side of a public relations arms race. She achieved a new assurance in her public persona, cranking up her empathy, reaching out to Aids sufferers and to the victims of land mines, but also outshining the Windsors at parties, wearing more interesting clothes, smiling more sincerely than they could ever manage, and mixing with film and music stars. It was a strange but potent combination of public service and glittering stardom. Diana blazed the trail for many of the socially responsible stars that were to follow her.
Through all of this, the Windsors were left eating her dust. They appeared aloof, emotionally hamstrung, even a little cruel. They could not compete, so they opted instead for a closing of the ranks while the whisper was put about that Diana was off the rails, bulimic, perhaps mad. Their reflex was to close down the very celebrity the banished princess was inventing for herself, and when tragedy followed, like an inevitable climax, they were caught out, still trying to close things down. The death of the people’s princess very nearly resulted in the country rejecting the monarchy altogether. Dark rumblings of popular discontent attended the smallest piece of symbolism. It was noticed that there was no flag flying at half mast over Buckingham Palace – royal officials cited some obscure protocol. The Queen herself appeared to have gone into hiding. Republican sentiments were openly expressed in editorials.
The poetic justice of all this was that the people, clearly and fearlessly, took sides with their dead star, and this demonstrated not just the innate charisma of Diana, but the success of her strategy. The funeral, the eventual appearance of the flag at half mast, the reappearance of the Queen and the huge public show of grief were moving tributes to a young, beautiful woman cut off in her prime, but they were also affirmations of her victory. The elocution lessons and her struggle to forge a role outside her failed marriage were vindicated. Diana had won the PR war.
*Bryn Haworth is an English writer living in Kent. He has previously worked in many diverse fields, including as an academic in Prague, where he set up an MA programme in literature at Charles University. He has also lived in Greece, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia, and has recently started work on a comic novel.