Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

A troubled fairy-tale: Princess Diana remembered 20 years later​

royal family

A troubled fairy-tale: Princess Diana remembered 20 years later

Through tv documentaries and written biographies, Diana's legacy remains culturally relevant. Sarah Hampson explores how the much-adored princess was projected in front of the whole world.


Just when you thought the world was finally over her, Princess Diana is back in the centre of the cultural imagination.

The 20th anniversary on Aug. 31 of her death in a car accident in Paris has brought her back to life with new revelations in heartbreaking television documentaries and a biography of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall and much-maligned other woman since Prince Charles married the former Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

The adversarial camps of Diana and Camilla are back at it, making 20 years feel like 20 minutes. "The whole Diana-Camilla thing is a zero-sum game," notes Andrew Morton, the author of Diana: Her True Story, the 1992 biography that broke the shocking tale of the princess's bulimia and suicide attempts. "If you deify Diana, you denigrate Camilla. And if you deify Camilla, you're only denigrating Diana. It's a see-saw."

Story continues below advertisement

Still, that has not stopped various players from jumping on either end of the cultural see-saw to have some fun and promote a few more books and TV documentaries. Mr. Morton, for his part, has updated his 1992 best-seller into a 450-page "one-stop shopping for all things Diana," he says in a phone interview. It is just that now the stakes have risen.

On the topsy-turvy sea of Brexit politics and a queasy mood brought on by terrorist threats, the Queen is a battleship of stability, sailing into a scene, intent on her mission of reassurance, with her gloves and her handbag and her dresses made of material better suited for curtains. We love her for it, and somehow her dated, old-school manner and appearance amplify the poignancy of her presence. That she is both an adored icon and an anachronism makes her a measure of how much the world has irrevocably changed.

But at 91, she is in the twilight of her reign, delegating more to the younger royals. Prince Phillip, 96, recently retired from public duties. There is an undercurrent of uncertainty about the strength of the monarchy once Charles ascends the throne. As if to capitalize on that trepidation, the new revelations raise questions about him – once again – after years of accomplishments: among other things, his charitable work and the fact that he was ahead of his time in his passion for environmental issues.

"It is very damaging. We could have a very dangerous situation," says Penny Junor, author of The Duchess: The Untold Story, a new biography of Camilla. "At the moment, sentiments are running high about Diana … and we're back to the worst years of Diana, in the bad days of the marriage, when the monarchy was in a very rocky situation."

The Princess and Prince of Wales are seen on their wedding day in London on July 29 1981.

Ms. Junor, who has written several biographies of members of the Royal Family, began her book on Camilla three years ago with the aim to publish it in time for the Duchess's 70th birthday in July. "I had not made the connection that 2017 was the 20th anniversary of Diana's death," she avers in a telephone interview. "This was really unfortunate in many ways. It slightly looks as though I'm part of some propaganda campaign to fight Diana, to rebuff everything that's been said about her, 20 years on."

"Slightly" is more than slightly understating the case. One of the gossipy tidbits she serves up in the book is that during their honeymoon on the royal yacht Britannia, Diana trashed Charles's painting and easel when upset that he did not pay her enough attention. The young, nervous princess is the nightmare character in the narrative – willful, unpredictable and paranoid – while Charles is the honourable yet baffled husband, unable to understand his unstable wife.

Meanwhile, the woman Diana fans once called "Cow-milla" emerges as a lovely lady who salvaged the monarchy by helping the Prince of Wales return to his jolly old eccentric self after his first marriage broke down. The biography, written with the help of the Duchess's friends, is an obvious effort to pave a golden road for the future Queen Camilla – a title Prince Charles is known to want for his wife when he becomes king.

Story continues below advertisement

Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall leave St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, southern England, following the Service of Prayer and Dedication following their marriage, April 9, 2005.

But if the time was right to build on the public acceptance the Duchess has gained over the past 20 years, Diana – in death, no less – has come back just in time to thwart the initiative, a reminder, if nothing else, that the two women's fates are inextricably linked.

The run-up to the anniversary of Diana's death began in the UK in mid-July with a touching documentary by her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, Diana: Our Mother, Her Life and Legacy. (Broadcast in Canada on CBC on Aug. 23.)

Now in their 30s, they speak for the first time about the impact of Diana's death and her loving influence as a mother. Her death was "like an earthquake's run through your life" says Prince William, who was 15 at the time. Prince Harry, three years younger than his brother, reveals that the first time he cried after his mother died was at the private funeral ceremony on an island at Althorp, the Spencer family estate. For years, he repressed his grief, he says.

Princess Diana and her sons Prince Harry, (C) and Prince William, as they gather for the commemorations of VJ Day in London.

They reveal the last time they spoke with their mother, only hours before her death. She was in Paris on holiday with her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. They were at Balmoral Castle, their grandmother's Scottish retreat. It was a short call. Busy playing with their cousins, they rushed off the phone. It "sticks in my mind quite, quite heavily," Prince William says of the phone conversation. The interviewer asks if he remembers what she said. "I do. I do," he says. But he does not reveal her last words to him, as though that is a memory he wishes to keep private. Prince Harry says he will forever regret how brief their telephone exchange was.

But most fascinating is not so much what was said in the documentary, but what was not. Their father, Prince Charles, is not mentioned once. It could simply be that they wanted to keep the focus on their mother rather than reminding the audience of their parents' troubled marriage and divorce. But Mr. Morton believes the exclusion was more significant. "It was very much a considered decision to leave his name right out of it," he says. "And you have to ask yourself how [Prince Charles] and his circle feel – his sons being so open about their feelings about their mother, and all of this very hard on the heels of clear attempts by Charles' circle to rehabilitate Camilla on her 70th birthday." In a BBC feature-length documentary, Diana, 7 Days, that airs on Aug. 27 in the U.K., Prince William explains why he and his brother are talking about their mother for this anniversary. "We feel we owe it to her," he explains. "I think an element of it is feeling like we let her down when we were younger. We couldn't protect her."

Rather than put their mother to rest with tender reminiscences now that they are adults and able to articulate their feelings, the princes revive her, clearly unwilling to let her fade with the passage of time. Prince William underscores the influence she had on their view of the world. "She gave us the right tools and has prepared us well for life," he says in the Diana: Our Mother documentary. He and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, have pictures of his mother around their house and make a point of frequently talking to their children about "Granny Diana." He felt his mother's presence at their marriage, he says. And of course, Catherine wears Diana's famous sapphire engagement ring – a poke in the eye to anyone who thinks she no longer figures in the family.

Story continues below advertisement

"That [ Diana: Our Mother] documentary was quite profound in the sense that you could never imagine for a second Queen Elizabeth talking about the loss of her father at a young age," Mr. Morton comments. "It's very much a generational thing and a change of pace and style for the monarchy. And guess who it reflects more? Of course, Diana, the touchy-feely face of the Royal Family." The emotional openness also reflects the princes' support of mental health initiatives.

Earlier this month in the UK, another explosive documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words, was broadcast on Channel 4 amid much controversy. The producers are trying to sell it to Canadian media outlets. Using video footage from media training sessions in Diana's apartment at Kensington Palace between 1992 and 1993 with Peter Settelen, a voice coach and American actor, the documentary reveals intimate new information about the breakdown of the Wales' marriage. A documentary using excerpts of the footage aired in the United States in 2004 on NBC, but caused such an outcry that the BBC cancelled plans to broadcast the interview material.

In it, Diana is at her most natural – laughing, pulling faces at times, her doe eyes large and mesmerizing. Then separated from Prince Charles, she freely speaks of her unsatisfactory sex life during their marriage – intercourse once every three weeks. Their courtship was not a fairy tale, either. They had met all of 13 times before he proposed. When she confronted him about his affair with Camilla, Diana says that Charles told her he "refused to be the only Prince of Wales who never had a mistress." She says she went to the "top lady" sobbing about the state of the marriage, but the Queen brushed her off without any advice, telling her Charles was "hopeless." (Meanwhile, in Diana: Our Mother, one of the interview subjects, Harry Herbert, a close friend of the family, reports that the Queen was very concerned with Diana's well-being.)

Diana, The Princess of Wales shakes hands with a girl in the crowd at the Legislature Buildings in Victoria, B.C.

Those opposed to the airing of the taped interviews with Mr. Settelen question the morality and brazen opportunism of doing so. Diana never intended for them to be aired. And they were made when she was at her most vulnerable. They are ghoulish, critics have said, which they are, but only because the dead is made alive in a way most people never saw her.

The footage, available for many years on YouTube, reminds us of why Diana became a worldwide star at the dawn of contemporary celebrity culture. The camera loved her, and she loved it. Which, in the context of her emotional struggles, is sad. It was the one thing that always paid her the attention she craved.

Time allows much to heal, even the wound of grief. Now, 20 years on, the new intimate revelations about Diana, the mother her boys knew, and the woman the video camera in Kensington Palace captured, bring her back but without acute pain – more like a lovely memory. She was luminous. She was an emotional pioneer in her empathy for AIDS victims and her campaign for a ban on land mines.

Diana, Princess of Wales, spends time with 11-year-old Sandra Tigica, January 14, the youngest patient at the Neves Bendinha orthopaedic center outside the Angolan capital Luanda, during a four-day visit to the southern African country. Young Sandra lost her leg in an air raid in 1994.

Twenty years on, she is a fascinating character in a troubled fairy tale – almost mythic now because of the distance. In a National Geographic documentary also titled Diana: In Her Own Words, which aired in Canada on Aug. 20, audio tapes of her speaking about her childhood and marriage, pregnancies, her emotional instability and bulimia, recorded in secret for Mr. Morton's 1992 book, are used as voice-over in a compelling manner. As we hear her voice, we watch footage from Spencer family home movies, the gushing commentators talking about Lady Diana during the courtship, the media interviews at their engagement, public appearances when she was at her most glamorous.

The effect is novelistic – the inner monologue juxtaposed with images captured by others. The documentary is perhaps the most fitting tribute for this anniversary. It is right somehow – and moving – that she tells her own story, her real feelings, against the images the world created and consumed. Everyone has had a say about Diana, even now her sons. Twenty years later, we should let her have the last word.

Video: Twenty years after her death, Princess Diana’s legacy lives on

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Please note that our commenting partner Civil Comments is closing down. As such we will be implementing a new commenting partner in the coming weeks. As of December 20th, 2017 we will be shutting down commenting on all article pages across our site while we do the maintenance and updates. We understand that commenting is important to our audience and hope to have a technical solution in place January 2018.

Discussion loading… ✨