Let’s Talk About the Diana Documentary

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I’m scheduling this to go up early tomorrow morning, but I’m writing this on Monday night, having just finished watching ITV’s documentary on Diana, Princess of Wales. I wasn’t sure that I was going to watch when I first heard about it, nor was I sure whether or not I would cover it, but the sheer amount of press it has received pretty much dictates I should. And, of course, there was the fact that Kensington Palace itself was promoting it, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry having been the driving force behind its release.

I have a feeling this documentary will actually become pretty important to the royal canon – if not for the House of Windsor, then certainly for how we look back on William and Harry.

The first question that may come to mind is simply “why?” There are a plethora of films, photos and books on Diana to the point where it can feel like there is nothing new to hear or see. But as I wrote earlier this month, that’s actually never quite been the case. Notably missing from Diana’s story has been the voice of her two children, arguably the most important people in her life.

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So, imagine then that after she has been taken from you, your mother’s reputation, character and legacy end up becoming the plaything of everyone else. Former friends and employees have written tell-all books, sold personal photos and given quotes to dubious news outlets, most of which are driven by wringing out every last morsel from your parents’ failed marriage, because, even to this day, the domestic drama of the Waleses in the 90s can still find an audience. Photos of her injured body in the middle of the car wreck that killed her have been published. Old boyfriends have auctioned love letters for quick cash. Her mistakes and choices are highlighted to ensure there is a balance to her popularity – the public appetite for an anti-hero gives her more room to become complex, but that doesn’t mean justice is reached.

Because, of course, it’s nearly impossible to reach a balanced and rational understanding of a woman when every key figure of her life is still alive, well and able to speak, and she is not.

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William and Harry have never gotten to have their say and, frankly, they are the real keepers of her legacy – not the Spencers, not the Windsors and certainly not the media. This documentary is what they have to say: that she was a good mother, that she was enormously loving, that she is remembered best for her sense of humor by those who knew her and that she was tremendously good at her job.

Arguably, we can all opine on that last one to some extent, a few of us can weigh in on the second and third, but none of us can speak to the first. That is solely within the purview of William and Harry to make that judgment and it’s how her sons wish her to be remembered. By those who are old enough to remember her presence when she was alive and, significantly, by those who are too young to fully understand her impact.

Was this a comprehensive look at every aspect of Diana as a person or public figure? No, but that was never the point. What this film showed is some of what her sons have taken from their time with her and how it has informed their own sense of belonging to the British Royal Family.

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First and foremost what I saw was a celebration that she was an outsider – that she swept into the “institution,” changed how things were done and broke some rules. You see this regularly with her sons and usually it’s for what they’re criticized. Harry jetting off to Canada to see his girlfriend last year after a royal tour, William spending holidays with his in-laws instead of the RF, both of them easing into the position of full-time royals. This is sometimes twisted to become examples of the princes’ selfishness, their refusal to take on public duty to the same extent as the rest of their family. Or, look at it from their perspective – a refusal to allow their status to consume their lives or prevent them from happiness. Within those choices, of course, are valuing relationships, seeking purpose and fiercely maintaining their sense of what non-royal normalcy is.

That is not, nor should it be seen as, a rejection of the BRF, but rather an insistence on carrying out their duty in a way they believe is “right.” I’m not lending that a full-throated defense necessarily, and a debate over how they do things will continue to shape perception of them and their family, but if ever there was a question of motive behind these men’s choices, I feel like this documentary helped connect those dots.

The second thing I noticed was how markedly reserved William is as compared to Harry. Again, this isn’t necessarily new information, but it’s rare to hear them both speak candidly alongside one another and it was almost startling how different they are. Harry is candid, plain-spoken and earnest – in some ways he appears to be more like Diana in mannerisms and nature. I was also surprised by a moment of rueful amusement when Harry called his mother a “normal 20-year-old” when she married his father, before quickly correcting himself and acknowledging, “Well, Lady Spencer.” Certainly we have heard them address the elephant of Windsor in the room; rarely do we hear them do the same with that of Spencer.

William chooses his words more carefully and leaves more unsaid, however the very fact that he sat for this interview and shared what he did makes his disclosures feel all the more revealing. By the same token, I think what was also evidenced is that for all that Harry has the reputation for the best bedside manner, William is in fact skilled at what he does and I would imagine he is decidedly more comfortable when the cameras are off him. I would also hazard to guess based on how both men spoke about their grief and interacted with others featured on screen, that William is probably the more emotionally aware of the two, for all that Harry puts more on the table. The ability William has inherited from his mother appears to the empathy for which she became known, but it’s never going to be a quality he easily demonstrates because he is, well, not demonstrative towards the unknown.

Alongside that, I was taken by how much of Harry’s work was featured as compared to William’s. Certainly you saw William’s work with homelessness and bereavement, however considerably more time was spent on Harry picking up the mantle of HIV/Aids and landmines, two trademark issues of Diana. To a certain extent that makes sense given how closely tied both causes are to Diana’s legacy, but I thought it was curious that there was no nod to Heads Together – perhaps not wanting to dredge up old issues.

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And then there was the discussion of the media, because of course there was. William’s remarks on the press may have been one of the most compelling parts of the film simply because of their continued relevance. Here on this site I’ve written about his relationship with the media any number of times, but in the most detail back in January. And while usually I make the point that it’s hugely counter-productive to brand the press writ-large public enemy #1, if I haven’t said it before I will now: it’s completely understandable that William hates the media. To put it bluntly – and as he pretty much said on camera – they are the men that made his mother cry. Of course he hates them, but the problem now is that rather touch-and-go relationship is very much going to shape the rest of his career. And based on the visceral rage you could feel from him – without him moving his face or changing his voice, which is really quite impressive – it’s not a problem that’s going anywhere.

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Which brings me to my last point, which is is less about the film and more about how it has been received in the last 24-48 hours. There have been a number of opinion pieces pointing out the absence of the Prince of Wales in the film, some going to far as to say this documentary is a slap in Charles’s face. I actually find that hugely annoying, as I do how much this release has prompted more discussion of their marriage.

The entire point of this was to honor Diana’s good work. That’s it. Why must praise of her continue to be seen as criticism of Charles and vice versa? Can there be no discussion of this woman that doesn’t come back to her marriage? A marriage, I might add, that had ended by the time of her death. Her ex-husband doesn’t need to be a focal point of this film. William and Harry don’t need to use this as a platform to ensure the world knows how they feel about their father. Acknowledging Diana’s legacy doesn’t diminish his.

He, after all, is still with us and can speak for himself. Diana can’t and her sons have addressed that.

As for her legacy, I think the below quote from a man she met through her work sums up her impact quite well:

“That smile. It would just beam. I sound like a sycophant but that’s how it was. And I’m not a royal person, really. I’m a republican. But she was an exception.”

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