Ahead of the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, when PBS and Channel 4 announced a new documentary featuring never-before-seen footage of the princess, there were ample reservations about it. Those close to Diana felt that the film could upset her sons William and Harry. Channel 4 aired Diana: In Her Own Words anyway and the channel’s ratings skyrocketed.
The subject of this review is another documentary with the same title that was aired as part of National Geographic’s Blockbuster series on September 1, a day after Diana’s death anniversary. Tom Jennings’ film Diana: In Her Own Words presents excerpts from a series of secret interviews that she gave to journalist Andrew Morton about her failed marriage to Prince Charles.
The scruples surrounding such documentaries are not entirely unfounded. It has been 20 years since the death of Diana, one of the most hunted and hounded public figures in recent times, and we are still not done rummaging through her life. Perhaps, what should be under heavy scrutiny instead is our apparently insatiable appetite for the private lives of public figures.
Morton was the author of Diana’s biography Diana: Her True Story. “Most of this unique series of interviews has never been broadcast before,” says Jennings’ film as it opens, referring to and stoking the fiery appetite of the general public. However, what it then goes on to do is rather remarkable. As the title of the film makes it obvious, here is Diana herself, speaking about how menacing it was to be incessantly followed, scrutinised and devoured. This is Diana not only telling her story but voicing it herself too. This is Diana saying that it was all just far too unbearable for her.
Morton’s questions to Diana begin from her first childhood memory (the smell of her cradle) and go all the way through the courtship, the marriage, the two pregnancies and their aftermath. Her rather tumultuous relationship with Charles is the focus – the marriage that ensured that Diana, a 19-year-old kindergarten teacher, would henceforth forever remain under the glare of the public.
The marriage was a difficult one, admits Diana, particularly because she was fully aware of the affair Charles was having even before they got married. She describes what it was like being gripped by a horrifying case of bulimia and chronic depression during the years of her marriage. And yet, being under the spotlight meant beaming for the cameras and presenting a picture of sheer marital bliss. The documentary conveys this conundrum rather powerfully: contrasting Diana’s dolorous voice with photographs and news footage of her happy-looking life in public. The juxtaposition speaks volumes about the pressures on a rather young, newly-wedded girl put through extraordinary circumstances all of a sudden.
One could argue that broadcasting private, in fact, secret interviews that divulge such personal details of Diana’s life is indeed problematic. And that too, 20 years after her death. But in Diana’s case, after a lifetime of being hunted repeatedly, a documentary such as this attempts to offer a kind of conclusion to the entire saga, a last word on the matter, one that is Diana’s herself.
Diana, as the documentary also makes evident, was indeed thankful for all the love that she was bestowed upon by the people of her country. Even though she did not fully understand it nor did she feel she was deserving of it, she was grateful for it. But it was still all far too overwhelming for her and that is a point that needs to be emphasised.
Diana: In Her Own Words asks us to re-examine our perceived right over the lives of public figures, our insatiable desire to know them inside-out, our particular appetite for the murkier details and lastly but equally importantly, some of the repercussions of iconising and hoisting ordinary individuals on pedestals. In this case, the princess myth. In a sense, she did choose the public life but that still doesn’t quite mean the hunt is justified.
Twenty years after her death, the world is still besotted by Diana. But in her own words, it is all still quite unbearable.