Which Princess Diana Documentary Should I Watch?

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Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles at Ludlow Races, where Prince Charles was competing in 1980. Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Tonight, ABC will air part one of The Story of Diana, a two-night documentary about the life and legacy of Princess Diana. That’s just one of several television events that have been or will be broadcast on various networks — including HBO, PBS, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian Channel — ahead of the 20th anniversary of the royal icon’s death. Critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Jen Chaney had a conversation about all the coverage and which of the documentaries are most worthy of viewers’ time.

Jen Chaney: With the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death approaching, we are, not surprisingly, being bombarded with documentaries about her life and legacy. HBO already has aired Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, which is largely presented from the perspective of her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. ABC has the two-night special The Story of Diana airing this week, and there are also additional documentaries on the horizon this month as well. It feels like too much, and yet as I look at the different angles from which these specials explore her story, I also feel like they’re coming from different perspectives that makes each one feel necessary. It’s hard not to find at least some of this a bit exploitative, though, which, sadly, is a media/Princess Diana tradition that won’t ever fade. What do you think, Matt? Does it seem excessive to you?

Matt Zoller Seitz: It is excessive, but then, a lot of things are. We’re about as far away from Diana’s death in 2017 as we were from Marilyn Monroe’s in 1982, and I remember vividly how all existing media at that point in time flooded the zone. The magazines, the newspapers, the broadcast networks, and radio programs all had very special commemorative looks back at the woman, the the myth, the legend. What makes Diana’s death feel singular, I think, is that she was simultaneously a fantasy object/media celebrity and a political figure. Her death had actual global repercussions in the way that an actor or musician or model’s death would not have had. Plus, it happened just a couple of years into the internet era, which may also have added fuel to the blaze of coverage.

JC: I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Diana had died, and this might be, by the way, the most ‘90s story ever: I was driving home after having seen a production of Rent. Her death was announced on the radio and I simply could not believe it. As cheesy as this sounds, it was a lot to absorb after seeing that show, given its themes about how precious our time is here.

Anyway, I was one of those people taking in all the coverage I possibly could after it happened. She became a symbol for so many things, especially for women, and not only because of her style or beauty or the caring she showed to others, but because of her fortitude. As some of these new documentaries remind us, she was so very young when she met Prince Charles — 19! My God! — and she was really figuring out who she was under extremely challenging circumstances. People were fascinated by her because we watched her go through that process and, for the most part, handle it with grace and dignity and, in certain interviews, honesty. What she did to shine light on important causes, like AIDs or homelessness, mattered, as did the way she spearheaded a new type of royal relationship with the public. But I think the reason people cared so deeply about her and still do is because they felt connected to her. There was a warmth that she radiated and you can see it in every one of these TV specials when they break out their old footage.

So maybe let’s start with the ABC special, which airs starting tonight. I’ve only watched part one, but to me, it was the most general and basic of the documentaries I have watched. I think Diana’s brother, Charles, says early in part one that people younger than 35 may not remember or fully understand her significance and the special seems to have been designed using that as a guiding principle.

MZS: That quote jumped out at me, and I think it’s right. But it’s true of every globally famous person who dies suddenly and violently: the story resonates powerfully with people who were alive and aware of news at the time, but not so much for the generation that came after. I was a little bit surprised that the ABC doc didn’t seem to go much deeper than that level, though of course when you consider that a series about Diana has to fill in a lot of information for people who don’t already know the story, it makes more sense.

I must confess that I never entirely understood the purpose or function of the British royal family in an age of democracy. Of course there are probably a lot of British citizens who would say the same thing, even ones that feel a sense of pride or at least reflexive affection for royals. That being said, Diana did have a genius for using a very entitled position to agitate for social causes and make it seem like she was sincere. As if it was more than just something a royal was expected to do.

JC: I think The Story of Diana captures that. I felt that in some ways I wanted a documentary that covered the expected bases — the wedding day, the famous dance with Travolta, etc. — and provided a general overview, and it served that purpose. I just wish that certain moments had not been quite as hokey. At the end of part one, they really build up to this confrontation Diana has with Camilla Parker Bowles, using smashing plates as a visual metaphor. It’s a very soap opera–style tease to the next night’s special. I also thought some of the music choices were lacking, too. Using “Rebel, Rebel” to underscore her shaking hands with the public as a break from typical royal protocol: very predictable. And don’t get me started on the use of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” during the portion that covers Diana’s and Charles’s wedding day. I get the choice from a lyrical perspective — “Welcome to your life / There’s no turning back” — but that song didn’t come out until four years after they were married. I know no one else will notice or care, but I look for docs like this to take me back to that moment in time, and little misjudgments like that bug the hell out of me.

MZS: ABC News, like NBC News, and like a lot of broadcast news organizations, embraced a very predictable, sentimental attitude about how to use music. When I wrote for the Star-Ledger in the ‘90s, I used to do a regular column that analyzed TV as filmmaking — as a series of choices meant to prod you to think about the story in a certain way — and one of the things I always griped about was this thing that bugged you here. I think it’s only gotten worse since then. And it’s possible that Diana’s death and the coverage of her death in the following weeks might’ve accelerated the bad tendencies, especially with regard to corny music choices, slow-motion, gauzy filters. That stuff was already present in certain forms of programming, but in retrospect it seems like Diana’s death was a tipping point. As a TV-news executive explained to me back then, a big part of it had to do with the fact that people loved Diana so much that when they watched TV-news programs about her, they weren’t looking for hard information or a detached, sober perspective. They wanted to cry. So they didn’t mind the kinds of choices that would’ve felt grotesque in a report about, say, the death of Boris Yeltsin.

JC: That’s an interesting point, and it brings me to one that I am grappling with regarding the Diana coverage. What do we want from these Diana documentaries? Do we want something respectful that looks at the positive legacy she left behind? If so, then the HBO William/Harry special certainly does that. Or do we want a real warts-and-all portrait? ABC delves into a bit more of that approach, but the PBS documentary, Diana - Her Story — which features a lot of the same footage as the British Channel 4 documentary that has stirred up controversy in the U.K. — does this to an even greater extent. That one airs August 22.

We see footage of her talking to her speech coach, but being very candid in a way that she normally wouldn’t be with a journalist. Some of what she says, to me, doesn’t necessarily add anything of value to our understanding of her. I don’t need to know how often she did or did not sleep with Charles, and I feel for her sons for having that sort of information exposed to the whole world. But I do think that understanding what was happening in the marriage in other ways, from her perspective, is crucial to understanding her and what made her, to return to the point I made earlier, a pretty strong woman. If we’re not trying to understand her more deeply, what’s even the point of watching some of these shows?

MZS: I personally want a deeper portrait of who she was as a person. I feel like I’ve gotten more analysis of what she meant as an icon than I could possibly digest in one lifetime, some of it thoughtful, much of it mush-headed. But the kinds of details like the ones in the PBS and Channel 4 docs actually illuminate her in a new way. And they show how an ordinary person — well, a flesh-and-blood person, maybe not ordinary — could turn herself into, and be turned into, an icon.

JC: I agree. I didn’t think the PBS documentary was disrespectful necessarily, and it does show her in a more intimate, unguarded way that reminds us she was just a human being, dealing with the stresses and struggles that everyone else — well, most everyone else — does. That’s vital to remember. So if you had to recommend one or two docs for people to watch, which would you suggest? I certainly haven’t watched all of them, but I would recommend the HBO one, especially for those interested in her relationship with her children, and the PBS one for a more unvarnished look. (I actually wished that one had run longer than an hour. It felt like they only scratched the surface, crazy as that sounds when there are so many of these.) The ABC one is still compelling in certain ways, but I think I’d only recommend that to someone who really has no clue who Diana was or why she mattered.

MZS: Probably the HBO doc, though the PBS one has its moments. More than that, though, I recommend people read good books about her, in particularly Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, which was published five years before her death but repeatedly updated with new material, and that gives a very thorough, frank self-portrait. [Editor’s note: The National Geographic documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, which airs August 14, focuses on recordings of interviews conducted for Morton’s book.]

I also liked The Housekeeper’s Diary: Charles and Diana Before the Breakup by Wendy Berry. It’s dishy in a somewhat prurient way, but also gives you a great picture of what her life was like offstage during a very difficult period. As much as I love TV, there are times when you have to admit that words are better at certain things, and this seems like one of them.

The Princess Diana Documentaries: Which Should I Watch?