Princess Diana visiting a patient at the London Lighthouse, a centre for people affected by HIV and AIDS in 1996 (Photo: Getty Images)
Princess Diana visiting a patient at the London Lighthouse, a centre for people affected by HIV and AIDS in 1996 (Photo: Getty Images)

TV

We all know the story. Now let’s remember Diana for what she did

A controversial Channel 4 documentary claims to show the “real Diana”. But in going over old ground, are we in danger of forgetting her true legacy, asks Lucy Dunn

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By Lucy Dunn on

Diana’s death was the biggest thing to happen in my early twenties. Ask anyone my age and they will remember where they were when they first heard the news. I was in Greece on a package holiday, stepping onto a coach to go to the airport. I flew back into a deathly-quiet Gatwick. I couldn't find any newspapers (they'd all sold out) and, with no smartphone, no internet, no Twitter, I found myself in a news vacuum until I got home.

Twenty years ago, on 31 August, the lights went out. A nation lost their People’s Princess and two little princes tragically lost their mother. A life horribly cut short.

We all think we know the Princess of Wales. We certainly know her story: the “whatever being in love means” engagement-day snub by Charles; the shadow of Camilla Parker-Bowles; the suffocating snobbery of The Establishment; the bulimia  – and, of course, the Panorama interview and Diana’s immortal words: “there were three of us in the marriage…”

It’s a story that is still being played out in the tabloids and as the anniversary of her death draws near, it is being raked up again; with past recriminations, accusations and bitterness bubbling back to the surface. Just last week Earl Spencer claimed that he was lied to about the desire of William and Harry to walk behind their mother’s coffin and on the same day, Diana’s former private secretary Peter Jephson criticised the royal family, saying they had failed to treat her with respect.

And now a new Channel 4 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words is about to tread the same path, albeit a path tinged with new controversy. The programme features camcorder footage recorded by royal speech coach Peter Settelen in 1992/93. The princess had hired Settelen to help her reinvent her public persona in the months after separating from Charles. As she was being coached, she started to use the videos, which were never intended for public broadcast and which were later the subject of lengthy legal battles, to bare her soul, talking openly about Charles, their sex life and his affair.

Some of this footage is being broadcast for the first time ever and none of it has been seen on British television before (the recordings were sold and aired by American network NBC in 2004). And the tapes are eye-opening, not because Diana or the close confidantes who appear in it (Jephson and royal protection officer Ken Wharfe included) drop any significant new bombshells – after all, what hasn’t been written about or picked over in minute detail over the years? – but because they show a princess who you have never seen before.

Diana broke the rules, laying the groundwork for new modern monarchy that could never go back to being the same again

You see a princess who lights up the screen, who smiles to herself when she recalls meeting Charles for the first time. A woman who rolls her eyes, gesticulates, makes off-the-cuff jokes and belly-laughs. She has one of those faces you can read every flicker of emotion and at times, when a bad memory clouds her face, you can see pain. She was a woman, as Wharfe says in the film, who was "trying to come to terms with her husband having an affair”.

It was a private Diana and very different to the Diana we would see two years later, who hurt and betrayed from her husband’s tell-all Dimbleby interview, would deliver a series of stealth blows to the monarchy in her own Panorama interview.

I do worry that these tapes will make for uncomfortable viewing and, despite them talking openly about their mother in recent months, will stir up painful memories for William and Harry. Channel 4 says that the palace is aware of the documentary and that it has made no comment. Perhaps what is more telling is that the princes have only contributed to programmes for ITV and BBC for the anniversary.

While the tapes are controversial, what they do show however is Diana’s incredible strength, resolve and determination to help people and this is a side of her that we, the public, have perhaps forgotten.

In the film Jephson walks through a now-deserted hospital AIDS ward Diana used to visit regularly, recalling the moment she took her unhappiness and turned it into a force of good: “A lot of the time she felt excluded, real or imagined, from the royal mainstream and from the happy family life that she had wanted for herself.” Admitting she had vulnerabilities and emotions gave her an instant connection to the British public.

She discovered she had a voice and used it. Being an outsider in the palace gave her an infinity to the outsiders of society at the time: the LGBTQ+ community, AIDS and leprosy sufferers, people experiencing homelessness, landmines victims and many more. These were controversial, groundbreaking causes that no royal had ever got behind before and her association broke down barriers and smashed stigma. She broke the rules, laying the groundwork for new modern monarchy that could never go back to being the same again.

And this, for me, is one of the saddest parts of the story – she did all this twenty years ago and she was just getting started.  In an age where Trump can freely slap down the rights of LGBTQ people, where discrimination and injustice is still very much a daily issue in the UK, what more could she have achieved had she still been alive today?

Diana took her unhappiness and used it to help other people. This was her great talent and this is how we need to remember her. Let’s leave the recrimination, bitterness and controversy to where it should stay – the history books. After 20 years, it's time to close this chapter once and for all and move on.

@luce29

Diana: In Her Own Words is on Channel 4, 6 August at 8pm.

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Princess Diana visiting a patient at the London Lighthouse, a centre for people affected by HIV and AIDS in 1996 (Photo: Getty Images)
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