There is a moment in Diana, ITV’s feature-length documentary marking what would have been the princess’s 60th birthday, when, after her cousin and boarding school friend Diana McFarlane describes the teenage Diana having pictures of Prince Charles on her bedside table (“a sort of childhood crush really”), the makers cut to contemporaneous footage of the “dashing prince”. He is so definitively undashing that you cannot help but feel a point has, advertently or inadvertently, been made about the limited life view of young gels of Diana’s era and breeding.
That’s about as much insight, deliberate or otherwise, we are given in this offering. And really, why should there be more? We’ve had it all, surely, over the 24 years since she was killed in a car crash in Paris. And before that, during the years when her marriage to Charles was falling apart and they jockeyed for position and control of the narrative in the press, via interviews, leaks, tell-all books, meaningful silences, photo ops and all the messy rest of it.
Before that, of course, we had the fairy tale. Which is where the documentary begins and is reluctant to leave. Weren’t we all? Home footage taken by her father Earl Spencer of Diana as a golden baby, toddler and child (“He captured a confident, charismatic child full of life,” a voiceover assures us) is followed by McFarlane showing us photos of a young Diana at family and friends’ weddings and so on. (“She was full of life,” McFarlane assures us in her turn. “Great fun, loved a giggle. Wicked sense of humour.” The two women always reckoned they could get away with naughtiness by looking as angelic as they did.)
Soon – Diana was, after all, only 19 when the engagement to the 32-year-old heir to the throne was announced – we are into the years we all remember. Even if you are too young to have been there, you have probably absorbed enough by cultural osmosis and documentaries exactly like this one over the past two and a half decades to think you were. It is all here. The paparazzi massing round her on the pavement, snapping pictures and shouting questions about when the most eligible of boyfriends was going to propose, as she tried to get from her Kensington flat to her Honda Civic to drive to her job at a local nursery school. The front page picture in the Sun showing her legs silhouetted through her skirt (“Oh God!” she reportedly exclaimed. “His first girlfriend ever not to wear a petticoat!”). And the blue suit and the sapphire ring and Charles’s hand awkwardly on her shoulder for the official engagement announcement. Followed, now infamously but not noted at the time, by Charles’s response to the (fatuous) “Are you in love?” interview question – “Yes. Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
Then comes the wedding day – that magnificently crushed dress! Then the boys being born. The dancing in the blue dress. The radical visit and handshake with patients on a hospital Aids ward. The lonely figure in front of the Taj Mahal. And onwards, eventually, to Paris.
This was exactly the documentary you would expect. All the old ground is covered and every touchstone touched, the unbecoming parts skimmed over or excised entirely (James Hewitt, Squidgygate and the Tiggy Legge-Bourke claims, for example, aren’t mentioned), and just enough new stuff is mixed in to justify its existence. McFarlane, we are told, has never spoken about her friend in public before. And James Colthurst gives an unusually detailed account of his long friendship with Diana and his part as the go-between for her and Andrew Morton to get the tell-all book done. Then you just measure it out by the yard and cut to length.
The footage of Diana doing what she did best – visiting, chatting to “ordinary” people, patients and children – remains ridiculously moving. You can see the beauty and the unforced charm and grace that everybody loved. It was a gift and it was real. Past all the blether and the bluster surrounding her life and her death, it was this that people mourned the loss of in the end. The loss of a beloved public figure always stands for those we truly loved and lost. They reanimate the terrible knowledge that our worlds were simply better with them in it, better before we ached with the absence of them. That was what the oceans of grief and of flowers around Kensington Palace were about.
It is strange enough to watch memories repackaged as history – to many, the 80s seem like just 10 minutes ago – but to see this one played out at a moment when uncountable numbers are mourning 130,000 dead is stranger still. How much you wish that it all could have been different.