There is nothing journalists and broadcasters like so much as a chunky anniversary. A good round figure, acknowledging a still-important event in history. Hence the plethora of films and pieces marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana. And so, after broadcasters have been going wild with “Secret Diana Tapes” and all the other hoopla, here comes the BBC with a 90-minute film that some hope will be the last word on the subject.
Some hope indeed. From the minute you watch Diana, 7 Days and see the archive film – not just of the flower-strewn coffin and weeping crowds, but also the artfully crumpled ivory Emanuel wedding gown, the glamour, that smile, those doe eyes, indeed the whole crazy, crazed Diana pageant – you are sucked back in again. It’s not going to be the last word. But director Henry Singer at least pledges his addition to the bulging Diana canon will say something definitive.
Singer made what was, arguably, the most enduring film about 9/11 – The Falling Man. He hopes this has a similar documentary legacy.
“I won’t lie and tell you I didn’t hesitate before accepting the invitation from the BBC to do this film,” he says. “However, The Falling Man was made for the fifth anniversary of 9/11. There had already been so many films and books and articles on the Twin Towers that I thought, what is one going to add? But I think I made – dare I say it – the classic documentary on 9/11. I went through a similar thought process with this.”
The film deals with the week directly after Diana’s death. “A commentator calls it ‘the most important week in modern British history’,” says Singer. “And while that is a big claim, it clearly was a significant moment. The film is about the British public’s relationship with the monarchy, and how during that week, it was tested. We decided to try and understand the reaction to Diana’s death, and the only way to understand the week was to look at her life.” And so, bring on the Mario Testino photos, the images of the jewellery, the dresses, the walkabouts before an adoring public. That clip of Diana, soaking wet on the log flume, laughing with her sons. It’s all in the film; of course it is. It’s what we want.
“She had some ingredient X,” says Singer. “It went beyond beauty. It was about presence and charisma. People connected to her in a very human way. She was different from your traditional royal, because she let the mask down. Indeed, there was no mask. She wore her heart on her sleeve. People talk about her as if they knew her.”
The film includes interviews with most of the key people in that crucial week. This is not “Diana in her own words”, but how everyone around her felt, including Princes William and Harry.
“I think their thinking was that they are always asked about their mother and their mother’s death and that week, and they wanted to deal with it once and for all,” says Singer, although even he has not been able to winkle out exactly who told the Princes about their mother’s fatal car crash, and how. Or if he did it can’t, apparently, be used.
“I could ask them any question I wanted, but they were allowed… not to answer things,” is how Singer cautiously explains the complicated protocol surrounding such royal interviews.
The princes do, however, answer questions about subsequent events. “Their shock, their reaction to the news,” says Singer. “How they were sequestered in Balmoral, and how the Queen took away all the newspapers [to stop them seeing coverage of their mother’s death], and them being grateful for that. The shock and numbness. They talk about coming down to London, what it was like to go outside, and how people were so anxious to see them, and how people were crying, and yet they didn’t cry.”
Singer says that Harry, then aged just 12, talks about deliberately trying to suppress any tears while the huge crowds around him were weeping openly. Says Harry: “I remember people’s hands were wet because of the tears they had just wiped away.”
They both talk about the dread walk behind the coffin to Westminster Abbey. Singer says that William speaks of viewing the procession through the “safety blanket” of a bowed head and his long fringe. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” says William in the film. “I felt she was almost walking along beside us to get us through.”
These are insights and comments that will endure, says Singer. “My film may not have the headlines that other films have had, but I would like to think I will do something that lasts the test of time, and that, for me, is much more important than breaking news.”
The film also includes comments from the Prime Minister Tony Blair and his press secretary Alastair Campbell, who says he can’t remember which of them came up with Blair’s memorable “People’s Princess” line, but that he gave the Prime Minister permission to “be emotional”. It includes comments from Diana’s sister, Sarah McCorquodale, who, Singer reveals, had hoped Diana might have a “small family funeral” but then realised that wish was madness when she saw the endless crowds lining the A40 when her coffin was driven to central London from RAF Northolt after being flown from Paris.
Will this be the final say? “I think the Princes hope they have answered these questions once and for all,” says Singer, “and they don’t need to be asked them any more, and that people can refer back to this film and our words within it if they have questions. That this is their first, and final word on it.” Will this film be the last word on Diana? Probably not, but it might well be from her sons.
By Rosie Millard
Diana, 7 Days is on Sunday 27 August at 7.30pm on BBC1