It is 20 years since we lost Princess Diana. In those two decades, many in the royal establishment expected – and even perhaps hoped – that our attention might have switched to the more predictable, if less mesmerising, charms of the remaining Windsor cast. It hasn’t worked out like that, as illustrated by the fuss attracted by Channel 4’s documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words.
Having seen the final version, and having made my own small contribution to the story it tells, I find it difficult to share some critics’ well-aired outrage over its use of videotape shot by Diana’s voice coach during their practice sessions. These are definitely not sneaky snapshots of a woman caught unawares, but instead show a professional public figure, methodically honing her speaking skills in front of the voice coach’s camera.
Though not intended for broadcast at the time, 20 years after her death Channel 4 is surely right to see them as legitimate additions to the historical record.
Bewitchingly, they reveal a thoughtful and often funny Princess finding her voice as the teller of her own story. It was this rare ability to infuse her public speeches with disarming personal candour that made Diana such an effective communicator.
One of the reasons we remember her, and still want to hear her voice, is that she spoke not with technical fluency but with an authenticity that came from the heart (or gut, if you prefer). Her audiences instinctively recognised that what she was telling them owed far more to her own emotions and experience than to the efforts of her speechwriters. That was her coach’s intention, I believe, and very effective it has proved.
So why the fuss? To get the answer, we must look beyond how the tapes came to light, and look instead at the message they convey.
As I’ve said, they show Diana finding her voice – and to understand why that might worry some people, consider for a moment the context in which she was speaking. It was 1992, the infamous annus horribilis that saw two royal marriages publicly disintegrate and the devastating Windsor Castle fire, among other lesser calamities.
It was a time when, with good reason, Diana felt herself to be under attack from advisers and friends of her estranged husband, who had chosen as their main weapon the accusation that she was mentally ill. Classy.
Now, I have better reason than most to know that the Princess could be a mercurial and impulsive figure, in whom the flame of an angry fire could sometimes burn uncomfortably hot. On a bad day – and luckily they were few – you’d think Boudicca with a headache might be an easier boss.
But guess what? She had every reason to be angry, trapped with the knowledge that her husband loved another woman. And she had reason to be angry too when the sympathy and guidance she needed – to say nothing of simple encouragement and appreciation for her royal duties – seemed to arrive in very small measures, however generously intended.
What Diana fans should find wonderfully appealing about this film – and her critics find naggingly disconcerting – is that the figure we see on screen is unmistakably articulate, realistic, modest and fun. It’s her irreverent, spontaneous and indomitable spirit that comes through loud and clear, despite the difficulties that beset her in those tempestuous months. When you see and hear this Diana, it’s hard to believe that her value to the nation, along with her very sanity, has been the subject of hostile speculation.
At a time when, to their great credit, both her children are encouraging us to remember their mother in a positive light, this film is a well-timed, well-made and well-intentioned addition to the standard anniversary menu. And if it takes a little longer to digest, at least it won’t have you reaching for the sick bag.