Diana, Princess of Wales, was the most famous woman of the late twentieth century, and August 31 is the two-decade anniversary of her death. Consequently, the media business on both sides of the Atlantic plans to spend the next few weeks in a total, shameless scramble for ratings.
Rather than being quite so much the focus in recent years, Diana’s shine has lately been reflected onto the young royals and the Queen. But the anniversary has stirred renewed interest in the Princess of Wales herself, and it goes far beyond the next season of Ryan Murphy’s Feud. Seemingly everybody has their own Princess Diana special—and at first glance they’re well-nigh indistinguishable. Several have already aired, and it seems impossible there’s still anything left to cover. NBC and CBS both had primetime newsmagazine offerings in May—The Life and Death of Princess Diana: A Dateline Investigation, featuring her bodyguard, and Princess Diana: Her Life, Her Death, the Truth, a 48 Hours production anchored by Gayle King. That same month, ABC got Martin Bashir for The Last 100 Days of Diana, which is notable because he got the only really major sit-down with her, in 1996, where she famously told him that, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
But it’s now the anniversary month proper and we’re really in the thick of it—all the really high-profile projects were held for right around now. And so here is your guide to the various specials, to help you sort Diana—Her Story from Diana: In Her Own Words from The Story of Diana, even if all you’re doing is browsing online articles that pluck out the most dramatic tidbits. Use this as your Rosetta Stone when evaluating any new revelations.
Premiered July 24; currently available on HBO GO.
This ITV documentary, recently broadcast in the US on HBO, looks to be the most genuinely emotionally affecting, as it’s primarily from the perspective of William and Harry, made with the filmmakers who produced the commemorative Our Queen at 90. (The title really conveys the vibe.) It features lengthy sit-down interviews with the two, in which Harry in particular is very candid, talking about how it was pretty fucked to have him marching behind her coffin in a massive global media event as a teenager whose mother had just died. It unsurprisingly also does a good job of reminding the viewer of the good Diana actually did, for instance her work with AIDS patients and activism on land mines, and it makes you wonder what she would have done in the long run.
Being from the perspective of the young royals, it’s also rather delicate on the subject of any wrongdoing by Prince Charles and the rest of the Firm and steers clear of Camilla in particular. But perhaps most fascinating is the way it clearly positions Will as heir to his mother’s legacy as “The People’s Princess.” It’s hard to believe they’ll actually skip over Prince Charles when the time comes—when you’re dealing with as anachronistic institution as monarchy, there’s only so many rules you can suspend before you’ve gutted its internal logic to the point the whole thing collapses—but Charles always seems to make himself unlikable, and if there’s going to be anything left for Will to inherit, he needs all the help from his mother’s popularity he can get. And this documentary is an anointment.
On the far opposite end of the controversy spectrum is Channel 4’s offering, which is certainly not Buckingham Palace sanctioned. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Diana—Her Story will air on the Downton Abbey News Network/PBS here in America. According to The Guardian:
Intimate revelations – direct from the mouth of Diana, Princess of Wales –about her courtship and married life to Prince Charles are to be aired on British television next month after years of dispute about the recordings. Speaking to a video camera four years before her death, Diana will tell of Charles’s early unexpected attempts to woo her as a teenager and of the sorrow that enveloped her soon after her wedding day in July 1981.
This documentary is based on a series of recordings she made in 1993 with a voice coach named Peter Settelen—she was supposed to be working on her public presentation but she apparently spilled all manner of personal details in the process. The tapes, which weren’t meant to be broadcast, already have a long, complicated history: “The footage at the core of the new documentary has been contentious since 2001, when the tapes were unearthed in a police raid on the home of Paul Burrell, the former royal butler. The Spencer family made a legal claim on the tapes but they were returned to Settelen in 2004,” the Guardian explains.
Portions of the tapes were broadcast in America on NBC in 2004, but haven’t made it to UK televisions until now, and it’s still being hotly debated whether they’re appropriate to show. Outlets say that Earl Spencer has asked Channel 4 not to air the tapes, and Rose Monckton, a friend of Diana, told the Guardian that, “It is a betrayal of her privacy and of the family’s privacy. I certainly don’t think they should be broadcast.”
The big question is how salacious the documentary will get. The Independent points out that the original tapes include a frank discussion of the couple’s sex life, but Channel 4 hasn’t revealed how detailed they’ll be.
This NatGeo offering is based on controversial tapes recorded at the height of Charles and Diana’s marital woes, whose revelations threw the monarchy into chaos. If you’re confused, rest assured that I spent twenty totally befuddled minutes trying to tell whether NatGeo and PBS were co-premiering the same documentary. In fact, there are two Diana documentaries based on scandalous archival recordings. Diana: In Her Own Words draws on the interviews she did on the sly with a go-between for reporter Andrew Morton, whose resulting 1992 book Diana: Her True Story set off a huge fracas that finished the job of dynamiting the public fiction that was the Windsors’ marriage.
The project “goes deep on Diana’s complicated life story, using rarely heard recordings from those 1991 interviews as well as archival photographs and footage to tell the tale of the shy teenager handpicked to marry Prince Charles, and everything that followed,” according to Vanity Fair. Juicy, but yesterday’s news compared to the uproar over Diana—Her Story, especially if Channel 4 elects to include the sex stuff.
The documentary will include interviews with those who knew her best as well as leading Diana experts, which will be interwoven with archival footage of the Princess of Wales, who later became known as “the People’s Princess.” The broadcast will also examine how Diana and her legacy have remained relevant in the years since her tragic passing.
“Princess Diana has appeared on the cover of People 57 times — more than anyone in the history of the People brand,” People EIC Jess Cagle pointed out. The real standout is that they got Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, who has long been critical of how the press treated her and also doesn’t have a totally friendly relationship with the royal family. He appeared in Diana, Our Mother, but that was the boys’ show. If there’s anything interesting about this one, it’s the possibility he’ll say something about the Windsors.
The BBC is taking a slightly different tack, opting for a fictionalized drama about the week after Diana’s death from writer Jeremy Brock and director Peter Cattaneo (who also made The Fully Monty?). “ I wanted to explore the lives of four ordinary people and how they internalised their memories of Diana in the aftermath of her death,” explained Brock in the announcement, adding that, “Diana & I is categorically not a film written in memoriam. It’s a celebration of what it’s like to be human—good and bad—in the unexpurgated and improvisatory shock of real life.”
Not to be left out, the Smithsonian Channel is airing two short specials focused on Diana’s funeral and relationship to the press. I’m not sure I even have this channel?
Are you surprised to learn that TLC is leaning into the conspiracy-theory-tinged trash angle? If so, you give them too much credit! Morton is actually in this one, which premieres tonight, along with Tamron Hall and... Richard Belzer? The Hollywood Reporter explains the program:
...will boast new details about Princess Diana’s challenging life as a royal with Prince Charles and life as a protective mother to sons Prince William and Prince Harry. The special will include exclusive footage, excerpts from Princess Diana’s interviews from biographer Andrew Morton’s books and new insights into the conspiracy theories.
Look, it seems unlikely that Prince Charles is literally a reptile.