Diana. September 2013.

Dear Rowley,

Having not seen The Queen or The Iron Lady at the cinema on principle, I was certainly not going to vote with my feet and see the new biopic Diana starring Naomi Watts as the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The reviews have eviscerated the misguided project and poured scorn as much for the inept script as the tastelessness of the exercise. Was the love affair between the estranged princess and Doctor Hasnat Khan a story that needed to be told? I would say not when the latter is still living and the royal family are enjoying such a prolonged period of good fortune and popularity. The timing seems particularly insensitive considering the late princess’s first grandson Prince George has just been born.

I never met the Princess of Wales though did recall being in Harrods one afternoon long after Princess Diana and Prince Charles had announced their separation. My friend Lee nudged me in the ribs when we were on the ground floor and pointed towards what can only be described as a furtive blonde looking at handbags. Within seconds the entire floor had caught the scent that the Princess of Wales was shopping alone and almost as one began to close the net around her. The Princess obviously had a sixth sense for danger and bolted towards the exit. As it later transpired, the royal security corps no longer followed her and Diana was alone. It must have been around the time of her game-changing Panorama interview in 1995.

Having seen Naomi Watts plastered all over busses and billboards for the past week looking more like Fiona Fullerton than the Princess of Wales, I decided that rather than watch the film I would go back to the Panorama footage. It brought back memories of how profoundly shocking it was to watch the broadcast live and – rather worryingly – to think how almost twenty-years have passed since it poured a tidal wave of public anger upon the royal family. Those born too late to have witnessed Princess Diana in her prime won’t know that she was before Panorama a silent movie star.

We didn’t know the princess had briefed Andrew Morton when he wrote Diana: Her True Story in 1992 though by 1995 it was evident that the Prince and Princess of Wales were waging a propaganda war in the national newspapers. Diana’s greatest tactic was to find the photo or film opportunity that presented her side of the story without having to utter a word. She understood the power of fashion to present her as a strong woman who was surviving despite being lost in a loveless marriage and ultimately estranged. There was of course the teary speech when she withdrew briefly from public life but nobody was expecting the raw candour of Panorama.

Watching with the benefit of much hindsight, I think Panorama was a grave error on the princess’s part. Granted she must have felt horribly isolated, slandered and threatened to explode such a bomb with the aid of Mr Bashir. But the interview was so clearly stage-managed and the lines delivered with pathos and puppy dog eyes that begged but did not necessarily elicit sympathy. What the princess did was rain down verbal blows on the Prince of Wales and the palace: ‘three people in the marriage’, ‘she won’t go quietly’, ‘queen of people’s hearts’ etc.

I was actually a great fan of Diana and think she had much to give in her new role minus the HRH. I will always admire her shaking hands with AIDS patients when the average Joe on the street thought they were valid victims, contagious and deserved to die. I would surmise that she instilled decency and compassion into the Princes William and Harry and was indeed a wonderful mother (a point apparently never made in the movie). The most poignant part of the Panorama interview was the princess’s determination to find a new role for herself outside the royal family. The most uncomfortable was her admission of adultery, bulimia, bullying and being isolated within the royal circle.

Of course we know the  rest: the death of the princess in the 1997 car crash with her then-beau Dodi Fayed, the hostility towards the royal family (particularly The Queen and the Prince of Wales) in the immediate aftermath and the gradual ‘forgiveness’ after the near-hysterical outpouring of grief. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales was one of those moments that had a profound effect our national consciousness. Do you really think the adoration of The Queen as the nation’s grandmother would have reached such a peak during the Diamond Jubilee without the long climb back towards respect and affection necessitated by Diana’s death?

As a friend of mine said shortly after Princess Diana’s funeral, ‘I almost heard the creaking of the tumbril wheels’. I would hazard a guess that so too did Buckingham Palace. I don’t happen to believe the ‘Super Tony’ version of events proposed by The Queen whereby Mr Blair saved the monarchy though his machinations behind the scenes in 1997 was probably one of the few decent, selfless acts of his venal administration. You might think ‘pass the sick bag Ethel’ when I say that Diana taught the Royal Family to smile but I happen to think this sentiment is true. Without her life and death I do not think the monarchy would be in the robust state it finds itself in 2013.

People who believe Diana, Princess of Wales was assassinated are clearly the self-same loons who think Elvis is alive and Marilyn Monroe was murdered by Bobby Kennedy. Though there may be some sense of symmetry and inevitability about the fairy tale turned nightmare, it is perhaps kinder now to remember Diana as a force for good albeit flawed…and which of us isn’t?