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Diana, Our Mother: a (mostly) wasted chance to explore the life of a complex woman

Last night’s screening of the HBO documentary Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, was reportedly one of Three’s most-watched shows of the year so far. If only its participants had been a bit braver, writes Christopher Stratton.

Among my friends, I’m notorious for my effusive enthusiasm for Diana, Princess of Wales. I know what you’re thinking – it’s likely a campy ironic thing, right? It’s not. Since I was a child, I’ve gravitated towards Diana and as I’ve grown older I’ve tried to unpack where this impulse comes from. I think it’s something to do with her journey from shy kindergarten teacher to global icon who used her fame to express simple messages of love and respect. Diana was an embodiment of earnest sentiment – John and Yoko’s plea to ‘give peace a chance’ personified. She’s often written off as idealistic and naive, but the truth is she proved that perception wrong again and again, railing against an institution that wanted to shut her up in a palace to be a clotheshorse and heir bearer.

For me, a shy young gay boy from small town New Zealand, this modern, sensitive, powerful woman stirred something deep inside: the idea that there is power in finding your voice and using it, no matter how lost and sad you may be. It’s the ultimate uplifting phoenix-from-the-ashes story – it just so happened to take place on the world stage and feature a well heeled, glamorous princess.

The author in his treasured Diana t-shirt.

So, anyway, I’m a fan. And I was excited to see something new as I sat down in my Princess Diana t-shirt to watch Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, an HBO documentary made with her sons William and Harry, which screened last night on Three.

Also, I expected to weep bloody buckets.

We were pitched straight into the living room at Kensington Palace, with Wills and Harry perched on couches having a chat about Mum and flicking through photo albums. Jumping in like this without even an introductory shot of the palace was jarring, and it was something of a relief when we were eventually treated to a more traditional opening shot.

I thought perhaps we were about to be treated to a slightly less explosive version of Diana’s infamous Panorama interview, in which she revealed shockingly intimate details of her marriage to Charles. But it soon became clear that wouldn’t be the case: this was to be largely another ‘Saint Diana’ film with very little new insight. Focusing on Diana as a mother, her sons speaking about her on film for the first time, there were obvious opportunities to really dig into how her and Charles’ marital problems affected her sons, but these questions were barely explored. Of course there was no obligation to go that far or that deep, but it did feel as though we were dancing around subjects – arguably a disservice to Diana as a whole, complex human being.

When I was at film school, rather than focusing on Tarantino, Scorsese or Nolan, I rifled through footage and books of Diana to uncover the complexities of her public persona and how she manipulated her own image. As the queen-in-waiting, she couldn’t come out and say “Guys, I married a prince and I’m still unhappy, I’ve got mental health issues and no one in this castle is listening to me.” So instead she laid breadcrumbs in the press, turning her head from a kiss from Charles at polo, or being photographed outside the Taj Mahal (a great monument to love) alone while her husband was in the same city.

Diana was a master at media manipulation – and I mean that as a sincere compliment. It felt too brief, then, when the documentary touched on the negative aspects of her relationship with the media. Seeing Diana stalk through the snow to confront a videographer, demanding he leave her and her sons alone, was both distressing and absolutely riveting. I wish we could have heard her sons talk about what they learned from her mistakes, or their own misgivings about a life lived in front of the world’s cameras.

Princess Diana at the Taj Mahal, 1992

The film did a great job at exploring Diana’s legacy, including her pioneering work in homelessness, HIV and Aids charities, and landmines. Putting the princes together with people from their mother’s past charity work was an illuminating bit of stagecraft, showcasing just how they aim to carry their mother’s most famous and important advocacy work through to their own lives.

It’s one of her most replayed moments, but it remains hugely moving to see Diana greeting Aids patients, and to remember how Diana changed the perception of HIV/Aids through the simple act of shaking hands. The film followed this file recording with contemporary footage of Prince Harry’s recent work with HIV charities – a fitting tribute to the ongoing power of Diana’s legacy. Seeing Harry take part in a live-streamed HIV test, and bringing Rihanna along to do the same, highlighted one of the key lessons the princes learned from their mother’s work: how to use celebrity and press to bring attention to a worthy cause.

While Harry and Will’s work in mental health advocacy was covered, I wish it had been presented in the context of Diana’s work in this field. Her openness about her own bulimia was one of the more confronting of her charitable works, and could have been a powerful area to explore. Again, though, their mother’s own mental health issues may just have been too raw a subject for the princes, and too uncomfortable for the Palace.

Princes Harry and William look at photos in Diana, Our Mother

Near the end of the documentary, we sat with William’s family, the faces of the new monarchy. Throughout Diana, I hadn’t shed a single tear, and in its final moments I was no longer expecting to.

But then it happened.

There had been moments throughout the film that showed Diana as a cheeky, naughty, fun mum. The famous footage of her running along a ship’s deck to embrace her sons played to great effect. These clips and this carefree persona weren’t a revelation though; I felt as though we knew this already.

But then William explained how he keeps his own children in touch with the woman they will never meet, whom his wife never met either. He and Harry are Prince George and Princess Charlotte’s only point of contact with ‘Granny Diana’, and so they make her a constant presence through conversation and stories.

‘Granny Diana’ opened the floodgates and I bawled my lil’ eyes out. Here finally, just under the wire, we went from public to personal – a dream of an imagined grandmother, swooping in at bath time, creating chaos and leaving before it was all cleaned up and tidied away. Here then was perhaps the most fitting metaphor offered for her legacy – coming in, shaking things up and making a bit of a mess while making everyone feel warm and loved. And most importantly, leaving abruptly and too early, with pandemonium in her wake and two princes left behind to find their own way forward.


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