The most controversial TV programme for years began on Sunday night, at 8pm on Channel 4, with a giggling voice asking: “Is that thing on?” Even before viewers saw the blushing cheeks and familiar up-sweep of eyes under the fringe, the posh-flirty voice clearly identified Diana, Princess of Wales.
For many of her supporters, Diana: In Her Own Words is a thing they wish had not been on. The film includes videotapes recorded by the voice coach Peter Settelenin 1992 and 1993 during sessions to improve Diana’s public speaking, but in which she spoke frankly about private matters. They had been shown before in the US, but it was their first airing in the UK.
As Settelen is an actor rather than therapist or priest, there is no professional ethical bar to their revelation, but many have raised objections of morality and privacy – especially on behalf of her sons – to their screening on TV. Protesters have ranged from the thoughtful Rosa Monckton, a close friend of Diana who has long loyally defended her reputation, to Paul Burrell, the princess’s former butler, whose own media torrent of memories of his boss perhaps leaves him ill-placed to lecture broadcasters on discretion.
Balancing the view of those who see the documentary as ghoulish or exploitative is the fact that two of Diana’s intimates agreed to appear: Dr James Colthurst, who knew her for two-thirds of her life, and Patrick Jephson, a former aide, who has defended the transmission.
What was immediately apparent to the viewer was how short the recordings seem to have been. The documentary is heavily padded with archive footage, including extracts from Diana’s 1995 BBC1 Panorama interview, though strangely these are mainly re-voiced by the actress Heather Long, presumably because the BBC was stingy about releasing clips.
One of the biggest failures of tone is the sequence about the princess’s marital sex life. Photograph: Reuters
Newspapers purportedly furious about the revelations had already published the most contentious material from the tapes about the breakdowns in sexual relations between the Waleses, the hapless marital advice given by “the top lady” – HM the Queen – and Diana’s belief that her former bodyguard and presumed lover Barry Mannakee, unnamed but clearly alluded to, may have been “bumped off” by the authorities.
As a result, the shocks came from less widely previewed material. One recording is interrupted by off-screen clattering, which is attributed by the interviewee to “William”, 10 at the time, who is instructed to keep quiet. When he fails to do so, mother and son giggle together.
That was clearly a private moment that might be unsettling for the Duke of Cambridge to have going out opposite Poldark. The laughing, loving mother-son relationship it suggests, however, is precisely the one that the princess’s sons sought to share with the public in their own recent ITV documentary, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy. It’s hard to construct a set of ethics in which her sons can discuss their mum on one British network, while another broadcaster is prevented from doing so in order to protect those same children.
The censorious will object that Diana did not intend the Settelen tapes to be seen. Precisely because she is not speaking for the record, however, Diana often emerges more attractively and sympathetically than in the more calculatedly score-settling Panorama chat with Martin Bashir, where she often seems to be given prepared replies to expected questions, or the interviews with Andrew Morton for his book Diana: Her True Story.
The subject would have settled, you suspect, for being remembered as the woman who comes across in Diana: In Her Own Words, a strong person and loving mother with a rebellious and original spirit that allowed her to take such pioneering attitudes towards Aids, mental health and landmines. For all its supposed controversy, this film is as pro-Diana as the one with which her boys cooperated.
The biggest failures of tone are the sequence about the princess’s marital sex life and an interview in which her ex-bodyguard Ken Wharfe blurts out that Camilla Parker-Bowles once admitted that she envied Diana having two such beautiful sons.
That bizarre remark could surely only be hurtful, at no possible journalistic gain, to the Duchess of Cornwall’s own children. Equally, no service to historical knowledge can be seen in broadcasting that a woman who has been dead for 20 years felt sexually neglected by her former husband. Excruciating for Princes William and Harry, that moment was impertinent in every sense for anyone else.
The film is also manipulative, scored with a gloomy flute constantly telling the audience how moved to be. The editing is slick, but also often sly. Clips of Diana nodding and listening in the Settelen interviews are intercut in such a way that she appears to be watching and reacting to her husband’s 1994 ITV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. Even more questionably, some of the recreated Panorama speeches are played over footage of her funeral, so that she seems to be posthumously commentating, like the narrator of Desperate Housewives.
Given such lapses, there seems little risk that Prince William, the president of Bafta, will have to preside over the giving of a prize to this film but, despite its faults and opportunism, it has as much right to be shown as Diana’s BBC interview with Martin Bashir or her sons’ ITV documentary. Without Settelen’s coaching, Diana would probably have been unable to speak to Panorama in the way that she did. Once she went before those cameras, however, she put into the public domain a reputation that, for all the concerns of some of her admirers, may actually be enhanced by Diana: In Her Own Words.