Review: Diana In Her Own Words (Channel 4)

Was Channel 4 right to broadcast what have become notorious tapes of Diana speaking candidly – and privately – about her life? The pragmatic answer to that has to be, on balance, yes. They were an invasion of privacy, their acquisition might be regarded as an act of theft, they were damaging to the monarchy as an institution and they are hurtful to all manner of people still alive.

All true, but yet had they not been broadcast the conspiracy theorists would have soon got to work, maybe claiming that they'd been suppressed by a shadowy Establishment because they corroborated some of the wilder ideas about plots to murder her, the elusive Fiat Uno car and the supposedly all-powerful and sinister Duke of Edinburgh.

The simple truth there, by the way, was that the Mercedes-Benz S-Class she was travelling in was such an inherently safe vehicle that she might well have survived the seat had she simply fastened her seat belt, an act that the secret service could not have predicted.

Anyway, we didn't, in truth learn much new about the late People’s Princess, her husband, his mistress or her blameless sons than we knew before. It was all there; the Lady Di sensation, the fairytale wedding, him saying “whatever love”, her doe eyed and lovable, Camilla hunting foxes... the lot. The bit-part players flitted around; Fergie, Andrew Motion, James Hewitt, Barry Mannakee, Jonathan Dimbleby, Andrew Parker-Bowles, a few royal flunkies.

In the ad nauseam press coverage and in the show itself we learned a little more excruciating detail than we needed or wanted to about the sex lives of the Prince and Princess of Wales. We learned too that his sense of entitlement was truly regal – “Well, I refuse to be the only Prince of Wales who never had a mistress”. (His history was poor  – his great grandfather, who became George V was too dull to bother).

Diana was smarter and wittier and more self-aware than she made out or we probably guessed a touch manipulative, and just as charming as she looked. Yet that was really about the scale of any novelty. Hundreds of books, newspaper articles, and television shows have been devoted to the Wales’ unhappy marriage, and some of us had heard more than enough of it about two decades ago. It was gossip; fascinating, compelling to many, but still gossip. Except for one pretty big thing, actually; the question of Charles III.

The only vaguely constitutionally important remark that I heard in the entire near two hours of this documentary was the exchange that Diana had with the Queen about her predicament:  “So I went to the top lady, sobbing, and I said 'what do I do. I'm coming to you, what do I do?' And she said 'I don't know what you should do. Charles is hopeless'.

“And that was it, and that was help.”

Help or not, it betrayed what Elizabeth II actually thinks about her son’s fitness to become King and Head of the Commonwealth, including roles as head of state, nominally, of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. 

For the British, and the rest, are perhaps now waking up to what life after Elizabeth II will feel like. Do we want King Charles III? Do we want Queen Camilla? Do those realms and dominions beyond the seas want the pair? Was Diana right when she said he wasn’t up to the top job, implying that William, one half a Spencer, after all, should just take over somehow? 

Back in the eighties, when the Charles and Diana show was in its pomp and they were the outwardly ideal glamorous couple there was some over-excited talk, unbelievable now, about the Queen abdicating in favour of this new couple, who one might call the Wills and Kate of their time.

The Queen, one suspects, wasn’t really up for that, taking her holy vows seriously and all that, but perhaps also realising what lay behind the façade of the Wales marriage, and what lay between the rococo jug ears of her eldest son (ie not much judgement). Even now, in her tenth decade, she seems reluctant to let him do anything too responsible.  

In due course, barring something quite unexpected, we will get Charles III whether we like it or not. That is the nature of the hereditary beast. Every so often it will bring us a diamond – Elizabeth II, George VI, Victoria, and sometimes deliver a bit of a self-indulgent, spoiled, dud – Edward VIII, George IV, Charles I (funnily enough all three also princes of Wales). 

With Brexit dividing the country and Scotland threatening to secede from the UK, we need a monarchy that can represent the nation to itself. We have it now – will we have it under Charles? 

How much better it would have been all round if Charles had loved Diana, if they had stayed together, if they were now ready to become king and queen, how popular they would both be here and abroad. They were, as Diana said, a “great team” publicly, because she did the empathetic stuff he could never do. She was lost without her royal role, as a sort of pretend royal doing all the charity work and public outings but with no real status; and he has never regained his public popularity. 

What a loss she was, and what a fool he was. His former wife and his mam were right about him: Hopeless. 

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