'Diana: In Her Own Words': In public interest, no — but I’m tuning in

Will we ever be shut of Diana, princess of Wales? Or of the debate about who she “really” was, writes Mary Morrissy. 

'Diana: In Her Own Words': In public interest, no — but I’m tuning in

Twenty years on, the questions persist. Was she media-savvy or she was an innocent abroad? Was she wily and manipulative or was she suffering from depression? Was she sharply intelligent or was she a blue-blooded dimwit?

It’s always a bipolar choice with Diana — an either/or equation.

It’s telling that when Elton John sang at her memorial he used a song about Marilyn Monroe as the template. Same iconic status, same questions.

Tomorrow Channel 4 will air a documentary — Diana: In Her Own Words — which contains private tape recordings the princess made in 1993/94 at Kensington Palace with a voice coach and actor, Peter Settelen.

It’s been suggested that she was doing voice training for the controversial 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir — the doe-eyed, “three in the marriage” interview, for those old enough to remember.

Twelve tapes were recorded during the sessions with Settelen. He has seven of them — the other five have disappeared.

(To surface, no doubt, at some future date.) The extant tapes have been through various hands — they were found in 2001 during a police raid at the home of Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell, who had been charged with theft.

But they were not used in evidence because the prosecution agreed their content was too sensitive. The trial subsequently collapsed and Burrell went on to write a book about Diana which was lambasted by princes William and Harry.

(They say they won’t comment on the Channel 4 documentary.) Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, instituted a legal battle to gain possession of the tapes, saying they rightly belonged to his family. That action failed and they were returned to Settelen in 2004.

The BBC won the right to broadcast a few minutes of the footage in 2007 for a documentary due to air to mark the 10th anniversary of Diana’s death but the project never went ahead because the corporation feared that the programme might be in bad taste.

This time around, Channel 4 has paid Settelen a fee for the tapes, but he has declined to appear in the documentary.

Why, I wonder? And why has he released the recordings now? (Some suggest it’s to cover the legal costs of the court battle with Earl Spencer.)

His solicitor, Marcus Rutherford, explains that for 15 years Settelen had been reluctant but with the 20th anniversary coming up and because her own children were publicly discussing Diana (Princes William and Harry recently participated in a NBC documentary reminiscing about Diana as a mother), he wanted the princess to “be able to speak for herself. It’s about giving her a voice”.

But haven’t we heard her voice — endlessly?

In these tapes she talks about being crushed that Prince Charles queried the meaning of love during their engagement interview; she tells us that when she went to Queen Elizabeth for help with her troubled marriage, the queen said she didn’t know what Diana should do, adding that Charles “was hopeless”. Which makes the queen sound more perceptive than just about anybody in this mess.

When Diana confirmed that Charles was having an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles after five years of marriage, Charles told her he didn’t want to be the only prince of Wales without a mistress. Which makes him sound much as his mother depicts him.

As always with Diana, there’s reference to her own indiscretions. She admits to being in love with an unnamed security person — believed to be her bodyguard Barry Mannakee — who wanted her to run away with him — though apparently this was an unconsummated affair. When her feelings for Mannakee were discovered, she says the palace banished him. Eight months later, in 1987, he was killed in a motorcycle accident. Bumped off, says Diana, by the security services. The conspiracy theory was always a favourite of Diana’s – and in the light of the manner of her own death, this has a kind of spooky prescience.

Friends and associates of the princess are split down the middle about the Channel 4 documentary.

But everyone in this story has something at stake.

Royal biographer, Penny Junor, says the programme is “obscene and immoral”. When she made the tapes, Junor says, Diana was in a very bad way and never intended them to be heard by a living soul.

But the princess’s former private secretary, Patrick Jephson, wrote in the Radio Times that the tapes showed Diana to be articulate, realistic, modest and fun and not the mentally ill victim as portrayed by the royal establishment.

Close friend Rosa Monckton decries the use of the tapes as a betrayal of the late princess’s privacy. But didn’t the princess herself already trade in her privacy when she became a royal and when she agreed to speak so candidly with Martin Bashir? An interview she went into training for.

Channel 4’s deputy chief creative officer Ralph Lee considers the tapes as historical footage that create a “new portrait of Diana”. But what’s new in them? Nothing much. They show a beleaguered young woman in an unhappy marriage at odds with her in-laws.

Former royal spokesman Dickie Arbiter in an interview with BBC radio said Channel 4 was “laughing all the way to the bank”. And he should know. Both he and Jephson have written bestsellers on the back of their royal connections.

“These tapes were recorded in private as part of a training session. Anything done behind closed doors remains private,” says Arbiter.

But that’s not true, and never was. Diana was practising to go on television to reveal the inside story of her marriage and to gain the upper hand in the publicity stakes. If she was interested in keeping them private, why didn’t she insist that Settelen destroy them? She must have known that there was a danger the tapes could be used illicitly and without her permission.

She wasn’t that naive.

It’s clear that when Diana married Charles, she believed it was a love match and she was bitterly disappointed when she discovered that this was not so for him. She had an unhelpful mother-in-law and was lonely and isolated as a young mother in an indifferent royal household. Because of that isolation she developed bulimia and depression.

But it’s also true that she came from the British aristocracy — the Spencers have a much more royal pedigree than the Windsors — and she knew plenty about the mores of her class. (As she observes drily in the tapes, when she first met Charles — ‘he was all over me like a rash’.) This was never simply a ‘girl next door meets a prince’ narrative.

Public interest has been cited as the motivating factor behind Channel 4’s documentary. Ralph Lee of Channel 4 says the subject matter of the recordings are “a matter of public record”. But that’s disingenuous. Certainly, there’s public interest in Diana, even 20 years on. But that’s not to say it’s in the public interest for the programme to air. There’s public appetite for it, but that’s a different thing.

And that’s why I’ll be watching the programme tomorrow night with millions of others, because, deep down, I have a tabloid heart. I’m not expecting answers, or any kind of a definitive picture of Diana to emerge, or the historic record to be set straight.

When she died, Diana was a 36-year-old work in progress — and now that’s all she can ever be.

Mary Morrissy is the Associate Director of Creative Writing at UCC. Her latest book is Prosperity Drive, a novel in stories.

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