It’s open season again on Princess Diana.
With the 20th anniversary of her fatal car crash approaching on Aug. 31, the woman whose marriage to a not-so-charming prince led to celebrity that neither divorce nor death could diminish is back in television’s crosshairs.
And just as in the days when paparazzi dogged her every step, Diana remains both highly visible and stubbornly elusive in ABC News’ two-hour special Sunday, The Last 100 Days of Diana. It’s hosted by British journalist (and former Nightline anchor and MSNBC host) Martin Bashir, whose 1995 interview with the princess about her broken marriage apparently persuaded the queen that the warring couple, already separated, should divorce.
Bashir, who’s never sounded more unctuous as he talks about the “wounded princess,” is focused on a period that might well have proved a blip had Diana, who was 36 when she died, lived to see her sons grow up and her grandchildren replace her on the cover of People.
Was she, in her final summer, caught between what the British monarchy might have seen as two wildly inappropriate lovers, canoodling with one, as seen in grainy, long-lens photos, in an attempt to make the other jealous? Or was Diana, who also spent some of that time working for her charities, simply having a little fun as she tried to distract the British tabloids from the story of her ex, Prince Charles, throwing a birthday party for his longtime mistress (and future wife) Camilla Parker Bowles?
And how is any of this the business of a country that fought a war for the right not to care about these people? (Asks the woman who was as charmed as anyone by the latest picture of Diana’s 2-year-old granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, snapped not by paparazzi but by her mother, the also much-photographed Duchess of Cambridge.)
Following close on the heels of Friday’s two-hour NBC News special The Life and Death of Princess Diana: A Dateline Investigation, and HBO’s announcement of a documentary later this year to be built around interviews with Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, The Last 100 Days won’t be television’s last word on the late princess. Or even ABC’s.
The Story of Diana, a two-night documentary mini-series from ABC’s entertainment division, is scheduled to air Aug. 9-10. On May 22, CBS News weighs in with Princess Diana: Her Life — Her Death – The Truth, a special produced by the 48 Hours team that will be hosted by CBS This Morning’s Gayle King.
There almost certainly will be others before FX’s Feud: Charles and Diana arrives in 2018.
The Last 100 Days, though, is as good a place as any to start, as it demonstrates just how malleable the princess’ story was, and continues to be. (For those who might not remember her years as a character in the long-running soap opera of the supermarket checkout line, think about the way Jennifer Aniston appears to have achieved a separate existence as a kind of avatar who’s always getting divorced, or reconciled, or pregnant, depending on that week’s story line. Then multiply those stories by 10. Or 100.)
Like the blind men examining the elephant in the Indian fable, those who claim to know who Diana was, whom she loved, and what she wanted don’t all agree.
If you ask the princess’ butler, Paul Burrell, Hasnat Khan, a British Pakistani heart and lung surgeon, “was the love of her life.” Others believe she had fallen for playboy Dodi al-Fayed, who also was killed in the Paris car crash on the night he may or may not have been proposing.
No one has the temerity to suggest that neither of these positions truly matters anymore, two of the principals being dead and the third a private citizen who’s represented here by a statement read at an inquest and by some of the least flattering photos ever taken. (For those who can’t get enough, Khan’s role in Diana’s life was covered, also without his participation, by Naomi Watts and Lost’s Naveen Andrews in the 2013 movie Diana, described by then-Inquirer movie critic Steven Rea as “a TV movie all the way, in the pre-HBO, network schlock sense of the term.”)
People who believe Diana was literally hounded to her death by photographers — investigators ultimately blamed the late driver, Henri Paul, who had been drinking — shouldn’t look for remorse from the likes of former Sunday Mirror picture editor Paul Bennett, who blames Diana for the attention she attracted.
“If you open the door and let them in, you can’t turn around and say, ‘Not today, thank you,’ ” Bennett says. (I believe this rule also applies to vampires.)
Bennett’s theory about the grainy shots of Diana and Dodi in what looked to be some kind of embrace?
“I think that she wanted to rock the establishment and she wanted to rock Prince Charles. … When I saw the pictures, I was astonished. She was the mother of the future king of England and there she was, kissing a foreign national,” he says, adding, “We ended up paying 300,000 pounds for them.”
Royal-watching is an odd sport, even by English standards, and few royal-watchers appear as odd as Diana biographer Lady Colin Campbell, whose own title — courtesy of a long-ago marriage much shorter-lived than Diana’s — appears to be her calling card.
“Dodi was an adorer, and Diana liked being adored,” she declares at one point. Well, OK. I mean, who doesn’t?
Possibly my favorite interview in The Last 100 Days, though, is with former royal press secretary Dickie Arbiter, who insists there was a time when Charles, too, adored Diana.
“There was a lot of good body language between them,” Arbiter says, sounding, as he talks about the prince’s unroyal pinching of his wife’s derriere, rather like a man describing the mating habits of animals in captivity.
Which may not be far off.
The Last 100 Days reports on a date arranged on Day 87 with one Gulu Lalvani, an electronics mogul who took Diana out for dinner and dancing. In an interview with Lalvani, now 78 and living in Thailand, he admits he didn’t know what Diana might have seen in him. “Somehow, we clicked.”
“Gulu Lalvani is not shy about saying he and the princess had chemistry. How far that attraction went depends on who you ask,” intones Bashir, after which fashion designer Roberto Devorik weighs in with the opinion that “she never went to bed with Mr. Lalvani.”
And there, I think, is where my skin began to crawl.
Because if this kind of investigative gossip is what it takes to bring us a fresh look at Diana, we may all be better off letting her be just a photogenic memory.