Sunday, 6 April 2014

Diana & Posterity

Watched the film last night, a kind present from HL, who knows my pathetic, failed-republican, morbid, fascination with all things royal. It was compelling viewing, with repeated and apparently accurate echoes of the story that any of us who read the cheaper newspapers when we get the chance know all too well. At the time, it was ill-received, but not I think so much for its intrinsic merits or weaknesses, but because of a sentimental anxiety about those still living, not least, Diana's sons. We didn't fret the same way about "The Queen", but then its subject was rather more robust.

HL managed to watch nearly an hour of it. His observation this morning was "she seemed too fake". An actress pretending to be a nobody who had become uniquely famous? You bet that's going to be fake! But I knew what he meant. Naomi Watts had done done her homework well - she had the gestures, the movements, the turn of the head, the walk, the hair, the make-up, all were true to my memory of the late Princess of Wales. But something was missing. She reminded me at times of Wendy Craig. A perfectly laudable, and I'm sure very nice, actress, but not an aristocrat. And that's what was missing. "The People's Princess" was a cherished daughter of one of the richest men in England, with a titled lineage going back centuries through our history. She never had, nor ever would have, a worry about money. Her status was from birth. At one point in the film - and I wondered how genuine this was - she said "I'm a princess". Well, she wasn't. She was an earl's daughter, and a prince's wife. That's why she was always Diana, Princess of Wales, never Princess Diana. And that's why, when she and Prince Charles finally divorced, she could no longer be Her Royal Highness - her royal highety was conferred only by her marriage to her husband, and it had ceased to exist when the marriage did. In a curious way, the vulgar newspapers got this right when, for years after her marriage, they continued calling her "Lady Di", something no one who knew her ever called her. She remained a rich earl's daughter, whatever her relationship with the heir to the throne and the rest of the royal family. It was the aura of aristocracy that Miss Watts failed to convey. Wendy Craig is rather suburban.

I should say at this point that my experience of Diana, Princess of Wales, was through the media, with the exception of one very brief meeting when I was a management trustee of an HIV charity in Oxford. It was a hilarious occasion - all the socialists and republicans flushed out of the woodwork in their Sunday best in the hope of being seen with the most famous woman in the world! She kept us waiting for 45 minutes whilst she spent time downstairs with people who were ill. In the flesh, she was immaculate - clothes, hair, and make-up, you knew they were all carefully contrived, but you couldn't see the joins. She didn't have conventional beauty by any means - she was too tall for a girl, and her nose and chin were wrong, although the cheek bones were good, but her eyes were lovely. They sparkled with naughtiness, but also, which I wasn't expecting, interest and intelligence. When I chatted to some of the people from downstairs, they said she asked knowing questions about medications and side-effects, the sort of things that those who sneered at her two O-levels would be astonished she could pronounce, never mind spell, and remember. She was a tremendously attractive woman, and I don't think she'd known that before she married, and after her marriage broke down, she wasn't quite sure what to do with it.

The conceit of the film was that the Pakistani-born London surgeon, Hasnat Kahn, was the love of her life. They split, she regretted it, and to try to re-kindle his interest she made sure (as she knew she could) that the newspapers were full of pictures of her being intimate with Dodi Fayed. As romantic stratagems go, this is redolent of playground petulance, and it was a ploy that should perhaps have been explored more - we had much of Diana discovering her depths as a campaigner against landmines, but nothing on her shallows as an emotional manipulator. She and Mr Kahn parted because, in the story, he couldn't reconcile his desire to continue his career in surgery with being married to the most famous woman in the world. He admitted that he couldn't sacrifice his role; in the film he doesn't challenge her with being unable to sacrifice hers, as I rather suspect she wouldn't.

Diana had mattered relatively little before the lot fell on her to be the royal heir's bridal victim. Her parents had had a bloody divorce. Aristocratic children see little of their parents, you'd think it wouldn't much matter, but in her case it seems to have. Then she received an offer she couldn't refuse, and perhaps was naive enough to think it really would be the "fairytale" of which Archbishop Runcie spoke at their wedding. I find it hard to believe that, moving in the circles she did, she never heard of the policy of "the heir and the spare" after which both parties are free to pursue their own romantic interests. The Windsors, it is very clear, were baffled that a girl who had known them from childhood seemed oblivious to their family code, a code which rarely wavers, and is never broken. If you go rogue - like Edward VIII, you end up in Paris. Ironic, that.

There were clear interleavings with history, insofar as gossip and rumour and biography become history, as there must be in such a film, but I think it best to judge it as a story, whose characters are caught up in a unique and unimaginable and impossible situation. Could Diana have married Dr Kahn? If she'd married a highly-regarded public servant in the medical profession, I think it would have done her reputation less harm than if she'd married the playboy Dodi Fayed. But if she'd become a Muslim? And could she ever really have been a wife? The story leaves us with an uneasy sense that it could not have ended happily ever after.

And it didn't. Diana died in August 1997 in a car crash in Paris. Conspiracy theorists have had a field day. She died because her driver was too pissed to control his car, and because she wasn't wearing a seat belt.

And with such mundanities are legends brought to earth and myths brought to life.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2014

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