Even in Her Death, People Couldn't Leave Princess Diana Alone

How I, a staunch anti-royalist, ended up meeting Lady Di and being charmed by her ■ A series of documentaries ranging from the sensational to the retrospective pay tribute to the princess

Princess Diana, from the documentary “Diana: Seven Days That Shook the World.” A modern-day saint?
Getty Images/Courtesy Yes Docu

It’s a truism that famous people are disappointingly normal when you meet them in the flesh. In my 25 years as a journalist, I’ve only ever met two who had that off-the-charts charisma we always like to ascribe to celebrities.

One was Jack Nicholson, who had a rakish, devilish aura that was, frankly, a little alarming. But the other was a huge surprise to me: Diana, Princess of Wales.

As a staunch anti-royalist, I was less than happy to be assigned to report on Diana’s visit to a maternity ward in Portsmouth, southern England, in October 1992. I was interviewing members of the assembled crowd as we awaited Diana’s arrival one damp autumnal afternoon, and somehow found myself in the front row when she finally materialized, like a vision in pink. (Stop me when you start to feel nauseous.) She came over for a meet-and-greet with her loyal subjects (and me), which is how I somehow ended up shaking hands with her and muttering pathetically about how nice it was to meet her.

She was beautiful, for sure – probably the most stunning person I have ever met (although, in retrospect, that shouldn’t have been the first thing I subsequently told my then-girlfriend). But she also had a radiance I’ve never witnessed on any movie premiere red carpet – and something that was definitely not captured by Naomi Watts in the feeble 2013 love story-biopic “Diana.”

Diana has been back in the headlines this summer as Britain and the world prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of her shocking death in Paris on August 31, 1997.

Yes TV is commemorating the anniversary with a series of documentaries. These range from the sensationalist (“Diana’s Death: The Search for the Truth,” Yes VOD and Yes Docu, Friday, September 1, 22:00) – which I would recommend only for lovers of outlandish conspiracy theories – to the retrospective (“Diana: Seven Days That Shook the World,” Yes VOD and Yes Docu, Thursday at 22:00), to the touching (“Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy,” Yes VOD and Yes Docu, Saturday, September 2, 22:00).

British television has been enjoying/enduring a mini-Diana season in recent months. As I write, Israel’s Channel 8 has just bought the rights to the mawkish-sounding ITV documentary “Diana: The Day the World Cried,” focusing on her funeral on September 6, 1997. And you can search online for the controversial documentary “Diana: In Her Own Words,” which gathers together some of her old interviews, including some off-the-record comments about her sex life – or lack thereof – with Prince Charles.

“Seven Days” first aired in Britain on Channel 5, a trashy commercial station that is always seemingly searching for new ways to answer the question “How low can you go?” By that channel’s own standards, “Seven Days” is surprisingly good, chronicling the week after Diana’s death – a week when many Britons seemed to become seized with some kind of “Diana syndrome,” displaying public grief in a way that was previously unimaginable in this staidest of states.

As one talking head, Ian Hislop – editor of the British satirical magazine Private Eye – puts it, “It became a very strange week to be alive.” Or, in the words of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, “My God, these are enormous doings.”

It was Blair of course who, just hours after her death, used the term “the people’s princess” to describe Diana. And it’s amazing to revisit the scenes from that time – the carpets of floral tributes outside the royal palaces; the thousands upon thousands of people queuing to sign books of condolence at Kensington Palace; the media and public anger at the queen and the rest of the royal family for locking themselves away at their summer retreat in Balmoral Castle, Scotland, while so many of their subjects were hurting (a subject most famously explored in the 2006 film “The Queen” with Helen Mirren).

From fairy tale to telenovela

“Seven Days” is never far from breathless hyperbole (with narrator James D’Arcy treating us to such gems as “Britain would find itself in the midst of a collective nervous breakdown”). Even so, the story it recounts remains a remarkable one: the overwhelming public response to the tragic early death of a much-loved princess, whose life had seemingly gone from fairy tale to telenovela in the space of a decade.

The talking heads include many friends of Diana; biographers, those who worked closely with her (including her butler, Paul Burrell, who is never shy of appearing on such programs); and those involved in preparations for the Westminster Abbey funeral – which saw 2,000 mourners in attendance, a million people lining the streets of London for the procession beforehand and 2.5 billion people watching worldwide.

It was indeed the craziest of weeks, reminiscent at times of a Jerry Springer special. Hislop recalls listening to a radio phone-in during the week and hearing a man explain that he had cried more over Diana’s death than that of his own wife. Hislop’s thoughts about a country starting to lose its grip on reality mirrored my own: “You’ve got to stop this.”

“Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy” is a far classier affair, the Lady Di to the other documentaries’ Sarah Ferguson, if you will. In it, Diana’s sons, William and Harry – who were 15 and 12, respectively, when she died – talk candidly about their mother. Or as candidly as one can, coming from such a rigid upbringing dictated by pomp and circumstance.

The documentary probably tells you more about William and Harry (second and fifth in line to the throne, respectively) than their mother. William still seems every inch his serious father’s son, while Harry has inherited the spark of Diana. He definitely seems to have lived by her words of advice to him: “You can be as naughty as you want – just don’t get caught.”

Although it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is the latest attempt to turn Diana into a modern-day saint, it also makes you recall the good she did in the world – especially her work with the homeless and AIDS patients, and her campaign against landmines.

Personally, I got more out of “Seven Days,” but maybe that’s just the republican in me. What’s clear in both documentaries, though, is that this was a beloved mother whose loss is still deeply felt on a personal and public level.

For me, the most shocking detail about Diana’s death emerged in a recent radio interview with her younger brother, Earl Spencer, when he revealed that people have tried to break into Diana’s burial site on her family estate no fewer than four times since 1997. Even in death, it seems, people still can’t leave her alone.