The Princess (Sky Documentaries), a feature-length biography of Diana, Princess of Wales directed by Ed Perkins, is made up entirely of contemporary archive footage. We are immersed dizzily in the grainy, boxy 1980s and 90s, with no talking heads, captions or scripted narrator to steady our thoughts. But via his choice of clips, Perkins is, of course, telling us the story he wants to tell. What he patches together is a carnival of grotesquery in which the media, the public and the royal family all look as sordid and twisted as each other.
Doom has already gathered when Diana and Prince Charles give their first interviews after becoming engaged, Diana blinking into the middle distance as the pair fail to answer any questions designed to provoke a relatable insight into their relationship. Their only shared interest seems to be an exhausted horror at press harassment. On that topic, we are soon watching a man on a TV debate show expertly asserting that this situation is about to improve: “I think we’re going to see a change in the attitude of the press. I think that now she’s palpably one of the royal family, all this telephoto lens business will stop.”
Perkins has a weakness for chortling ironically at takes that haven’t aged well. Later, he includes TV coverage of Charles and Diana’s wedding procession with a commentator adding reassuring behind-the-scenes details: “The escort, under the command of Lt Col Andrew Parker-Bowles … Charles and Lady Diana stayed with him and his wife Camilla in Wiltshire on two occasions at the end of the year. So, they’re among friends.”
But The Princess also displays a fine eye for oblique, jarring, mischievous moments where the curtain lifts and we see the machine whir and splutter. With the wedding ceremony done, we watch rough, partly obscured footage of the royal couple arriving at the secluded back door of Buckingham Palace, totally unsmiling in a brief interregnum between being stared at by the hordes lining the route from St Paul’s, and being stared at that by the hordes waiting in front for the balcony kiss. Charles looks listlessly at his lap for a moment, as if he might sneak out a smartphone and start tediously scrolling Instagram.
Time zips by. Before we can breathe, they have a child and all is not well, as evidenced by Perkins’ choice of footage regularly suggesting that fatherhood doesn’t interfere with Charles’s beloved hobbies: shotgunning pheasants to bits, encouraging packs of dogs to tear foxes and hares apart, and – hours after Harry is born – playing polo, watched by Camilla. But once Diana properly starts her royal duties, something shifts. She is phenomenally skilled at being a public figure. To Charles’s dismay, she eclipses him, visiting Aids clinics and Harlem hospitals, chatting easily with all-comers, doing the thing the family she has married into has always struggled with. She is popular.
It can’t last. Stories about bulimia, self-harm and affairs start to seep out, via the Andrew Morton book, the James Gilbey tapes, the Charles and Camilla tapes, the Anne Pasternak book, the Martin Bashir interview – each revelation bloodily dissected by the public and press , all madly confident in their analysis of people they haven’t met. As well as sharing Adam Curtis’s love of eerie out-takes and revealing offcuts, Perkins seems to have Chris Morris’s full-spectrum disdain for everyone in the media industry: his go-to for illustrating this sordid circus is Robert Kilroy-Silk archly refereeing TV shouting matches, and he enjoys the easy sport of making royal correspondents look like tragic parasites. Heavyweights such as Jeremy Paxman, Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Dimbleby are nonethless shown as players in the same grubby, absurd game. The inclusion of a clip of future Brass Eye co-stars Darcus Howe and Peregrine Worsthorne, earnestly discussing “Camilla Bowles Parker”, might even be a sly Morris homage.
As the 90s provide numerous too-perfect visual metaphors, such as Windsor Castle literally catching fire (Perkins shows us a shocked Queen being comforted by the uncontroversial, dependable Prince Andrew), The Princess’s later stages vividly evoke the queasy feeling that Dianamania cannot be controlled . She outrages the paparazzi by sometimes posing for photos, but at other times deliberately evading or ruining them (“She’s very close to being a monster,” says one of the film’s endless array of crusty, chuntering male pundits). She cannot enjoy a Saint-Tropez sun-lounger holiday without a pack of balding, greasy men capturing blurry but salable images of her torso from 200m away, forcing her to scurry back indoors. We know, because we are with the paps: “She’s spotted us!” Yet, post-divorce, not knowing that death is around the corner, she accelerates her public appearances, looking freer, more forthright, her dresses and haircuts seeming to get sharper and sexier each time.
If The Princess has a definitive statement to make about Diana, it comes from that contrast: amid so much that was tawdry and bizarre, she somehow gave the impression of remaining pristine. Looking back, what she was trying to escape was peculiarly ugly.