History repeating itself: How the 20th anniversary of Diana's death put her back in the spotlight

With all the recent attention on the 20th anniversary of death of the Princess of Wales, the Diana industry is back in business. But the magazine covers, documentaries and endless headlines also take people back to a dark period for a House of Windsor that has been trying to focus on the future.

Magazine covers, documentaries and endless headlines focus attention on celebrity royal

Twenty years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the attention on the anniversary is rivalling the spotlight that shone on her from her early years in the Royal Family through her crumbling marriage to Prince Charles and following their divorce. (Reuters)

If the covers of the glossy magazines are any guide, the image of Diana has lost little of its lustre even though 20 years have passed since her death.

Beyond those covers this summer, there have been TV documentaries — some more salacious than others — exhibits, books and revised books. There's an award in her honour and endless headlines that promise — if not necessarily deliver — yet more insight into the life of a celebrity royal who was once the most photographed woman in the world.

In other words, the Diana industry is back in business, two decades after the Princess of Wales died in the early morning hours of Aug, 31, 1997, following a car crash in Paris.

"It's fascinating that history's repeating itself in some ways," says Mark Borkowski, a British public relations expert who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Borkowski looks around, at the magazine racks and beyond, and sees hints of "the ghost of Diana — or the poltergeist, actually."

Prince Charles and Diana stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, following their wedding at St. Paul's Cathedral on July 29, 1981. (Reuters)

In all that, however, there is also a potentially unintended consequence for a House of Windsor trying to look to the future, as public attention once again focuses on all the complexities of Diana's life, along with her high-wattage celebrity and the demise of her marriage to the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

Author Sally Bedell Smith puts the start of this year's Diana frenzy at the "well-intentioned announcement" in January that her sons William and Harry had commissioned a statue of their mother. It is to be unveiled later this year at Kensington Palace, Diana's London home and the same place where William, his wife Kate, and Harry now live.

Then came word that William and Harry would participate in two television documentaries.

"Everybody else then jumped in," Smith says, "realizing that there is an entire generation unfamiliar with the drama of Diana's life and death, which meant a potentially big audience, including those who remember 'the day Diana died' and those who were too young at the time."

'Opened the floodgates'

Smith, whose biography Prince Charles, The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life was recently released, sees some of the commemorations as "dignified" and others less so, including another documentary based on videotapes Diana had made with her voice coach. In those tapes, she talked of her engagement, personal problems, sex life with Charles and more.

Smith considers that William and Harry meant well by wanting "to remember all the good things" about their mother. But their participation in the two documentaries "made it impossible for them to object" to the more sensationized fare, she says.

"They tried to take ownership of their mother's legacy, but they inadvertently opened the floodgates."

That the floodgates would open is not necessarily a surprise.

Prince William and Prince Harry, sitting here with Diana in 1985, have spoken fondly of their mother in documentaries broadcast this year. (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Anniversaries of historical events often offer an opportunity to look back and reflect on them, says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and author of the recently published Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting.

But Harris sees more in play here.

"It's not simply a matter of looking back at how things were 20 years ago but that we're seeing new perspectives on Diana's passing, particularly the views of her sons."

Trying to make money

That potential of anything new seems to hold particular sway.

Take, for example, that documentary focusing on the tapes with the voice coach, a controversial production that sparked ethical and emotional debate when it was broadcast by Channel 4 in the U.K. earlier this month.

"What I found very striking about that is how much public fascination [there is] with any new information that might exist about Diana's feelings or Diana's relationships," says Harris.

That fascination may also feed — or be fed by — a considerably more prosaic factor underlying the Diana frenzy: the potential to make money.

A dress Diana wore during an official portrait with her husband Charles in 1987 is part of an exhibition focusing on her style that has been on display at Kensington Palace in London this year. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

"Channel 4 say that they are airing these tapes because they are of historical importance, and it is an opportunity for the princess, in the 20th anniversary of her death, to have a voice," says author and royal biographer Penny Junor.

"I think these are utterly spurious excuses. I think it is a money-making exercise, a viewer-enhancing exercise."

And, as it turned out, the broadcast proved a ratings hit for Channel 4, making it the most-watched program on the channel this year, the Daily Telegraph reported, with 3.5 million viewers tuning in.

'She was showbiz'

Borkowski also sees much of what's going on as a commercial exercise.

"She was showbiz. She sold newspapers," he says. And now, Borkowski's friends working in "old-school newspapers" tell him that Diana's still selling for them.

"So someone selling newspapers in a depressed time when nothing moves the needle — they're going to put more behind it."

Diana became a celebrity and was often in the spotlight, with one iconic moment coming as she danced with actor John Travolta at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 9, 1985. (Ronald Reagan Library/Canadian Press)

As all that attention has again focused on Diana, it has also revived a public focus on a time of considerable scandal and angst for the House of Windsor, particularly around the disintegrating marriage of Diana and Charles, who has stayed essentially silent in the face of the commemorative coverage.

"To a degree the Royal Family didn't anticipate, the weeks before the 20th anniversary of Diana's death have inflicted some real damage," says Smith.

Plunging popularity

Recent polls in the U.K. have shown plummeting popularity for Charles and his second wife, Camilla, with whom he was involved for years — and whom Diana labelled the third person in their marriage.

Whether there will be a lasting impact is unclear.

Smith says Charles will "doubtless recover," but predicts it will take some time.

"Perhaps the milestone of his 70th birthday next year will offer an opportunity for a positive TV documentary, with some active involvement by William and Harry, and perhaps others in the Royal Family, to reflect on Charles's achievements."

By the time Charles and Diana were on a royal visit to Korea in November 1992, strains were appearing in their marriage. (Reuters)

Polling data related to royalty is often sensitive to the most recent event, says Harris, and right now "the public is being inundated with the events of Diana's life and being reminded of the breakdown" of the marriage.

"We'll see six months or a year from now what the lasting impact of that is," Harris says, and perhaps "we'll see the public focusing on other aspects of Charles's life."

There is also a documentary about Camilla in the works that is expected this fall, something that Borkowski says will give them "some ammunition."

Still, it's hard to predict what the impact of all the attention on Diana now will be.

"As we know in the socially media-driven world we live in, things peak and trough, and you have ways of constantly calibrating the messaging to try and get back on track," says Borkowski.

"It's been a bit disruptive … but how this plays out — it's too early to say."

About the Author

Janet Davison

Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

With files from Renee Filippone


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