World·Royal Fascinator

More than The Crown: Why the mythic tone around Diana, Princess of Wales echoes today

More than 23 years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the mythic tone around her image seems to resonate as much as it ever has.

Focus more than 2 decades after her death includes news headlines, movie, streaming musical

Attention is focusing again on Diana, Princess of Wales, 23 years after her death, as shows such as The Crown delve into her time as a member of the Royal Family. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP via Getty Images)

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It's not just because of The Crown.

Diana, Princess of Wales, is back in the headlines, on magazine covers, is the subject of podcasts and has cropped up pretty much anywhere else someone thinks her name might rustle up some more attention.

Much of the recent focus has been spawned by the portrayal of her in the controversial fourth season of the Netflix drama The Crown

But beyond that, there have been a spate of recent headlines delving into the high-profile BBC interview Diana gave in 1995, and there is anticipation of other shows, including a movie and a streaming musical, that will focus on her. 

More than 23 years after her death, the mythic tone around her image seems to resonate as much as it ever has.

"It's the same question people ask about James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or those sorts of icons. They're embedded into our psyche," British public relations expert Mark Borkowski said over the phone from the U.K.

Diana appears to be in a serious conversation during a walkabout in Burnaby, B.C., on May 6, 1986. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"They died … before the ravages of time could take over ... so you've got the telegenic quality of their image that hasn't changed."

With Diana, the image began as Shy Di, and indeed, the first glimpse of her in the latest season of The Crown is as a beguiling forest nymph dressed for a part in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It's in marked contrast to the high-wattage celebrity royal she became, and whose own struggles and warm way with those she met in person seemed to strike an emotional connection with many watching the House of Windsor from afar.

She was, of course, a complex character who also had some less appealing traits, and was well-versed in using the media for her own ends. Along the way there was the high-profile collapse of her marriage to Prince Charles, which is one storyline taking prominence in The Crown's interpretation of her arrival in the Royal Family.

Now, said Borkowski, with the "full marketing weight" of Netflix behind The Crown, it's had "extraordinary global publicity" and any website looking for clickbait knows "that if they can run a Diana narrative, they're going to get eyeballs."

At the same time, there's been renewed attention on the controversial interview she gave to BBC journalist Martin Bashir that was broadcast in November 1995, which is frequently cited for her remark about Prince Charles that "there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded." 

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Diana's brother, Charles, has alleged that the BBC used forged bank documents to get his sister to agree to speak with Bashir.

The attention on the interview, Borkowski said, is the result of a "perfect storm" of events, including the 25th anniversary of the broadcast, which became the hook for the story. He said there is also some "BBC-bashing" from other media organizations seeing an opportunity for "payback" after being vilified by the network for the phone-hacking scandal several years ago.

The recent interest in Diana comes at the same time Borkowski sees other events playing out in the Royal Family that have echoes of her experience.

"She was the original disruptor for the Royal Family, her legacy [is] her kids [William and Harry], and Harry continues to disrupt the … narrative," Borkowski said.

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, stepped back from the upper echelons of the Royal Family earlier this year and are living with their son, Archie, in California.

Harry's "relationship with Meghan ... has all the parallels of Diana, you know, in many ways, certainly his touchy-feely, empathetic [way]," and being "more film star than establishment figure," said Borkowski.

Diana comforts a child during a variety show presented by the children at Khanum memorial cancer hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, on Feb. 22, 1996. (AFP/Getty Images)

The actor playing Diana sees that empathy in the real Diana, too. In a recent interview with The Royal Fascinator, Emma Corrin said Diana "just didn't fit into the Royal Family."

"She was far too empathetic. She was far too affectionate and feeling," Corrin said. "The Royal Family, especially how we depict them, are so broken and so … stunted in their emotional growth — and I'm not saying the actual family is ... but I feel that she wasn't."

Meghan's miscarriage and her message

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, revealed in a New York Times opinion piece that she had a miscarriage in July. (Ian Volger/Getty Images)

As with so much else that surrounds the time Meghan has spent in the Royal Family, her way of revealing that she had a miscarriage was different — but it was also very much in keeping with her character.

Her opinion piece last month in the New York Times has been praised for offering support to others who have had miscarriages — and for helping to shatter the stigma that so often surrounds this deeply personal trauma, which is experienced in as many as one in four pregnancies.

Meghan's revelation is a stark contrast to the way in which senior members of the Royal Family have approached matters of their own health.

"Announcements about royal babies and serious health issues relating to senior members of the family normally come from Buckingham Palace, but I don't think they would ever announce an early miscarriage," said royal author and biographer Penny Junor via email.

"The public would only be told if the palace had already announced the pregnancy and the child had been lost."

That happened in the case of Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who is married to Prince Edward, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Sophie spoke of being "very sad" after losing a baby in 2001 following an ectopic pregnancy.

Prince Harry and Meghan introduced their son, Archie, two days after his birth in May 2019. (Dominic Lipinski/The Associated Press)

It also happened in the case of Zara Tindall, Princess Anne's daughter, "who then went on to tell a newspaper that she had suffered two miscarriages but hadn't wanted to talk about it because it had been too raw," Junor said.

"So what Meghan has done is unprecedented, but not out of character."

Borkowski said the piece played to Meghan's strengths of being "hugely open, talking empathetically about something millions of women across the world will understand." 

Meghan might also have been influenced by royal and celebrity examples of speaking openly about pregnancy and miscarriage, said Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian.

Meghan's piece in the New York Times comes a few weeks after model and TV personality Chrissy Teigen shared her grief via social media following the loss of a son during pregnancy in September.

"Meghan's article where she calls upon people to commit to asking one another if they are OK may also reflect the influence of advocacy among the younger members of the Royal Family for greater emotional support for those experiencing difficult personal circumstances," Harris said.

Harry and Meghan relax with Archie as they meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, during their royal tour of South Africa on Sept. 25, 2019 in Cape Town. (Toby Melville/Getty Images)

Because Meghan and Harry are no longer working members of the Royal Family, they can "more or less do as they please," Junor said.

"And writing in this way is Meghan all over. She feels strongly that it's important to talk about feelings — something pretty alien to the older generation of the Royal Family — and I suspect would have spoken out about a miscarriage whether or not she had married Harry."

Junor said Meghan "is brave to be talking about it so soon after the event, and I am sure it will be a great comfort to women who are or have been in a similar situation."

Still, she said, "it is puzzling that she should go public about something so very personal and painful when she has repeatedly asked for privacy."

A different royal Christmas

Prince William, centre, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, stand with their children Prince George and Princess Charlotte after attending a service at the St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham in Norfolk, England, on Dec. 25, 2019. (Jon Super/The Associated Press)

Christmas is cancelled for the Royal Family this year — or at least the large family gathering that has brought them together on Dec. 25 at the Queen's Sandringham estate northeast of London since the late 1980s.

Buckingham Palace said this week that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip would mark the day quietly at Windsor Castle. Elizabeth and Philip have been living at Windsor throughout the pandemic, except for a summer break at Balmoral in Scotland, and some time Philip has spent at a residence on the Sandringham estate.

The announcement came after considerable media speculation about just what family bubble might share Christmas with the Queen, given how festive gatherings are supposed to be pared down in size this year. Would it be Charles and Camilla? What about William and Kate and their three children? 

Current British government guidelines allow for the formation of "Christmas bubbles" of people from no more than three households.

Royally quotable

"It is a brave thing to believe in an outcome — in a world even — that might not be fully felt for a generation or more."   

— Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, who has released results from a survey by the Royal Foundation that focused on child development and the early years, for youngsters under five.

Royal reads

  1. Josh O'Connor, who plays Prince Charles in Season 4 of The Crown, says he advocated for the heir to the throne on set. "He's always told: 'Shut up,'" O'Connor told journalist Tom Lamont. [The Guardian]

  2. Princess Eugenie and her husband, Jack Brooksbank, who are expecting their first child in the new year, have moved into Frogmore Cottage, a residence near Windsor Castle that had been restored for Meghan and Harry before they decamped to North America. [ITV]

  3. A catering assistant has admitted he stole photographs and medals from Buckingham Palace. [BBC]

  4. Charles and Camilla went clubbing in London this week, offering support to the city's nighttime economy in the face of pandemic job losses and business restrictions. [ITV]

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

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