Princess Diana in fiction & me

Princess Diana portrayals in movies – they hold a sort of fascination for me and yet they can never live up to what I expect from them. Not that I exactly know what I want, I just want them to feel authentic and good and somehow they never are good enough. Why this sudden interest? Well, I actually went to see a Diana musical (gasp!) in a theatre in Amsterdam a few days ago. Let me explain (in a long and rambling way)…

In 1981 Charles and Diana got married. We were on summer holiday in England at the time and the night before the wedding we (a family of 10) went to Hyde Park to see the fireworks and hopefully see Prince Charles, who was apparently attending that night. I remember Hyde Park being busy, we sat somewhere on the grass with our picnic dinner in a less crowded part, and of course we never even caught a glimpse of Charles. The fireworks were great, though. We all watched the royal wedding itself the next day in the TV room of the campsite we were staying at. My younger sister was 8, I was 11, and we, like so very many girls that age, were captivated by Lady Diana and also that royal wedding. At home, we collected pictures and stuck them into scrapbooks.

By my mid teens I still liked looking at pictures of Diana and reading about her and seeing her on TV, but I lost that fangirling quality. I was more impressed by other royals (European royalty is always a big thing in German gossip magazines and I read a lot of gossip magazines then) such as the Swedish queen Silvia, who seemed to have more gravitas, but even that waned when I hit 15 or so. Still, with Diana being such a famous woman and me still quite liking her, I did read about her marriage falling apart in the early 1990s and I saw the famous TV interviews both she and Prince Charles gave and I even read that book Andrew Morton wrote about her. Once, in the early 1990s, I even saw the back of her when I was in London. It was pure chance, I was walking by a very busy Leicester Square, heard Princess Diana was there and then spotted the back of her surrounded by a crowd disappearing into a cinema for some film premiere.

When she died, like the rest of the world, I was shocked. I can still clearly remember finding out. It was a Sunday morning, Mr E and I had been living together for a year and we were sleeping in when my younger sister, then 24, called me, then 27, to tell me Diana was dead. It felt unreal, she had just seemed to be coming into her own by then, but there it was.

So yes, while I would never consider myself a particular fan, Diana did always hold a sort of fascination for me and I had more than a passing interest in her. It’s why I also was happy to visit her childhood home Althorp a few years ago.

Anyway, back to adaptations on Diana’s life. My interest for such a work of fiction was first piqued when I was 13 or so and I saw an early dramatization of Diana’s romance on TV, in a film called The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, starring Catherine Oxenberg (from 1982).

I liked the fairytale romance quality of it but at the time I didn’t think Oxenberg made a great Diana and I remember especially her shyness and innocence feeling over the top and fake to me. Although I haven’t seen the film in maybe 35 years, I even remember thinking that most of it was lies. Pretty lies that I wanted to believe, but lies nonetheless and therefore not really authentic. It was charming in many ways but also fake in a way that even naive little me didn’t buy it. (Oh goodness, I now find the movie is available on YouTube! Should I watch it again?)

I know there have been more Diana portrayals after that (even a sequel with Catherine Oxenberg reprising the role of Diana) but I didn’t watch them because I always felt there was too little to go on to make good movies about her. I also felt that no one looked right or felt right for the Diana role. In addition, Charles is always the one being vilified and while I’m not a fan of his, that does seem like a very one-sided viewpoint. I’m sure the man has his qualities as well.

Then in 2013, I finally did brave a film called Diana starring Naomi Watts in the titular role and Naveen Andrews as the surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan with whom Diana had fallen in love. I like Naveen Andrews, so he was what finally drew me in to actually watch this.

The film focussed on that love story and while intriguing (how can the world’s most famous and hunted woman, and British royalty at that, even hope to build a life with a publicity shy Pakistani doctor?), it did largely feel like conjecture as well. The film was alright, I liked it better than the Oxenberg one, but Naomi Watts never quite convinced me as Princess Diana. I like Naomi Watts, just not so much as Diana either.

More recently, I watched season 4 of The Crown because I was curious to see how Diana would be portrayed there (I have yet to watch seasons 1-3 but season 4 didn’t convince me enough to give the earlier seasons a try). Although Emma Corrin won an Emmy for her portrayal of Princess Diana, she never quite did it for me.

She does sound like her and dress like her and sort of have her hair (it never looked quite right, too stiff somehow), but her portrayal always felt more like an imitation of mannerisms to me and not an embodiment of Diana.

So yeah, an actress portraying Diana can never do it quite right in my eyes and I wonder if Kristen Stewart will finally convince me in the upcoming Spencer movie…

Not only are there books and movies about Diana, there are also musicals! One will be coming to New York City later this year and that musical will also come to Netflix. I’m not sure if I can brave that.

Another Diana musical, a completely Dutch production, has started playing in Amsterdam. I saw a blurb about this musical on the news last week, and I thought ”No! Not a melodramatic, sanctifying Diana musical in Dutch!” Then my younger sister called early this week (the one I used to fangirl Diana with at age 11), saying she had two free tickets to the musical for the next evening. She got them through her partner who has some ties in the Dutch musical world. They had already seen it together and had loved it and had cried and she thought I might want to see it as well and I could take our mother along with me. A little side note: my sister and I don’t always cry at the same things. Anyway, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my expectation for this Diana musical was extremely low and I was never ever intending to go see it. Her sweet generosity in offering me free tickets and her enthusiam and my husband’s encouragement to use the experience (bad or good) for input in a blog post, combined with my general interest in Diana, made me decide to just give it a try anyhow. My mother, who had the same trepidations as I did, indeed came with me.

The musical, Diana en Zonen (translates to Diana and sons) is still in its tryout phase (official premiere this coming weekend). The musical is about a posthumous Diana (Eek! I know!) to whom Harry still talks and later it is revealed William does as well. She stands by her sons as Meghan Markle appears on the scene and guides them through some difficult choices. The whole musical is set before Harry and Meghan get married.

So, what did I think of this musical? First the things I did not like so much:

  • The songs and music were not really my thing, just the typical kind of dramatic songs you’d expect from a musical (two of them on YouTube here and here, in case you’re interested). Maybe the second song I linked to, sung by Meghan Markle (played by Danique Graanoogst), stood out most but none of them really felt remarkable to me and often even felt a little boring. While I do like some musicals, maybe I am not musical fan enough to appreciate these songs.
  • I wondered, especially in the first half, how this was about the sons – it seemed to be mostly about Harry (played by Freek Bartels) and most of the story was really his point of view. I think the makers of this musical are Harry and Meghan fans.
  • The story is all conjecture. Apart from the obvious (Meghan being vilified on social media), the way especially William (played by Jonathan Demoor) and Kate (played by Liss Walravens) are so against Meghan in those early days just didn’t feel true to me. Maybe it is true, maybe it isn’t, but it felt so gossipy and fake, it really annoyed me.
  • Much was made over Meghan and Harry separating during their courtship because she didn’t want to deal with the magnitude of it all. That felt like a lot of conjecture as well, especially the way that was played up. Did they really separate? I don’t know, of course, but I think it more likely they discussed these things in depth with each other, rather than separate over it.
  • Diana seems less approving of Kate than of Meghan and that is some huge conjecturing as well, as she never even met either woman in real life. And even as a hypothesis from beyond the grave, it feels like a very questionable position.
  • Harry took his shirts and shoes off and put them on again, I don’t know how many times. Don’t get me wrong, he was nice to look at, but I just didn’t get what the point of that gimmick was.
  • There were more gimmicks, like Harry and an urn and paper confetti being thrown out and put back in again. I guess it signified picking up the pieces again? The urn thing happened several times during the musical.
  • There was this Harry fangirl part that felt completely superfluous to me, like someone thought it should be in there somewhere but apart from the comical element for five minutes, it didn’t do anything for the story.
  • Camilla (played by Gerrie van der Klei) was the comical element which somehow felt out of place in the first half of the musical and Charles (played by Jan Elbertse) was such an over-privileged sap, not daring to talk to Harry and leaving William to do the dirty work and not really standing up for anything. He may not be the most inspiring person but I don’t see Charles as being like that.

Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t all bad to me. The good things:

  • To my great surprise, I actually liked the posthumous Diana (played by Marlijn Weerdenburg). She’s a slightly older Diana, having learnt from her life. She wasn’t sanctified, she seemed reflective and wiser and more forgiving of Charles and even at the end finds respect for Camilla after being snide about her earlier. She owned her errors of judgement in marrying Charles and gives her sons (especially Harry) advice on fighting for what they care for. I thought she really looked the part too, with her hair styled right and that elegant white suit she wore throughout. You recognize her instantly and yet she is not the same. I also liked that there wasn’t any real shyness in her body language, she was a woman who now knows herself and acts self-assured and even a little repentive.
  • I liked Meghan, who is shown as strong, a woman with her own life and her own independent mind, finding it difficult to submit to the chains a royal life would put on her.
  • They also showed the older and wiser Charles and Diana looking at the younger versions of themselves during their own enagement, I think that may have been the most touching part of the whole musical for me.
  • And, in the second half of the musical, Camilla became more than just a comical side note and I got to like her after all, especially in her advice to Meghan, telling her to bide her time, saying that in time vilification will ease. She speaks from experience. She is also a good antidote to the somewhat morose Charles and peps him up.
  • Harry was somehwat melodramatic to me but there is this one scene where he gets so angry at his mother, angrily crying out to her that he and his brother can never break free from her shadow and that really rang so true to me. It is difficult for them to find their places without constantly being compared to or linked to their mother. I think pretty much everyone still does that.
  • In one of the few scenes of Diana and William alone he accuses his mother of treating Harry as the favourite and she guiltily admits that although she loves them both equally, she protected Harry more because William ”had his father”. ”Did I?” William asks. I would have liked to have seen more of that Diana and William dynamic.
  • Kate and William were more one-dimensional but I did like that they addressed Kate and her somewhat boring image that she doesn’t seem to be able to break away from. She has been completely usurped into the royal role, and accepts it all but sometimes there’s a little rebellion, even in her, when she tries to show more of herself and tries to break free from Meghan overshadowing her.
  • All in all, the second half was better than the first half of the musical.

In the end, I thought this might have worked better as a play than as a musical. I would have liked to have seen more of William with his mother and maybe more of an honest portrayal of Charles, it didn’t feel so honest here (except for a few small moments). I liked the element of looking back on a famous life and figuring out what people might have learned and taken away from that. In short, there were some interesting thoughts in this production that might have been explored better in a good character play.

I don’t know any of these Dutch actors (I’m not up to speed with Dutch TV, movies and theatre, they normally don’t hold that much attraction for me) but Marlijn Weerdenburg as Diana did stand out. Maybe I liked her so much because she wasn’t exactly trying to be the Diana we all know, but more of an evolved version? I also liked Danique Graanoogst as Meghan and in the end even Gerrie van der Klei as Camilla as well. The acting was fine but the story overall (despite a few interesing elements) and the music were very iffy. I left with very mixed feelings. I’d rate it 2.5 out of 5 stars, maybe? Not something I’d really need to see again but not as terrible as I feared.

On to the next Diana adaptation. Will there ever be a really good one?