RICHARD KAY: Why must they twist the truth about Diana?
Why must they twist the truth about Diana? As controversy swirls over The Crown’s depiction of the Princess of Wales, RICHARD KAY reveals that she is the victim of yet another travesty in the new film Spencer
- Just like The Crown, new Diana film Spencer hides behind veneer of authenticity
- Members of Royal Family are portrayed as haughty and cruel with rigid protocols
- Film’s credibility is stretched from first scene showing Diana driving a Porsche
Often when an actor is given the opportunity to talk about their latest role, they are gushing, sentimental and over-emotional.
But in the case of Kristen Stewart, who took on the challenging task of playing Diana, Princess of Wales, in the film Spencer — which opened amid great fanfare on Friday — something unusual happened.
The actress and star of Twilight, the teen vampire franchise, spoke not of herself but of the character she had portrayed.
In a moment of personal modesty, she demonstrated a rare insight — possibly gained from her own experience of fame — into Diana’s troubled role as the most famous (and most photographed) woman on the planet.
‘It’s feeling constantly watched, no matter what you do,’ she says. ‘If you’re in public, someone in the room is looking at you at all times.
‘Even if they’re not, it’s at the back of your mind. That is a feeling you only have if you’re extremely famous. It’s a completely different approach from being a human.’
Just like The Crown, with its insistence that it made scrupulous efforts to get the details right, new Diana biopic Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart, hides behind a veneer of authenticity
All the same, at 5ft5 in, the Los Angeles-born Ms Stewart is an unlikely choice to take on the persona of the aristocratic princess (pictured on Christmas Day at Sandringham in 1993)
It was an extraordinarily vivid observation from someone who was a child of seven when Diana was killed in a Paris underpass car crash, and might have been made by the princess herself.
All the same, at 5ft5 in, a fraction under six inches shorter than the tall and slender Diana, the Los Angeles-born Ms Stewart is an unlikely choice to take on the persona of the aristocratic princess.
She has something of her style and her brittleness but nothing of the grace or sense of humour that so often rescued Diana at moments of crisis.
Ms Stewart’s voice is too soft, her head tilted too often, leaving only the wardrobe to convince. Though, as she herself has said, lamenting her own lack of stature: ‘I am playing Diana. I’m not her.’
Some critics have marvelled at Ms Stewart’s portrayal and have installed her as a favourite for an Oscar in March, but will audiences warm to her and leave cinemas feeling that they understand Diana as they never did before?
If they do, it will be a tragedy because the batty craziness of the princess and cold indifference of the royals played out on the screen bears no relation to reality.
Just like The Crown, with its insistence that it made scrupulous efforts to get the details right, Spencer hides behind a veneer of authenticity.
It is not the only commodity it has in common with the Netflix series. Members of the Royal Family are shown as haughty and cruel while enveloped by protocols so rigid that they would be laughable if they weren’t so lamentably absurd.
Unlike in the latest film about her life (pictured), Princess Diana never drove a Porsche
The movie purports to cover the three days of the Christmas gathering at Sandringham in 1991, when — it claims — the princess took the decision to end her marriage. This itself is fiction.
The marriage did not formally end for another year — why didn’t they choose December 1992 instead? — and actually the inevitability of her separation from Prince Charles dates back to at least six months earlier.
Even though the picture opens with the message on screen: ‘A fable from a true tragedy’, the filmmakers are hoping to pull the same stunt as The Crown by boasting of their precision in the details.
Scriptwriter Steven Knight — creator of TV’s Peaky Blinders — says his descriptions of the bizarre Christmas rituals included in the film are word-of-mouth details from people who worked at Sandringham. ‘All the things in the film that seem least believable, are true,’ he insists.
Really? This presumably includes the practice of members of the Royal Family sitting down on an old-fashioned weighing machine on their arrival and again on departure — because the Queen likes everyone to put on three pounds over the festive period.
This is a complete myth. It is true that there was once upon a time a sit-on scale, a museum piece tucked away near Sandringham’s main entrance, but it had not been used for more than a century.
‘It was last working in the reign of Edward VII,’ says a former Sandringham servant. Doubtless, many will choose to believe this portrait of a princess trapped in an unhappy marriage surrounded by the brutish hostility of her husband’s family.
But the film’s credibility is stretched from the very beginning — an opening sequence which has the princess driving alone to the royal residence behind the wheel of a Porsche and inexplicably getting lost in the Norfolk backroads.
The pearl necklace Diana feels is strangling her is just one of the symbolic tools used in the film
Why on earth should this be so? Diana was brought up in Norfolk and spent the first 14 years of her life in Park House, which is actually part of the Sandringham estate.
And driving alone? Where were her police bodyguards? As for the Porsche, she never drove one.
However, losing her way did allow director Pablo Larrain to insert one of his many symbolic devices: the princess stops at a café to ask directions. Its name? The Duch, the nickname Diana’s Spencer siblings gave her as a child because she acted like a duchess.
So what really went on at Sandringham that Christmas almost 30 years ago — and what was the state of the royal marriage? And, crucially, when did the princess consider her marriage was over?
The abiding memory of that year’s Christmas was the freezing fog that blanketed north Norfolk over the holiday.
Far from motoring alone, the princess had been driven from Kensington Palace with nine-year-old William and Harry, seven, arriving on Christmas Eve. And yes, police protection officers accompanied the party.
Rather than the three days the films says she spent there, the princess remained for more than a week.
Prince Charles travelled from Highgrove, where he had been basing himself for months.
Kristen Stewart (pictured playing Diana, right) has said the extreme level of fame she has experienced help her have some personal understanding of the pressure Princess Diana (pictured left in 1989) most likely felt as she prepared for her role as the royal in Spencer
If not exactly estranged, the couple scarcely saw one another, unless it involved the children, the wider Royal Family or official engagements.
In fact, the marriage had reached a psychological tipping point months earlier, with the removal in May of the prince’s then-private secretary Major General Sir Christopher Airy.
Diana had been a fan of the former Guards officer and, after his departure, the office serving both the prince and princess was effectively divided.
Nothing illustrated that more than the aftermath of Prince William’s accident that summer, when he had been unintentionally struck on the head with a golf club.
Both parents raced to his hospital bedside where he underwent surgery to his fractured skull.
But while Diana remained at the hospital, Charles left to fulfil an official engagement at the Royal Opera House.
Media coverage of the prince’s absence was savage, fuelled by the briefings from now rival royal teams.
When a few days afterwards, a concerned Diana was photographed offering help to a member of the public who had collapsed at a royal event, the prince sourly accused his wife of being a martyr.
Matters reached a head when reports that the princess had turned down her husband’s offer of a 30th birthday party in July were leaked to the Daily Mail.
Diana did not think an extravagant ball would impress the public and she had no wish to share her big day with many of her husband’s Highgrove cronies.
But the resulting publicity brought about something of a rapprochement. During the summer, there was a family cruise with William and Harry, and on Charles’s birthday in November, Diana accompanied him to see Oscar Wilde’s A Woman Of No Importance at the Barbican in London.
She scored a spectacular success with her first solo foreign tour to Pakistan and she and Charles managed to put on a united front for a visit to Canada, long remembered for a memorable picture of William and Harry racing into their mother’s arms on the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia.
The following month Diana was on the cover of December’s Vogue magazine, suffered a bout of flu and was praised for making an official trip to Ulster’s ‘bandit country’ at a time of heightened IRA activity.
It meant she travelled to Sandringham in a better frame of mind than previous Christmases.
There were 18 members of the Royal Family at the Norfolk mansion that year, including Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, whose marriage was much closer to collapse than the princess’s.
In the film, with the exception of the Queen and Charles, the other royals barely feature.
Kristen (pictured) said her favourite scenes to shoot involved Diana losing herself in dancing
In fact, Diana spent much of the holiday with Fergie as the two women became regular visitors to the Knights Hill health club in nearby King’s Lynn, where they swam with Harry and three-year-old Beatrice and also used the spa.
There was one other significant — and highly secret — activity going on at this time in the life of the princess: her collaboration with the writer Andrew Morton.
Throughout 1991, Morton had begun compiling material for his best-selling book about Diana’s marriage, including cassette tapes on which she had secretly recorded answers to his questions.
By the Christmas holiday, the book was at a critical stage. She even took the considerable risk of travelling to Sandringham with several finished chapters so that she could go through them and make marks and suggestions.
But her main concern was its title. She wanted it to be called Diana, The True Story. Morton and his publisher said that would be inaccurate and suggested Diana, Her True Story.
‘There was a lot of back and forth over the title,’ Morton recalls. ‘We sent mocked-up book jackets for her to look at and she eventually came round to our point of view.’
It was the publication of the devastating biography the following June, with its searing revelations about the prince’s love for Camilla Parker Bowles and Diana’s suicide attempts, that was to fatally undermine the royal marriage. But, in Spencer, it doesn’t rate so much as a mention.
The film also suggests that Diana was given Queen Victoria’s room that Christmas. This was not the case.
Although the prince and princess no longer shared a bed — and hadn’t since 1987 — the couple did occupy a suite at the top of Sandringham House known as the nursery floor.
While Diana took the main bed, the prince slept in the adjoining dressing room, with William and Harry, who received bicycles as presents from their parents, next door.
It was, of course, all an act and the prince and princess were scarcely speaking. The mood was hardly improved by media interpretations of the Queen’s broadcast, which the family all watched together on Christmas afternoon.
In it, the Queen spoke of her intention to serve the nation — and the Commonwealth — for ‘some years to come’.
This was seen as a monarch ruling out abdication and committing herself to the vows she made as a young Queen, almost 40 years earlier.
According to Diana, Prince Charles took it personally and, bizarrely it may seem, blamed her for it because of the state of their marriage.
In one of the most far-fetched episodes in Spencer, we see Kristen Stewart running toward the blazing guns during the traditional Boxing Day shoot.
And that was not the only ridiculous incident related to the shoot. While it is certainly true that Diana did not care much for bloodsports, the idea that she would ask a chef what happened to the shot pheasants is absurd.
She was brought up on the Althorp Estate that had its own shoot, and it was at one, after all, that she first met the Prince of Wales.
In fact, in 1991, she joined the Queen, Prince Edward, Philip and Viscount Linley and the other guns for a lunch at nearby Flitcham Hill in a log cabin that was a present from staff for Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee. (In winter, lunches on royal shoots are without exception taken indoors in front of roaring log fires, not as picnics as Spencer has it.)
For years, Diana kept a photograph of herself at a shoot standing between her butler Paul Burrell and footman George Smith, a former Falklands War veteran who later claimed he had been raped by a member of Prince Charles’s staff.
Sadly, Spencer is littered with deliberate or accidental errors — I could supply a list.
Take the formality of the screen Diana’s relationship with the Queen. She refers to her as ‘Your Majesty’. Yet in all their private encounters, the princess unfailingly called her mother-in-law ‘Mama’.
Almost every scene in this joyless film is drenched in symbolism — from the pearl necklace Diana feels is strangling her, to the mountains of food prepared in the Sandringham kitchens and its references to the princess’s bulimia.
The reality is that Diana made no decision to end her marriage at Christmas 1991. But never mind: why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
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