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24 Years Gone, TV Still Can't Get Enough Princess Diana

A guide to pop culture's never-ending obsession with The People's Princess.
  • High-brow, low-brow and everything in between: TV's many Dianas.
    High-brow, low-brow and everything in between: TV's many Dianas.

    In both life and death, Princess Diana has provided endless fodder for pop culture. Nearly a quarter century after her tragic death, she remains a fixture on magazine covers, at the movies, and, yes, on television. Over the span of just five weeks, three different Diana projects are set to debut: Netflix's Diana: The Musical, a filmed version of the forthcoming Broadway play, CNN’s six-part Diana docuseries, and Kristen Stewart’s Oscars hopeful Spencer. With so much Diana on screen, we thought we'd break down the many ways we've seen the People’s Princess depicted over the years, from high-profile dramatizations to all-access documentaries and beyond:

    The Big-Budget Dramatization

    For many modern television viewers, Princess Diana’s life and legacy has become synonymous with The Crown, and Emma Corrin's star-making performance as the young Diana in the show's fourth season, much of which was devoted to her tumultuous relationship with Prince Charles.

    Netflix doubled down on its royal family fever last week with a Hamilton-style filmed version of the Broadway show, Diana: The Musical. Based on Princess Diana’s life, the smusical was to open in late March 2020 before being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic (it's now scheduled to open on Broadway November 17th). Viewers should beware, however: the show earned middling reviews during its limited off-Broadway run in 2019, so don’t expect it to meet the high bar set by The Crown.

    Of course The Crown and Diana: The Musical aren’t the first big-budget projects to dramatize Diana’s story, and they surely won’t be the last. In 2009, the U.K.’s Channel 4 released its own take on Queen Elizabeth’s legacy, The Queen, starring Emily Hamilton as Princess Diana. On the film side, Naomi Watts starred in 2013 biopic Diana, which focused primarily on the last two years of the Princess’ life, while Kristen Stewart will next don the tiara in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, opening in theaters November 5th.

    The TV Movie

    For every prestige film or television series about Diana’s life and legacy, there are three TV movies eager to dramatize her headline-making story. In 1982, ABC and CBS got the ball rolling with dueling films, Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story and The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, respectively, both of which depicted the couple’s courtship and 1981 wedding. In the years that followed — particularly after Charles and Diana’s split, and again after her death — countless dramas about the late Princess have been released, all with very TV movie-sounding titles: notable mentions include broadcast competitors Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After (ABC, 1992) and Diana: Her True Story (NBC, 1993), Diana: Last Days of a Princess (TLC, 2007), and The Murder of Princess Diana (Lifetime, 2007).

    Most recently, Diana (played by Bonnie Soper) appeared in Lifetime’s Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace, which relied on flashback sequences to connect Harry and Diana’s experiences.

    The Documentary

    CNN’s six-part series Diana is the latest in a long string of documentaries and docuseries that have sought to examine (and re-examine) the real woman behind the moniker “The People’s Princess.” Countless films were released during Diana’s life and in the years immediately following her death, but more recent projects have benefited from hindsight and shifting perceptions of the monarchy.

    In 2017, Prince William and Prince Harry commissioned two documentaries to mark the 20th anniversary of their mother’s death: Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy and Diana, 7 Days, both of which offer an intimate look at Diana’s impact in life and death. That same year, ABC and People collaborated on The Story of Diana, a two-night documentary event featuring interviews with Diana’s brother Charles Spencer and others close to the Princess. Completists will also want to check out The Royal House of Windsor on Netflix (Episodes 4 and 5 discuss Diana’s conflict with “the firm”) and ITV’s The Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess doc about the Princess’ bombshell BBC interview with Martin Bashir.

    The Reaction Piece

    Rather than focus explicitly on Diana’s life, films and TV shows in this category have instead focused on the global mourning that took place in the aftermath of her death. The highest profile of this bunch is The Queen, Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning take on Queen Elizabeth’s public and private reaction to the Princess’ death. While Stephen Frears’ film depicts The People’s Princess solely through archival footage (which prevents it from being a true Diana dramatization à la The Crown), The Queen occupies an essential place in pop culture’s Diana oeuvre, as it’s the rare project to actually earn the Queen’s stamp of approval.

    Another notable reaction piece is Diana and I, a British TV movie that follows four ordinary people affected by the Princess’ death. Released in 2017, the drama boasts performances from Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami), Laurie Davidson (Cats), and John Gordon Sinclair (Traces).

    The Princess Tells Her Own Story

    A review of pop culture Dianas wouldn't complete without acknowledging the role Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview played in cementing her legacy. During the nearly hour-long interview, Diana spoke candidly about her marriage to Prince Charles, his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles — “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” she famously said — Andrew Morton’s biography, and the “abusive” treatment she received from the media. Hailed at the time as “the scoop of the century” (although the ethics behind it have since come under question), the interview provided fodder for every documentary, TV movie, and dramatization that followed, and 25 years later it remains one of the most essential windows into Diana’s psyche available to the masses.

    The same goes for National Geographic’s Diana: In Her Own Words, which relies on previously unaired audio tapes Diana recorded for Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story. In the tapes, the Princess (who had not yet separated from Prince Charles at the time) calls her seemingly storybook wedding as “the worst day of my life” and reveals that she never thought she’d actually be queen. When The Crown Season 4 debuted on Netflix, Diana: In Her Own Words catapulted up the service’s Top 10 list. It has since been removed from both Netflix and Disney+, but for now you can stream it in its entirety on YouTube.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Princess Diana, CNN, Netflix, The Crown, Diana, Kristen Stewart, Prince Charles