Watching the opening segment of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s docuseries, I thought for a moment we were about to get Meghan and Harry's very own version of The Crown. As they began to hint at the pressures of being royal it seemed we were about to be taken through a kind of inside story, a no-holds-barred account of what it’s really like to be in The Firm. Something, at least, that lived up to the drama of the documentary’s controversial trailer. A few more minutes in I was less certain.
Ah, it seems to be all about their romance now. So this is going to be six episodes of their love story? Now it seems to be an evisceration of the press. So it’s a doc about media exploitation? Wrong again.
A general rule of thumb with documentary making is that you need to be crystal clear about what story you are trying to tell, and you need to make sure the viewers understand what that story is pretty quickly. The best documentaries are held together with invisible strings – you should feel guided through them. Within the first 10 minutes of the Sussexes’ six-part series, I found myself wondering where they were going with it. Three episodes in and I can’t say I’m any the wiser.
Candidates for a central topic to anchor the series flew in from all angles in that opening episode. In a mammoth nine-minute intro that veered at times a little close to what I'd term “conspiracy-theory aesthetics” we got various contenders: a great romance; a kind of autobiographical account to combat misinformation; a tale of media treachery and bribery. All of them were, individually, valid fodder for a documentary, but none seemed to take off. Nothing was rigorously examined; topics seemed to be picked up, given a short airing and then dropped again. For a fleeting moment in the second episode we were suddenly being told about Brexit and how it had stoked the subterranean racism that Meghan faced. It’s an interesting topic but – given just a couple of scant minutes’ screen time – it didn’t really land.
I think I’d have preferred to watch almost any of the many dead-end story arcs that seemed to appear (only to melt away again) as an individual film – though only if they could drum up some real insight, some more depth than the series currently boasts. Instead, the whole thing feels disjointed, pulling you from pillar to post in a breakneck journey from their first text messages to the history of colonialism in Britain.
The lack of a narrator does them no favours. It’s unfashionable to have a narrator in documentaries these days, but in the absence of any bespoke commentary, the story can become extremely hard to follow. There were times watching the first three episodes when you just wanted to stop and say “hold on a moment; where the hell are we?”
It’s not a matter of being slavishly chronological. You simply need to signpost effectively, both when you’re moving on to an entirely new topic and, crucially, whenever you’re reaching back in time. You also, it should be said, can’t mislead the viewers. I feared there might be rather more of the manipulation that was rightly called out in the trailer – actually, that doesn’t seem to be the case in these first three episodes. But the timeline does often feel a little hazy. When you first see extracts from the Panorama interview Diana gave (a rare thing these days, given the BBC’s pledge never to show it), you know it’s 1995, but a minute later John Major is telling the Commons chamber that the Prince and Princess of Wales are separating. No one tells you that was in fact years earlier.
What is abundantly clear is that there was a whole phalanx of cooks on this project. The end credits made me laugh – they were so absurdly long. There were nine executive producers – you tend to get that on a huge international drama. For a documentary there were an awful lot of interested parties, from Story Syndicate, Archewell Productions, Diamond Docs and Netflix itself of course. Doubtless all with subtly different agendas.
Rather than resembling a conventional royal documentary, this was more akin to one of those celebrity docs that bring in big audiences for Netflix, where the star is both in front of the camera and has ultimate editorial sign-off. Whatever the truth of the internal wrangles behind the scenes on the production, this was very much the authorised take.
One thing streamers are obsessed by, above all else, is a dramatic arc. Netflix wants its documentaries to be crafted like a drama would be, using beats that traditionally belong in drama. I’m surprised it didn’t push harder for that with this series. Even though the access often felt intimate, most of the drama rarely happened on screen. The photos and clips of the couple’s initial courtship were – briefly – gripping. That blossoming romance, at first in secret, and then in the face of a global media whirligig of absurd proportions, was genuinely affecting because, ironically, the viewer was being given a privileged ringside seat on the action, albeit after the fact.
As for the rest of the story – the couple’s take on press intrusion, their views on how coverage of Meghan should be viewed through the prism of race – it all felt deeply frustrating. Depending on your perspective, an interminable whinge, or a missed opportunity of criminal proportions.
I have some sympathy with what the series is trying to say, but in story terms it didn’t really work. If you want to keep viewers glued, you need to drill down into a few specific incidents. With four “investigative researchers” namechecked in the end roller, you’d think the films would do their best to get a bit more forensic in places, to not shy away from the specifics. Oddly, for what is in some ways such an evidently angry cri-de-coeur, it feels like several punches have been pulled.
The music, which might have helped cohere things, didn’t improve matters. In the body of the films the score felt oddly piecemeal – rather than helping with pacing and emotion, it grated, too often as generic as some of the lines of attack.
It should be such a riveting watch and yet, put simply, it isn’t. The attack lines that we’re offered here don’t feel fresh or revelatory. And they don’t land as they should.
In so many ways this series is a million miles away from the film we made for the BBC, Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen, which – much like Harry and Meghan’s docuseries – drew on never before seen archival footage. Where our film tried to be quiet, this one is happy to shout from the rooftop. Where the former strived to be impartial, this is unapologetically activist. That would be fine if it went far enough – if it had any real impact.
Both are filmed autobiographies of a kind, drawing on a private archive and largely reliant on the words of their subjects. I’d wager they were both – like perhaps a growing number of documentary films these days – made in the edit, and not, so to say, in the can. Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on rebuilding the ship at sea.
As told to Eleanor Steafel