CNN's Diana Re-examines the Life of the People's Princess

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Photo credit: Central Press - Getty Images
Photo credit: Central Press - Getty Images

Between Spencer, The Crown, and Diana: The Musical (streaming now on Netflix, and opening on Broadway later this year), there's no shortage of Princess Diana-related content available to consume in 2021. But executive producers Matt Robins and Emma Cooper are presenting a different view of the late royal in their new docuseries, Diana, which re-examines the icon's life, and tells the story of Diana not as the "People's Princess" but as a modern woman.

The series begins tonight on CNN with an episode about Diana's childhood, one that focuses in on her relationship with own mother, Frances Shand Kydd, and Kydd's experience trying to leave an unhappy, unsafe aristocratic marriage. As explained in the clip above, when Kydd attempted to take her children away from this unhealthy home, she was "shunned in society" and in the end, lost custody of her own children.

"What was compelling about that particular part of Diana's story is that a lot of people didn't actually know that. And this idea of her mother leaving is a much more complex and layered story than many of us growing up in the UK really understood," Robins tells Town & Country. "We get into the depths of that in episode one. And we extrapolate from that, how did that feel? The feeling of abandonment and loss can shape a person in many different ways."

Without over speculating about how she felt and what she went through, the series does a good job of helping you to understand that, yes, this was a person born into great privilege in many ways, but her life was incredibly complex from the get go."

Ahead of tonight's premiere, T&C spoke with Robins and Cooper about the American fascination with the royals, their own views on the monarchy, and why Charles's childhood is important context for Diana's story.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

There are a lot of projects—musicals, films, documentaries—focused on Diana right now. Why do you think that is?

Matt Robbins: My feeling is that we're in a moment where—thanks to technology and archival materials—we are able to look back on iconic people, iconic women in particular, with a new lens. Diana is certainly part of that. She's somebody who was adored, worshiped, talked about at the time, but perhaps not fully understood. And I know that both of us felt strongly in the early phases of developing this project that there was an opportunity here to see Diana in a fresh light.

Emma Cooper: To add to that, Diana's been a huge part of all of our lives. I was five when she got married, and it feels like this is the right time, in 2021, to be able to turn back and look at her properly from a modern perspective. And I was—me, myself, personally—really itching to do that. I feel that she's often looked at and loved, but I'm not sure she's really been looked at in this way before.

Why do you think Americans have such an interest in Diana?

MR: This gets to the root of why we pursued this as a subject because having lived in the U.S. for 10 years, my understandings of Diana have changed and been shaped by what I've seen in the States. Diana was always very strongly tagged by the British media—and she was unable to escape many of the tags that were put on her from a very young age. Living in the U.S., and seeing the way Americans think and talk about Diana, there is a tendency in the U.S. to see her as something more than perhaps she was understood in the UK.

She's seen as a ceiling breaker. She's seen as a very strong woman who wasn't afraid to speak up for the things she believed in. She was a woman who used her privilege and her status to articulate the experiences of those who didn't have the platform, didn't have the voice that she had. And in many ways, she was ahead of her time. We really gravitated to the idea that she was this incredibly modern presence in an era that, looking back, doesn't feel particularly modern. For me personally, as a Brit living in America, there was a deeper level of understanding about Diana as a human being that generated our interest in telling the story.

EC: I also think, Diana, as a Brit was quite American. Her emotions were quite close to the surface of her skin. She literally did wear her heart on her sleeve, and sorry, to be cliche, but that's quite un-British. She was happy to show her emotions, and particularly in such a public role, and in such a formal family.

Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images

Charles’s childhood is featured pretty prominently in the first episode. Why was it important for you to give him context, too, in this story about Diana?

MR: This was a real point of deep consideration for everyone on the team: can you tell the Diana story without understanding how these two people come together? And some of the more archaic elements of the aristocracy in Britain are laid bare in episode one, again, in a way that I think a lot of people perhaps don't know.

We didn't want to just have Charles arrive as the heir to the throne, and the fairytale prince. We wanted to try and understand how these two people came to create this very strong bond very quickly, but equally perhaps, with both of them going into something that they hadn't really had the time or depth to consider on a kind of more profound level. Diana was still so young. And so there's an element there, which speaks to the class system in Britain, and speaks to this idea of really bottoming out what the experience looked like for these two people as human beings, rather than just presenting everything as expected: this is the fairytale wedding between a future king and queen. Instead, these are two human beings who are both arriving at this junction with a very different set of pressures and circumstances weighing down on them. And I think that's why we lean into Charles's story in episode one.

Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images

Did working on this project change your perception of the monarchy?

MR: The simple answer is yes, it has fundamentally changed the way I view, not just Diana, but also the monarchy, and the way that we, as a society, talk about women and powerful women. I've come to see Diana as a study in power, and a new kind of power that emerged around her, and has been developed beyond her. For me, that is the power of monarchy, too. There's a tendency in the UK to kind of go one of two ways. Some people say the monarchy is a fantastic institution, but ultimately powerless. And other people say, no, this is a physical manifestation of a class structure that's been around for a very, very long time, and remains powerful and strong.

What you see with Diana is that, given a platform, and given an opportunity, people who come from the kind of background she came from, and have the opportunity to participate in the monarchy, can have an incredibly powerful voice. What our series exposes is that the core tragedy, not the traditional tragedy that you are told about Diana in terms of her dying young, which is obviously unthinkably horrific, but the broader tragedy, is that her voice wasn't cherished, and nourished, and encouraged in a way that it could have been. Here we had an icon, a very powerful human being who wanted to affect change in the world, but because of the time she lived in and the organization that she was a part of, she couldn't flourish and couldn't find her voice in the way that we instinctively feel she should have or would have.

EC: I think it's in episode four, somebody describes her as having soft power, and that is exactly what she brought to the monarchy. I have to confess, I'm an absolute super fan of Diana, and making the series didn't make that any less. For me, as a 40-something feminist woman, she represents what it is to be a modern woman—in terms of showing her vulnerabilities, and not allowing them to be seen as weak. She has given the monarchy that legacy, and we see it in her children. They are beginning to use those tools, and as we step into the '20s, and into the '30s, that's what's required of ancient institutions—to become more emotional and more in touch with the world around them. I think that they are slowly awakening to that.

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