Since this is the sort of film in which the children of the subject go through photo albums reminiscing about what they remember of their mother and their childhoods with her, don’t approach Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy as a shocking-revelation documentary. This special, airing Monday on HBO, is an hour with the sons of Princess Diana, as William, now 35 years old, and Harry, 32, talk about their mother, who died in a Paris car accident 20 years ago, at the age of 36.
Early on, William says, “This is the first time that the two of us have ever spoken about her as a mother.” That line serves as both promotion (there’ll be more TV specials about Diana, but this one promises particular intimacy) and as a kind of warning: Private men raised by parents accustomed to paparazzi firestorms, the implication is, “Don’t ask us for more than this.” That said, Diana, Our Mother is a very touching and forthright hour spent with the sons and other people who knew Diana.
These range from Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, to Elton John, and everyone attests to Diana high-wattage charm, her playfulness, her intelligence, and her seriousness about various causes she championed. These observers are very good at describing Diana’s life — as her brother puts it — as “a global superstar.” With that status came a certain amount of tension: Even as young boys, the brothers were aware of the intrusion of newspaper photographers into even the most prosaic of outings, and we see a brief clip of Diana, on vacation with her sons, asking the paparazzi to leave the boys alone — in vain, it turns out.
But what is most affecting in this documentary, directed by Ashley Gething, are William’s and Henry’s memories. They look at photos of themselves as children, being hugged by their mother and hugging her back. “She was one of the naughtiest parents,” Harry says, recalling how Diana smuggled candy to him when he was at school. William tells an amusing story about being 12 years old, and Diana surprising him by inviting three pals over to see him: a trio of supermodels that included Cindy Crawford. Talk about using your celebrity well: What a fine, if uncomfortable, prank to pull on an adolescent boy.
The “legacy” part of the show’s title comes in discussions and film footage of Diana’s work visiting homeless shelters, publicizing efforts to ban land mines in Bosnia, and helping to correct inaccurate ideas about AIDS at a time when many people lived in frightening ignorance of the disease. We see the brothers doing their own work in some of these areas. And toward the end, William and Harry speculate on what life would be like had Diana lived. She’d now be just 56 years old and a grandmother. William jokingly refers to her as “Granny Diana” and a “nightmare grandmother” — because she would undoubtedly spoil her grandchildren extravagantly. “She was our mum. She still is our mum. She was the best mum in the world,” says Harry at one point, and any viewer watching who feels the same way about his or her own mum will believe his earnest assertion.
Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy airs Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO.