Princess Diana on Display: The Most Haunting Moments of The Princess

Nearly 25 years after her death in a car crash, Princess Diana's life under the microscope is unsparingly revisited in HBO's The Princess.

By Natalie Finn Aug 14, 2022 12:00 AMTags
Watch: Actresses Who Have Played Princess Diana On Screen

What more is there to know about Princess Diana's strange life and impossibly tragic death?

The mother of Prince William and Prince Harry—on one hand the People's Princess and on the other a thorn in the Crown's side from the moment she and Prince Charles said "I do," depending on whom you ask—will have been gone 25 years on Aug. 31. She's one of the most dissected public figures of all time, her relationship with the royal family, the press and the citizenry that alternately adored and excoriated her seemingly examined from every angle.

But the HBO documentary The Princess, composed entirely of archival footage and commentary from the 1980s and '90s, throws it back to the era in question as her life was unfolding: No reenactments, no narration or contemporary analysis of a bygone time. Much of the ambient noise is provided by the sound of camera shutters clicking away.

The end result is not an attempt to see the "real" Diana behind the scenes, but rather an unsparing look at how her real life was turned into a 24/7 spectacle. And it's unclear, 42 years after the British press first got wind of the heir to the throne's most promising love interest yet, whether anything has changed.

How Prince William and Prince Harry Have Paid Tribute to Princess Diana Over the Years

"Our hope is that this approach allows us to hopefully turn the camera back onto all of ourselves and ask us some difficult questions about our relationship to Diana," director Ed Perkins explained to TODAY. "But also more broadly, our relationship to the monarchy, our celebrity relationship."


Whether she played give-and-take with the media or not, Diana never asked to not be able to go anywhere without being followed, her predicament calling to mind what The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears showed of Britney's suffocating world in the '00s.

And you can't not notice the similarities between the scrutiny of Harry's mum and the treatment of his now-wife Meghan Markle, who like her late mother-in-law was once heralded as a hugely needed breath of fresh air for the monarchy, only to eventually be accused of trying to burn it down

But while Britney's embarking on her next, albeit long-delayed, chapter to live life how she sees fit, and Harry and Meghan left the U.K. to forge their own path, Diana never got her chance to start over. Which makes everything in The Princess more poignant—and, quite often—infuriating. Because you know how it ends.

Here are the documentary's most haunting moments:

"Chasing Princess Diana!"

There's nothing not creepy about seeing the throng of photographers outside the Ritz in Paris, waiting for a glimpse of Princess Diana and boyfriend Dodi Fayed on what ended up being the final night of their lives. Onlookers excitedly watched the paparazzi, in cars and on motorbikes, taking off after the couple's Mercedes.

And So It Begins

Cut to a smaller but still determined crowd of reporters waiting outside then-Lady Diana Spencer's London flat in 1981, asking the 19-year-old if any "announcement of [her] marriage in the near future" was a possibility, photographers trailing her from her front door to her car, snapping away.

London Calling

The irresistible excitement over Diana and Prince Charles' engagement when it was announced on Feb. 24, 1981, is handily juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the social and economic turmoil roiling Margaret Thatcher's Britain at the time. One pundit called the still-chugging royal family a dearly loved "anachronism in the dismal 1980s."

Chemistry Test

Watching Charles and Diana's engagement interview and other early interactions through the the prism of knowing how spectacularly their marriage unraveled can make every glance, pause and nervous gnaw of the princess' lip feel fraught with meaning.

But really...they were kind of adorable in the beginning (though The Princess avoids Charles' infamous utterance of "whatever 'in love' means"). Just how unsuitable they were for the long haul is well-documented, but they seem happy about their choices in the moment.


A commentator predicted that, once Diana and the prince were married, "all this telephoto lens business will stop."

Sensing a Pattern

During another interview ahead of their wedding, Charles said, "If you don't try to work out in your own mind some kind of method for existing and surviving this kind of thing, you would go mad, I think. So in the end you do get used to it." He turned to Diana, asking, "I don't know, do you find after the last six months you are beginning to get used to it?"

"Just," she offered.

The couple's sons would touch on the exact same topic during their respective engagement interviews decades later. 

They Did

As Charles and Diana were ferried away from St. Paul's Cathedral after taking their vows on July 29, 1981, a commentator guilelessly noted that the regiment escorting their carriage on horseback was "under the command of Col. Andrew Parker-Bowles." Who, the announcer added, along with his wife, Camilla, had hosted the couple on two occasions at their home in Wiltshire the previous year. 

So the newlyweds were "among friends," the broadcaster continued.

The Heir Arrives

On Nov. 6, 1981, shoppers at a supermarket were treated to the news that Diana and Charles were expecting their first child, the announcement coming in over the loudspeaker. When Prince William was born on June 21, 1982, sing-song chants of "It's a boy! It's a boy! It's a boy-oy!" broke out outside St. Mary's Hospital.

"I'm obviously relieved and delighted," Charles said outside the hospital steps. "It's marvelous."

Stopped by reporters while she was in New Mexico, Charles' sister, Princess Anne, was asked, "What about Diana?" And she replied, "You tell me." Apparently it was the first the Princess Royal had heard of the news.

Diana calmed a fussy William by letting him suck on her pinky finger while they family was posing for photos at his christening, at one point seemingly disregarding a comment made by Charles.

Cut right to a scene of a pheasant hunt and a bird being shot out of the sky.

Outback Stakeout

The glorious reception for Diana on her and Charles' tour of Australia in 1983 started the prevailing narrative that the Prince of Wales felt outshined by his radiant wife—which, he was, but he handled it graciously for the cameras.

"Am I in the way?" he quipped as photographers angled for another shot.

Speaking at a banquet, Charles joked, "I've come to the conclusion that it would have been far easier to have two wives"—cut to Diana at the table looking down—"to have covered both sides of the street, and I could have walked down the middle directing the operation."

But taking a backseat to Diana, a commentator insisted, was "not enjoyable for him."

Meanwhile, another pundit noted that Diana was "the best thing to happen to British royalty in a century," helping turn a populace that was split 50-50 among republicans and monarchists into a group that was at 80 percent approval of the royal family.

And Yet...

Rave reviews aside, the press soon settled into the "marriage of convenience" narrative and sought to poke holes in Diana's popularity.

Asked what she thought when she read in the papers that she was a "determined, domineering woman," Diana replied to an interviewer, "I don't always read that. People, they're willing to tell me that. But I don't think I am."

Trouble Behind the Scenes?

After Diana made a splash meeting the Reagans and dancing with John Travolta at the White House in 1985, and Charles was subsequently asked about that first and foremost while he was presiding over an event back home, the picture of a marriage in trouble was complete.

"A state of cool indifference has settled over this marriage," one commentator droned. "The one problem that we were all aware was there from the start—the 12-year age gap—really has begun to tell."

On a trip to visit with flood victims in Wales, the couple weren't meeting each other "physically, mentally or emotionally," noted another.

Meanwhile, a woman on the street, when asked her thoughts on the Wales marriage, replied, "It's the media that's causing the problems, and the reporters—leave them alone!"

Hungry Like a Wolf

Cue another hunting metaphor: a rabbit racing across a field, a pack of dogs catching up to the rabbit.

Picture Worth 1,000 Words

Though she and Charles were on the trip to India together in 1992, photographers clucked over the image of the princess sitting alone in front of the Taj Mahal, having made the journey there herself while her husband attended a meeting in Bangalore.

"So she's just sitting there, is she?" one said to another, who replied, "Thinking about her marriage."

Leaving the area, Diana described her visit as a "very healing experience." Asked in what way, she replied that they could "work that out" for themselves.

The Tables Turn

When Andrew Morton's biography Diana: Her True Story first hit shelves in 1992, the backlash was swift—against everyone! 

Unable to say yet that he'd ripped the story straight from the princess' mouth, Morton tirelessly defended his reporting against the immediate accusations that he was full of it. On the flip side, royal family defenders took the palace's silence on the matter as evidence that whatever Morton had been told—including the revelation that Diana had attempted suicide and her recollection of finding a lovingly engraved bracelet Charles intended to give to Camilla before their 1981 wedding—was "the result of a sick mind."

What passed for a more sympathetic commentator noted that, if you were Diana, "Wouldn't you have developed a whole slew of problems" as well?

The palace did deny that Diana cooperated in any way with the book—which, we now know, was written not only with her consent, but with tapes she made expressly for Morton detailing her experiences.

The Annus Horribilis That Just Keeps Giving

The fallout from the Morton book was compounded by The Sun publishing the "squidgy" conversation between Diana and her friend James Gilbey (whom she later denied ever having an affair with), and 1992 ended with Prime Minister John Major's announcement that the Prince and Princess of Wales were separating.

Photographers stood on chairs outside the walls around Kensington Palace to get a glimpse of Diana, and the phalanx refused to disperse even as she was driving, crowding in for one last snap as she was trying to make a turn in her Audi.

"One day she'll use the media for her own advantages and she'll give you a nice picture. The next day, she will have a bag over her head," a photographer noted. "We're never sure what way she's going to react."

Diana's seen trying to get through the airport holding a tennis racket in front of her face, though she has a big smile for a little girl who runs up to hand her a small bouquet of flowers.

She Said, but Then He Said

The pendulum swung the other way and it was "Squidgy Who?" after the press got their hands on a recording of Charles and Camilla's intimate and supposedly private chit-chat, resulting in the truly unfortunate "Tampongate" in 1993.

And then, surely against all advice, Charles talked to journalist Jonathan Dimbleby for the news special Charles: The Private Man, the Public Role—in which he admitted to being unfaithful once his marriage was "irretrievably broken down, us both having tried."

Dozens of journalists attended a screening of the special, with veteran royal reporter James Whitaker observing afterward, "The best thing that can happen would be for the queen to live a very long time."

The same night it aired, on June 29, 1994, Diana donned what was immediately deemed her little black "revenge dress" and attended the Serpentine Gallery's Summer Party.

But then, in October 1994, the embarrassing Princess in Love—a tell-all of Diana's affair with her sons' riding instructor James Hewitt—was published, launching the rumor (debunked many times over) that wouldn't quit that he was Harry's actual father and relegating the Dimbleby debacle to the backburner.

The Last Word

The final nail in the Wales marriage's coffin was Diana's jaw-dropping "there were three of us in this marriage" sit-down with Martin Bashir for the BBC's Panorama that aired Nov. 20, 1995. It was watched live by approximately 15 million people, with even pub TVs tuned into the interview so patrons could watch while sipping their pints.

"I lost all respect for the royal family after watching that last night," one man, quizzed about his reaction, told a reporter, while another woman said of Diana, "I thought she was stunning."

But the royal family didn't care for her unprecedented, polarizing candor (even Oprah Winfrey wondered, when Sarah Ferguson was on her couch, why neither of them would "play the game" and "go along with the program" for all the obvious perks), and the interview directly hastened the divorce that, when they announced their separation, neither Charles nor Diana had planned to get.

The subsequent coverage in 1996 was wildly snarky, with one American correspondent saying in his report from outside Buckingham Palace: "And so the world's most famous dysfunctional family now launches the world's most famous divorce proceedings. There shouldn't be much fight over the record collection—their tastes in that are different, too—but there are the royal houses, the royal castles, the royal silver and, of course, the royal children to consider."

Commentary included descriptions of Diana as "grim-faced but 17 million pounds richer." A sighting of her still wearing her engagement ring and wedding band was read as a thumbed nose at Charles, a reminder that she didn't want a divorce. "She looked beautiful," one female observer noted, "but I noticed she was wearing a lot of makeup." 

"The Beginning of Something"

Trying to figure out her post-HRH lot in life, Diana pressed on with her humanitarian efforts. In January 1997, she traveled to Angola, famously stepping into an active minefield to call attention to international efforts to ban landmines. She fulfilled her longtime dream of meeting Nelson Mandela, visiting him in South Africa that March. She donated a closetful of dresses that were auctioned off by Christie's in June.

"She has 20, 30, 40 years of active public life ahead of her," observed one commentator, "so that people who think if this is the end of something misunderstand her, this is the beginning of something."

The End of Everything

The Princess doesn't bother with the relentlessly photographed scene of Diana's death, images from the prior 17 years of her life having already effectively illustrated what she dealt with day in and day out.

Instead, onto the aftermath, thousands of people thronging the streets in disbelief, every paper and magazine at the newsstand sporting Diana's face on the cover, demands for the queen to show herself ringing out from those gathered outside Buckingham Palace, many choice words for the press recorded for posterity.

The photographers pivoted to chronicling the outpouring of public grief, camera shutters clicking away as mourners made their pilgrimage to leave flowers and spend a few moments with their memories of Princess Diana. 

The Princess premieres Saturday, Aug. 13, at 8 p.m. on HBO and will be streaming on HBO Max.

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