With Spencer and The Crown both tackling the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, the appetite of audiences for stories about her shows no sign of fading 25 years since her death. The latest of them, The Princess, just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Made by British filmmaker Ed Perkins, it’s a documentary formed entirely of archive footage (ie: no interviews, no voiceovers). And there’s plenty of that to choose from, given that Diana was endlessly covered by the media from the moment her relationship with Prince Charles became public in 1980, where this film begins.
The Princess retells her story from a new perspective by giving all these clips room to breathe, holding a chilling mirror to the strange effect Diana had on her country and the world beyond. Here are five of the film’s more eyebrow-raising scenes.
1. A newsreader casually mentions that the family of 19-year-old Diana has ‘vouched for her virginity’
The engagement of Diana Spencer, 19, and Prince Charles, 32, caused a media frenzy that never really stopped until her death in 1997. At one point in The Princess we hear a solemn newsreader explain how Diana was a good pick for the wife of a future king because of her innocence and her lack of previous sexual partners. The same newsreader then goes further, explaining that her family has ‘vouched for her virginity’. He might as well be talking about a prize cow.
2. A skinhead gets a Diana tattoo on the eve of her wedding
The Princess shows how Diana and Charles’s wedding sent Britain into a collective frenzy – one which would only be repeated on the occasion of her death 16 years later. One of the more surprising uber-fans uncovered by the film is a young male skinhead who asks a tattoo artist to ink a portrait of Diana onto his arm. The tattoo artist remarks that he hasn’t seen such demand ‘since ‘Farrah Fawcett-Majors’, referring to the Charlie’s Angels star who we presume must have inspired a similar level of inking among 1970s British hard men.
3. A pundit predicts that the paparazzi will no longer be interested in Diana after her wedding day
This prediction is up there with the ones that concluded that Brexit would never happen and Trump could never become US President. A serious-looking TV pundit is seen musing on the media interest in Diana Spencer and concludes that the demand for photographs of her would immediately disappear once she was married, as everyone would then begin respecting the solemnity of her membership of the royal family. We know how that one ended.
There’s a clip of Diana’s pregnancy being announced over a Sainsbury’s tannoy
4. When Diana’s pregnancy is announced in the aisles of a supermarket
Once married, the next question on the mind of Diana followers was inevitably: when will she bear the future king a child? If you happen to have been shopping at Sainsbury’s in November 1981 you would have been one of the first to hear the answer to that question. The Princess has a clip of her pregnancy being announced over the shop tannoy, followed by visible enthusiasm. The announcement doubtlessly broke up the monotony of updates regarding cut-price Spam and discounted baked beans.
5. When Christopher Hitchens spits bile at grieving mourners after her death
After Diana died on August 31 1997, many thousands paid their respects in the grounds of Kensington Gardens, next to the palace in which she had been living at the time. The Princess dwells on one attendee who was a notable dissenter among this ocean of grief: writer and intellectual Christoper Hitchens, who no one could accuse of being a monarchist. While having a conversation with a reporter on a bench, Hitchens is interrupted by an upset mourner who tells him he’s being horribly disrespectful. Hitchens reacts angrily, telling the man and the watching viewers that his aggressor has ‘brain rot’. The conversation ends there.
The Princess premiered at Sundance and will be on HBO in 2022.