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TV Looks for New Ways to Tell Diana Story as Anniversary of Princess’ Death Nears

As the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death approaches, her status as a global icon remains intact. For the many filmmakers and broadcasters getting ready to mark the occasion, the creative challenge has been to find something new to say about the person who was once the world’s most famous woman, and the results have proved controversial in some cases.

The difficulty is such that two new TV projects on “the people’s princess” even have identical titles. Producers on both sides of the Atlantic are busy promoting never-seen footage of Diana, never-heard tapes and first-time interviews with her sons, princes William and Harry, talking about their celebrated mum.

“Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy,” which aired on HBO in the U.S. and ITV in the U.K., promised exclusive access, and at the start of the special, Harry underlines that’s what it delivers: “This is the first time the two of us have spoken about her as a mother,” he says.

Nick Kent of Oxford Film, which made the documentary, had built up trust with the British royal family through two ITV projects on Queen Elizabeth II. Kent says the film on Diana unfolded in unexpected ways.

“There was no script or template, and we discovered it as we made it,” he says. “We knew the princes would talk about their charitable work and continuing their mother’s legacy, but it became clear that they had something more personal in mind.”

The show, which Drive has sold extensively internationally, was set to hinge on separate set-piece interviews with William and Harry. But the princes came back to producers with a photo album put together by their mother that they had unearthed, and the shots of them looking through and discussing the pictures bookend the film and provide its most memorable moments.

Kent says he was aware that the project was one of many about Diana, but as a filmmaker, he tuned that out. “You can’t focus on what others are doing,” he says. “You just have to be as true as you can to your source material.”

“Diana: In Her Own Words” is for Britain’s Channel 4, and PBS will have a version in the U.S. under the title “Diana — Her Story.” A show named “Diana: In Her Own Words” for National Geographic in the U.S. and around the world, including the U.K., was announced in the same week as the Channel 4 project. Each team maintains that it is sticking with the title, making for confusing TV listings — in the U.K. at least.

The Channel 4 and PBS show centers on videotapes recorded by Diana’s speech coach, Peter Settelen, as he prepped her to speak publicly about her life and disintegrating marriage to Prince Charles. Kaboom Film & TV’s Charles Furneaux chased down and bought the tapes.

“We knew the anniversary was coming up and a lot of films of a certain sort were getting made,” Furneaux says. “This is qualitatively different, as we get to see Diana in a way you don’t in any other footage. People are perceived by their public image, but that is not the whole picture.”

NBC showed some of the Settelen footage in 2004, but it has not been on TV in the U.K. The BBC reportedly previously paid for some of it, then shelved it for fear of the controversy it would provoke. Channel 4 has an edgier profile yet still faces accusations that the program is exploitative.

Furneaux disagrees. “It’s no different than any historical film. You get the best source material available,” he says. “You often see the use of video that was not intended for public use.”

Channel 4 said it had “carefully considered” the material and concluded that “the subjects covered are a matter of public record and provide a unique insight” into Diana as she prepared to tell her story.

Six to seven hours of footage have been condensed into a 110-minute show for Channel 4, to be aired Aug. 8, and an hour-long program for PBS. “It’s a fantastic source for what has become a historical story,” adds Furneaux. “We see her as she is acquiring the weaponry required to go out into the world and hold her own in the sad circumstances of her marriage.”

There are numerous iconic images of Diana, from the 19-year-old “Shy Di” seen getting married in July 1981 by 750 million viewers worldwide to the media-savvy princess addressing her marital problems and depression in a 1994 interview with the BBC. In 1997, grief-stricken Brits tuned in to coverage of her funeral in droves.

Tom Jennings of 1895 Films sought out less well-known images, scouring local news bulletins and regional broadcasters for NatGeo’s “Diana: In Her Own Words,” which debuts Aug. 14.

“There was tons of media we could have accessed, but we were looking for ways of bringing something unique to the table,” he says.

Jennings traveled to London and ultimately secured secret recordings made by Diana’s friend James Colthurst, which formed the basis of a notorious biography of the princess by Andrew Morton. He uses his trademark style of splicing the audio with images and reports from the time to create what he describes as a new take on the Diana story. “It’s her in her purest form: there’s no narration, no interviews, no one saying, ‘This is what she means,’” Jennings says. “Instead of everyone speaking for her, it allows her to tell her own story. The tapes humanize her.”

He admits to wondering how the show will go down with viewers in Britain and around the globe. “She represents many things to many people all over the world, and knowing that, we studied and researched every detail.”

The media played a huge part in Diana’s life — and arguably her death. Twenty years later, she continues to fascinate not just the media but the public: “Diana, Our Mother” won the night for ITV on July 24 and is its most-watched factual program since 2009.

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