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What 'Diana' Can Tell Us About British Media Culture

It's all a bit of a mess at the moment.

Image taken from the 'Diana' official trailer

Watching Professor Green’s neck tattoo glide down the aisle next to a toffee heiress, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the class system in this country had imploded. You’d be wrong; we're still great at finding new and inventive ways to look down our noses at each other, the only difference is that people are less hung up on the importance of outdated labels. Basically, all it means to be upper class in 2013 is that, if your daughter feels like it, she can become a Daily Mail pin-up, regardless of her looks.


Speaking of unprecedented shifts in class understanding, there's been a lot of talk about Princess Diana recently. Something about Di's status as a kind of demi-mortal managed to split the nation like few others. She was a toff, yes, but compared to the royal family, she was one of us. One of us who was enticed into their world and who paid for it with her life. Diana was the fork in the road, a woman whose death prompted an unbridled outpouring of emotion, a collective wail from millions of people and a whole lot of embarrassment for the rest.

With that in mind, I went along to a press screening of Diana, because who isn't intrigued by what might happen when some of the country’s most jaded, loveless people gather together for the sole purpose of watching a people’s princess biopic that even the The Express had dubbed too soppy?

I found myself surrounded by greying men with chains on their jeans, chinking glasses and discussing things like the relative merits of Dominic Cooper and Rupert Grint. The kind of people who get really, really wound up by films like Diana, but – weirdly – not The History Boys or Thunderpants. That mysterious breed who, for reasons that still escape me, use words and phrases like “mawkishness” and “creepy weepie”.

We filed in to the angry squeak of Lambretta record bags being thrown on to leather chairs, and the film began.

Naomi Watts plays Diana during her relationship with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, following her break-up from Charles “I want to be your tampon” Windsor. I might as well break the sad news to you now that there isn’t a single cameo appearance from Will Carling, Oliver Hoare, Brian Adams or any of the other 90s hunks who Diana supposedly had affairs with. Weep.


That's not what's annoying the critics, though. From the few reviews I’d read before seeing the film, it seemed their gripe was with its soppiness and betrayal of historical fact. Boo hoo hoo, my Princess Diana biopic isn't Stalingrad.

That said, there is room for criticism. Aside from all the really great heart surgery / broken heart metaphors, the film’s dialogue doesn’t exactly rival Pinter. At one point, Diana and Hasnat take a walk along the Cornish coast and kiss before Diana yells, “Last one back to the car is a squashed tomato!” Which makes her breakdown ten minutes later seem doubly strange. “I’m a mad bitch!” she screams, laughing – hahaha. Ahahahaha.

I mean, props for tackling the delicate issue of her mental health, but I was sort of with the critics in thinking they could have done without trying to make her life seem so normal. That word "hagiography" had been bandied around a fair bit, but here was the opposite: Diana calling in Big Macs to Kensington Palace and maxing out in velour track pants like Amanda Bynes in What a Girl Wants. It wasn’t exactly convincing, but really, so long as my nan likes it, who cares?

Well, everyone, actually. Every person with half an inch of column space living in the Northern hemisphere, cynics and sentimentalists alike. Don’t get me wrong, the film mostly sucks, but as it careered on, the laughter from this audience, which had seemed justified whenever Diana swore or Hasnat chowed down chips – but less so when she was just walking down the street, talking on her phone and crying – got more and more frequent. It was very very smug. Everyone here knew this film was a joke and they were going to laugh, laugh and laugh louder.


I hope I don't get kicked out of media for saying this, but there were a few bits I found relatively interesting. I mean, I'm probably younger than all those laughing people, but I found it quite eye-opening to be reminded of the fact that Princess Diana orchestrated her own BBC interview in which she admitted to cutting herself. Compare that to the Kate Middleton PR drive and it seems completely ridiculous.

Ultimately, it's not a great film – it's not bad / funny and it's not good / moving. It was really just nothing. Nothing to get worked up about or feign offence at. Grief porn is the pits and crying for no reason is something we should probably stop doing, but it didn’t seem like the film was going for that, either. As the funeral began and shots of a million flowers laid outside Kensington Palace filled the screen, the whole fake laughing thing was really driving me mad – the Janet Street Porter cackle of condescension is as bad as the earnest X Factor sob story.

If what was happening on screen told me anything, it was that life is really short, so why was the British media packed into that 50-seat cinema and putting on a fake laugh at the age of 45?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Richard Curtis’ new film About Timewhich was genuinely quite offensive. But Diana doesn't fall into that category. It didn’t fall into any category, really. It’s of absolutely no consequence whatsoever, apart from pleasing a few middle-aged women and a lot of Americans. One thing it does highlight is how, as a culture, we stand divided. We're divided into people who love a tear jerker and people who love to ridicule them, an uncomfortable partnership of mockery and zealous over-enthusiasm.


Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah

Previously – Why Does Richard Curtis Think All British People Are Frigid, Posh and White?

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