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Diana: The doomed Princess who keeps on giving

It's nearly 20 years since Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris, yet her appeal to the masses still remains. Chrissie Russell looks at the reasons why

With its lie detector tests, rollercoaster romances and intriguing lexicon, Love Island has undoubtedly been the series of the year and its success was evident in securing ITV2's highest ever overnight audience when the final screened on Monday night.

But even the might of 'Kember' couldn't match the pull of Princess Diana.

While the climax of Love Island hooked an audience of 2.9 million, the screening of Diana Our Mother: Her Life And Legacy was watched by 6.9 million viewers - accounting for a third of all viewing at that time.

At its peak, the 90-minute long documentary, which saw the two Princes chat openly for the first time about the mother they knew and loved, netted a peak audience of 7.4 million, making it ITV's most watched factual programme of the year.

Celebs like Piers Morgan and Naomi Campbell jumped online to applaud the show while 'Diana' and 'Diana Documentary' trended on Twitter. Audiences are already salivating at the prospect of a Channel 4 documentary in the pipeline, boasting never-before-seen footage of the princess spilling the beans on sex with Charles and her pleas with the Queen to intervene in her husband's affair. I know that, just like on Monday night, I'll be one of millions watching.

But just why does Lady Di continue to bring in the crowds 20 years after her death?

Despite the breathless promotion of both Diana Our Mother and Channel 4's offering, we viewers know in our heart of hearts that there's not really going to be any new revelations about the Queen of people's hearts. Did Harry and William really reveal anything more than the fact that they loved their mum and miss her?

There continue to be queues at the doors of Kensington Palace for 'Diana: Her Fashion Story', with people gazing on glitzy frocks hoping they'll provide some insight into the woman who wore them - they won't. Nor will those spending thousands on Diana memorabilia (a recent auction of six letters from the princess went for over £15,000) gain any greater understanding of the writer.

But of course it's this untouchability that maintains Diana's appeal. We live now - as Love Island amply demonstrates - in a confessional society. We're able to find out pretty much everything about everybody. There are no personal details or sordid secrets that can't be unburdened to an audience on TV, print or social media. We might not like or admire this tell-all culture, you might scoff at the put-it-all-out-there mentality of Big Brother, the Kardashians and co, but we have come to expect it. We expect to hear about the drama, to know about news presenters' pants and hear about singers' sex antics - we expect to know everything. We are conditioned to the excesses of a confessional culture.

Diana belongs to a different era. She died in 1997, three years before Big Brother aired in the UK and almost a decade before Twitter took off. To some degree, she kick-started the appetite for soul-baring viewing - who can forget 'that' Panorama interview - but she was gone before we got swept up in the tsunami of celebrity oversharing.

We will really never know her the way we know the celebrities of today. There will be no Keeping Up With Princess Di, no iPhone-shot videos of her dancing in a club, no 3am tweets from her in a Twitter spat with Camilla. Quite simply, we want what we can't have.

An uncomfortable fact to the enduring fascination with the princess also lies in her early passing.

We can feel sorrow for her family in losing her, pain at the horror of the death she must have endured and idly wonder what she would be like now.

But would we really care as much about a 56-year-old granny? Would Diana now, shopping in Waitrose and helping Kate and William with the kids, have captivated us as much as the 36-year-old lounging in a swim suit on a super yacht in the south of France? Be honest.

In America especially, the continued Diana obsession lies in her rebel status. She's a romantic figure who went up against the establishment and championed the weak. In a 2002 poll, the princess still had an approval rating of over 70%. Compare that to Trump, who at the moment is reportedly limping along at just 36%.

We also love her for being a revolutionary. That walk through the mine field in Bosnia, shaking hands with Aids victims, deigning to spend a night on the streets, talking in a friendly, informal and genuinely engaging way with young homeless people - these things were monumental acts of charity for anyone to be making in the 1990s, let alone a member of the Royal household.

We're now used to Royals being normal - sights like Harry tossing a volleyball with war heroes or seeing Kate in a Stetson, but several decades ago, footage of a princess at Alton Towers was exciting. Now we'd barely bat an eyelid even if it was the Queen herself on a rollercoaster.

Yet as much as we might talk about admiring her for her charitable works, bringing awareness to maligned and overlooked causes and sectors of society or endeavouring to raise her children with a degree of normality, there's a darker side to Diana's allure. Our love affair is as much (if not more) with the tragic side of Lady Diana as it is with her achievements. Schadenfreude is a powerful player in the Diana story. Here was a woman who supposedly had everything - the fairy tale wedding, the prince, all the power and money, travelling the world, the toast of fashion... and yet it all unravelled.

The eating disorders, the affairs, the bitter divorce, the relentless paparazzi. It's a horrible trait, but there's often something in us that likes seeing people of privilege suffer.

Even Diana's own bodyguard has written about how he let her endure the panic of being surrounded by a hen party in an airport queue for a little longer than necessary before whisking her away to safety.

At its root, our interest in Di isn't too far from what had viewers flocking to Love Island. We're fascinated by stories of love and loss, relationships and rivalries, the juxtaposition of beauty, idyllic locations, aspirational living and the shadier side of humanity.

Diana's story is a human one and we'll always be hooked.

Belfast Telegraph


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