Jennie Bond On The Diana She Knew, Ahead Of The Crown’s Season Four

The former BBC Royal Correspondent has fond memories of the late Princess of Wales

Netflix

by Jennie Bond |
Updated on

Sitting in her elegant drawing room in Kensington Palace, the princess looked across at me and said, ‘Unbalanced? Me? No, I was never unbalanced. The truth is I was just too sane for my environment.’ It was the mid-90s, and we were having one of our woman-to-woman chats, looking back on those traumatic years of her marriage to Charles. As their relationship crumbled – the couple eventually separated in 1992 – she’d felt undermined by the establishment and believed she was viewed as mentally unstable by the rest of the royal family.

I asked her what it was like being the most famous woman in the world. Did she enjoy being royal? ‘Well, I certainly don’t wake up every morning thinking, “Whoopee, I’m a princess.” I like it when the crowds call me Lady Di. That’s who I am. That’s how I like to be known.’ However, this particular princess became a global celebrity the moment she was courted by the Prince of Wales when she was still a shy teenager. That is when we meet her in the new series of The Crown – and the dramatic story of Diana, Princess of Wales is certain to captivate a new audience. I shall be intrigued to see the woman I knew portrayed in this fictionalised account of her life. I hope it will capture her essence: Diana was a complex character, emotionally raw, damaged by the break-up of her parents’ marriage, and even more by the collapse of her own. But she was not a tragic figure. She was full of fun and joy with a real love of life – especially for her boys. My abiding memory is seeing her throw her head back in peels of girlish giggles, usually after telling a story against herself.

She was a superstar from the start. As a journalist at the BBC, it was a challenge to give a true impression of the sheer euphoria of the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets of London on 29 July 1981 when she walked up the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral. They had waited for hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of this slip of a girl, now destined to become Queen. The atmosphere bordered on hysterical. Around the world, 750 million viewers watched as Diana stepped out of the glass carriage in her frothy meringue of a wedding dress, remembered now for its rather crumpled silk taffeta. It was christened a ‘fairy-tale wedding’ by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. And that is what we believed, and wished, it to be.

In this series of The Crown we’ll see the young princess trying to learn the ropes of royal life, without much help from her husband. Although she was an aristocrat by birth, the daughter of an earl, she was completely unschooled in public life. ‘Charles would tell me to get out of the car and go over to the crowds,’ she explained to me. ‘I was terrified, but I just had to get on with it.’

Those crowds went wild for the princess, both at home and abroad. We’ll see the couple on their royal tour of Australia, the first time that Diana, then 22, had travelled overseas (she had insisted on taking William, then just nine months, along). The rapturous reception Diana always received caused early rifts in their marriage. Charles, accustomed to being centre stage, was jealous, his pride wounded by all the attention given to his wife.

Still, the ’80s were cruel years for Diana. She may have been the nation’s darling, but the man she loved was 12 years older than her with few mutual interests and a lingering passion for another woman. By the time Harry was born in 1984, the marriage was all but over and his former lover, Camilla Parker Bowles, very much back in the prince’s life. Years later, Diana told me, ‘I know now that Camilla always was, and always will be, the love of Charles’s life. It’s sad because he and I would have made such a great team.’

Indeed, she confessed to me that she had felt ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’ at her fairy-tale wedding, even though she loved Charles. She was haunted by the sight of Camilla in the congregation, and her suspicion that he still had feelings for her fuelled Diana’s innate insecurity. In the end, as she told me even before her famous 1995 Panorama interview, she could never throw off the belief that ‘there were always three of us in this marriage’.

The Crown’s writer Peter Morgan has apparently pulled no punches in depicting Diana’s long battle with bulimia. It was her way of exerting some control over her life, and it was many years before she overcame it. ‘I’d spend the day doing my work, giving people lots of TLC,’ she told me. ‘When I got home, there was no praise, no support. I felt empty, so I would fill myself up.’

As this fourth series ends in 1990, the true emptiness of Charles and Diana’s marriage is still secret from the public. It will be in the next series, then, that the real War of the Waleses will be waged.

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