In 1991, Diana, Princess of Wales, sat down for a series of secret interviews inside her home at Kensington Palace. In them, she opened up about everything—the abuse she witnessed as a child, the misgivings she felt on her wedding day, and her tumultuous relationship with Prince Charles.
They were recorded for Andrew Morton’s much publicized book, Diana: Her True Story, but not all of them were released—until now, that is. Last year, Morton and his publishing team decided to trust Peabody Award–winning filmmaker Tom Jennings with telling the rest of Princess Diana’s story for the National Geographic channel. The reason why? The documentary would be told entirely in Diana’s voice, essentially making her the narrator of her own story.
“In my opinion, this is the definitive documentary on Princess Diana,” Jennings tells us. Diana: In Her Own Words, which weaves archival footage and photography with the rare recordings, took 18 months to produce from concept to delivery. “It’s by far the hardest thing that [my team and I have] ever done, but it’s also the best thing we’ve ever done,” Jennings says. “We knew what we had was special. I don’t think anything else can approach it, and I feel very strong about saying that.”
Jennings’ desire to do right by Diana and her family had an underlying personal reason as well. “My mom passed away from cancer when I was eight years old,” he shares. “In the smallest of ways, I can empathize with what William and Harry have gone through. When Harry talks about it never really going away, he’s right. You just kind of cope with it.”
The documentary doesn’t premiere on National Geographic until August 14, but we have an exclusive look at the chilling first two minutes. Watch it here:
Naturally, we had a lot of questions for Jennings after viewing the clip, including what surprised him the most about the beloved Princess. For that and more, read on.
Glamour: A lot of these recordings that belonged to Andrew Morton had never been broadcast before. Why not?
Tom Jennings: Some of it was [broadcast] in 2004, but approximately 80 percent of what’s in this documentary is brand-new. There are seven hours of tape recorded by Dr. James Colthurst, who was her friend, on behalf of Andrew Morton. The reason why you’ve not heard them before is that [publisher] Michael O’Mara, Morton, and Colthurst felt like they didn’t want the tapes to be used in a way where her words could be misconstrued.
Glamour: So what changed?
TJ: It was because of a National Geographic show I worked on last year on the space shuttle Challenger. One of the things that my company does a lot is take archival footage and basically turn it in to a feature film. There’s no narration and no interviews. You’re living through these moments as they’re unfolding. Originally, they said no. So I sent Michael O’Mara a link to the Challenger documentary and asked him to take a look at it. I told him we would propose to do the Diana documentary the exact same way. They looked at it, and about 10 days later, I was on a plane going to London to listen to the tapes for the first time.
Glamour: What was your reaction when you started hearing the tapes?
TJ: The first thing that struck me was her laugh. You never hear her laugh like that. You’ll hear that in the show, when she starts to tell a story and remembers how funny it is and just kind of busts out laughing. It’s so fun to listen to.
Glamour: What was your impression of Diana before you took on this project? What was it after?
TJ: It completely changed. I remember being very sad when she died, and I understood why people were so upset by it, but I didn’t surround myself in the Diana story by any means. By the time I was done listening to her tapes, I felt like I had been listening to a friend talk.
But if I could pick one thing that changed my opinion of her, and I’ve thought about this, is that she was a lot more self-reflective than people give her credit for. She talks about her bulimia, how she didn’t know how to behave around Charles because she never had a boyfriend, her frustrations with Camilla Parker Bowles… Her critics talk about whether or not she had a mental illness or what her drove her to such madness in certain cases—but she was much more reflective about who she was and her role. I think people are going to think, “Wow, she’s more human. She could tell a story like no one else.” To hear her tell these stories makes you realize how, in some ways, normal she was.
Glamour: Diana wanted to be more than just a prop for the royal family and actually create change.
TJ: She could have chosen to walk away, but she didn’t. She wanted to set her own course. She just didn’t want to be the pretty woman who is brought out to state functions. She wanted to be someone. But imagine being 19 and having every camera pointed at you. Imagine becoming more popular than your husband within weeks of your marriage and then trying to figure out your role. The public wanted a fairy princess. Little did they know the individual was crucifying herself inside. I hope people have a better understanding of who she is and what she went through. Like her or not, she’s a major historical figure of the last half of the 20th century. Her story is one that continues to captivate the world; now you get to see it as if you’re living through the times with her.
Glamour: The TV market is saturated right now with stories of Diana. Why is this documentary different?
TJ: There’s never been a documentary like this about Princess Diana. There most likely won’t be another one. Everyone else has had their say about who Diana was, what she meant to people, and why she did the things she did. Now it’s her turn. She gets to tell her story in a way no one else has done, and that’s magical.
Glamour: And if William and Harry see the documentary, what would you tell them?
TJ: If they do, I hope they know it was made by someone who understands how hard it is to lose a mother, that we kept it in mind the whole time to tell her story. We want to be as fair to them as possible. It’s really hard. I don’t even like to talk about [my own loss] after all these years. You do not get over that when you’re a kid.
Diana: In Her Own Words airs on National Geographic on August 14 at 9 P.M. ET. Also, a National Geographic book, Remembering Diana: A Life in Photographs, will be available on August 1. The book will have more than 100 images, stories from Diana’s closest confidantes, and a forward from her friend and biographer Tina Brown.