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Twenty years ago, The Office captured how fundamentally embarrassing it is to set Princess Diana’s story to music. “Your angel face made hearts so warm. You helped the sick... but who helped you?” sings David Brent. “Was that originally about Princess Diana?” interjects Dawn Tinsley, not quite sure where to look.
Obviously, someone in America HAS now turned Diana’s life into a musical. Having had its Broadway opening delayed by the pandemic, Diana the Musical has been filmed and released on Netflix. The music is co-written by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, which is... surreal. Like Dawn, I wanted the ground to swallow me up as I watched it. The whole thing feels like the result of someone who read Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles on a sunlounger, semi-pissed on margaritas while listening to Aerosmith. Actually, no, that makes it sound quite good.
We meet Diana (played by Jeanna de Waal in a wig that makes her look like Clare Balding) lamenting how out of place she feels at a fancy party. “I’m a kindergarten helper. I don’t even know why I came. Soooo not my scene,” she says, even though Diana was actually the daughter of an earl and no one in England has ever used the word kindergarten. She’s portrayed as a clueless commoner who things simply happen to and who never has any idea what’s going on, and before she knows it she’s been selected by the Queen (Judy Kaye) and Charles (Roe Hartrampf) as ‘the best girl for the worst job in England’. Camilla (Erin Davie) hangs around every scene like a ghost at the feast; the show’s attitude to her and Charles is summed up in one hysterically unsubtle lyric - “he’s a third rate Henry VIII and she’s Godzilla.”
Remember that bit in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when Paul Rudd said “you saand like you’re from Landaaaan!” All of the British accents here are the upper class version of that. They say ‘bloody’ and ‘sod’ a lot, because British. Worse still are the shlocky lyrics, which made me feel like I was being bludgeoned over the head by a commemorative crockery set. They go from the lamentable - “Feel the groove, even royals need to move” - to the nonsensical - “Hearts bend, break, burst and sever”... do they? Hearing the words ‘Jaaames Hewitttt’ sung in the manner of Meatloaf made me honestly wonder if I was on acid.
So yes, it’s cringey, but it’s also confused about what it’s doing. It does one of the ickiest things you can do when dealing with the story of a woman who died prematurely, by treating her life as though it was some kind of tragic preordained prophecy. It turns the royals into panto villains who act as cold symbols rather than humans, but then turns Diana into a symbol herself. In one song we hear that “the stories girls are taught to believe are not the stories a girl should believe.” All of her complicated corners are cleaned away: this is Diana as an empty female empowerment figure.
In that same vein, it seems bizarre that, after characterising her as a mean headteacher for three quarters of the show, the Queen gets a redemptive song about how terrible her life is as well. Were the writers following the Meghan/Harry ‘don’t upset the Queen’ rulebook? Might be a bit late for that. In An Officer’s Wife, she sings about a pre-royal life where ‘she wrote her own rules’ and enjoyed the early days of her marriage. I’m no royalist, but I’d rather not picture our Head of State ‘in the arms of her sailor prince’. It feels wrong.
Perhaps this didn’t have to be a terrible idea. After all, Diana’s life was dramatic. But she was also funny and knowing. Other than a tongue-in-cheek cameo from Barbara Cartland (also played by Kaye), Diana’s favourite author and step-grandmother, what’s missing is humour and self-awareness. Maybe that’s why The Crown, although also guilty of regularly equating being royal with being in prison, manages to succeed. Peter Morgan and his cast know how to wryly undercut the royals’ ridiculousness. “If I was interested in this sordid drama I’d tune into Coronation Street,” the Queen tells Charles here. Come on... anyone who knows anything knows no episode of Corrie could ever be as good as royal-watching.
Diana the Musical does have one moment of – perhaps accidental – self-awareness. “Can they survive our royal horror show?” Charles sings at one point. To borrow a phrase from Diana herself... I’m afraid it’s a non-starter.
Diana the Musical is on Netflix