Investigating Diana: Death in Paris review – like Making a Murderer meets the royals

To mark the 25th anniversary of the princess’s death, Channel 4 give events a lengthy true-crime treatment. How will they commemorate the 50th?

Oh excellent. Another documentary about Diana, Princess of Wales. Just what we need. Days after Sky Documentaries’ The Princess comes Channel 4’s new series Investigating Diana: Death in Paris. How else can the 25th anniversary of her death be marked and monetised? Her workout playlist downloadable from Spotify, perhaps? A volume of princess-related poetry edited by Gyles Brandreth in which John Cooper Clarke rhymes Diana with spanner? A doorstep clap at the hour of her death, because that sort of thing really worked for the NHS?

Not that directors Will Jessop and Barnaby Peel aren’t geniuses. They’ve made a four-part series, microanalysing the circumstances of her death in the Alma tunnel on 31 August 1997, stretching and pulling historical material like cellophane over fading bouquets outside Kensington Palace. Only occasionally can you hear that tearing sound. Yet again, we hear Earl Spencer’s funeral oration; yet again, Diana looking faux-coyly over her shoulder in old snapshots; yet again, Tony Blair hitching his New Labour pony to the carriage of her celebrity with his oxymoronic invocation of the people’s princess.

Jessop and Peel astutely note that her death turbocharged the infant internet’s mutation into a post-truth tool, enabling every disaffected boob to sick up their conspiracy theories about her demise. But, more importantly, Jessop and Peel have reworked Diana’s death so that Investigating Diana comes on as if it wants to be this summer’s Tiger King or Making a Murderer. In 1997, the death of Diana signified, in part, the softening of the British stiff upper lip, a curious unleashing of grief among many for a woman they barely knew. Today it means something else: Investigating Diana gratifies our obsessive gaze with a real-life CSI Paris that drags the story out over inordinate length.

That said, there are moments of canny artistry. Eric Gigou, the Brigade Criminelle’s investigator, recalls releasing the uncharged paparazzi from custody. At the time, he told them that, just beyond that door, was a wall of snappers poised to take their pictures. The shot lingers, for several seconds, on the door to the street framed by ominous flashbulb lights, the hunters poised to become the hunted.

But did the paparazzi drive Diana, Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul to their deaths, as Earl Spencer suggested at her funeral? Someone scrawled “Paparazzi – Assassins” near the crime scene. Another graffito in English read: “The Queen did it.” Are we to infer that the paps were working not for media moguls’ crumbs, but for Her Majesty’s secret service? And that the repeated details of the photographers interviewed here are just smokescreens? Jacques Langevin went for the Eichmann defence: “I was just doing my job.” And what a job: some paps allegedly made £1m a year from Diana pix alone. “I didn’t kill anyone,” adds Langevin. Quite so: there appears to be no proof to contradict that claim.

Certainly, Gigou and his team found nothing to suggest that Paul, the driver quickly demonised by British tabloids for allegedly being four times over the legal French alcohol limit when the Mercedes 600 crashed at 121mph in that tunnel, was culpable. The programme dallies withe the possibility that his smearing in the British press may have served a function – to misdirect us from the perpetrators who, the grieving Mohamed Al Fayed told us in contemporary footage, murdered his son and her lover.

Two witnesses interviewed in Investigating Diana lend slight credence to a contract killing. François Levistre recalls a motorbike that cut in front of the Mercedes and a flash of light, possibly from a camera, that caused the car carrying Diana and Dodi to crash. The police have not been able to stand up this account.

Sabine Dauzonne saw a white Fiat Uno emerge from the tunnel shortly after the crash. She noticed Paris plates and, most significantly, a tanned driver, a muzzled dog in the back and the car’s shattered taillight. The then head of the Brigade Criminelle, Martine Monteil, found white paint from another car on the wreck of the Mercedes and, on the tarmac nearby, bits of broken taillight and, more curiously yet, pearls she supposed were worn by Diana as she was sped to her death. Nothing is conclusive.

Hilary Mantel once wrote: “The princess we invented to fill a vacancy had little to do with any actual person.” A quarter of a century after her death, we are still filling that vacancy, stuffing it with speculation and the delusive prospect of closure. Jessop and Peel cleverly end the opening episode with the only survivor from the Mercedes, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, emerging from hospital five weeks after the crash. Perhaps he could resolve all these questions about the princess’s death once and for all. Probably not, but that’s the possibility left dangling to sucker us back into watching episode two.

I wonder how we will mark the 50th anniversary of her death?


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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