Steven Knight on Demystifying Diana in 'Spencer'

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Photo credit: Claire Mathon
Photo credit: Claire Mathon

Few figures enter the history books known by just a singular name without encountering their share of scandal or tragedy, but for the writer of Spencer, the new not-biopic from Jackie director Pablo Larraín, Diana Spencer's lost last name tells you more about the late royal than the fanfare surrounding her first.

Spencer is set during the Christmas period of 1991, when Diana spent three days at Sandringham and is said to have made the decision to end her marriage. There is the site of her family home a few fields over but out of reach to her, the ghost of distant family relation Anne Boleyn who stalks her around the house, and the nagging reminders of what she gave up as a Spencer to become Diana.

"I wanted to try and find the truth of the person within that one situation and not tell the story of the icon that everybody knows," says script writer Steven Knight, best known as the creator of the Peaky Blinders series. At the London Film Festival for the film's premiere, Knight sat down with Esquire to discuss how he demystified Diana into a normal person.

Most people have a strong memory of when they heard about Diana’s death, do you?

One of the reasons I wanted to do this film is because I remember the noise watching the funeral on TV. The gates opened and out came the coffin, and there were all these English people wailing and screaming. I thought it was so un-English and that’s the thing that stuck in my mind.

The film is set over three days during Christmas 1991, why focus on that period in particular?

I didn’t want to do a biopic because it’s impossible to do well. I thought the best way would be to find out who she was through a microscope, so that you’re just looking into three days in one place, and not messing about with travel or public engagements. We’ve all had tense family Christmases where you’re stuck with people you don’t necessarily want to be with. Also I was told that it was over the Christmas period that her decision [to leave Charles] was made.

Photo credit: Claire Mathon
Photo credit: Claire Mathon

What research did you do to understand the real Diana?

I know some people who knew her and how she really was, and then I was lucky enough to speak to some people who worked in the house that Christmas so got first-hand accounts, [and] there’s nothing like first-hand accounts to give you the truth. True life is much more weird than any fiction you can invent.

What were the things people told you that surprised you?

She loved Cats the musical and middle-of-the-road music, she was a completely ordinary person being put into a mad situation. Some of the actual facts I couldn’t believe were true because they were so appropriate, like the weighing machine where you had to put on three pounds before you could leave. The fact that her house where she grew up was walking distance from Sandringham, and was boarded up. I mean there’s the symbol of her childhood with boards all over it.

Did you make the decision to leave anything controversial out?

Yeah, some things, certain things would be so eye-catching that they would be a distraction and the only question anyone would ask. There’s an infidelity that everybody knows about.

Photo credit: Pablo Larraín
Photo credit: Pablo Larraín

There’s a line at the beginning of the movie where she asks, “Will they kill me?” to the one of the Sandringham chefs. Were you worried about playing into conspiracy theories?

As I wrote that line I thought, ‘Here we go’, but I kept it. I have absolutely no time for the conspiracy theories that she was murdered, but I do think she died as a consequence of the circumstances she chose to put herself in. Obviously if she hadn’t chosen to marry Charles she wouldn’t have died in the way she did. It isn’t the idea people will conspire to kill her, it’s that the decisions she’s made are leading her toward it.

Does the fact that the story of Diana is in our recent memory makes it harder or easier to tell?

I think it makes it easier in that you don’t have to do so much exposition because most people know. She looks at a woman outside the church and we just know who that is, we don’t even have to use the name.

Photo credit: Claire Mathon
Photo credit: Claire Mathon

Can you talk about the Anne Boleyn figure in the story, where did that come from?

I’d read that the Spencers are related to the Boleyns and thought there was a parallel in someone who enters the royal household believing they can control the situation. Diana was young when she went in so she probably thought she could handle it. I like the idea that Diana feels like she’s haunting the house already, like she’s a ghost passing through.

The fascination with the royal family feels especially pronounced at the moment, why do you think that is?

You think the royal family is falling apart but it’s the opposite, it’s never been so popular. I suppose you could say every family has issues like this but this one is painted in the sky. It’s enormous power without real power. I’m not against the royal family. It’s terribly flawed but it works. The Queen's Speech, what a great tradition. It’s very English, which is what fascinates me.

You’ve talked about your writing proving unfortunately timely. Are there parallels in this story in terms of lessons people haven’t learned?

There’s no way to say this without sounding corny, but if this hadn’t happened and she had become Queen, with her emphasis on uniting, healing, forgiving, helping, how would that have affected the current divisive bullshit that we are all living through? I think it’s a missed opportunity. Things are so horrible at the moment, people are so nasty, but I’m an optimist. I think there’s another Sixties on the way. The next generation coming through have got to start to discover peace, love and understanding again, even on social media.

Photo credit: John Phillips - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Phillips - Getty Images

What keeps you optimistic?

Children basically, the fact that everyone is born anew without all the prejudices. I try to write on the assumption people are fundamentally good, and are bad for a reason. Even Tommy Shelby’s got good motivations.

Do you feel any responsibility to make art that is optimistic?

I think it’s much easier to lay out a grim picture of the world. If you’re doing something about the working class it’s much easier to go, ‘Oh my god, what a shame, it’s terrible, the end’. Saying there is a way out is more difficult, but I do try to do that.

What can you say about the forthcoming season of Peaky Blinders, have you finished filming?

We’ve cut [episodes] one to four, so just five and six to go, and then it’s going to be the best thing that’s ever happened! No, it’s good, it really is. This is the last series for TV but we are making a film, [which] 18 months from now we’ll be shooting. I haven’t written [the film] but I know what it’s about and it won’t take long.

‘Spencer’ is in cinemas from 5 November

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