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RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH'S 'DIANA,' A DOCUMENTARY CLOAKED IN ADORATION

The question to Lord Richard Attenborough wasn't meant to be disrespectful.

But it had to be asked during a press conference in Los Angeles last month for tonight's two-hour NBC documentary tribute, "Diana" (8 p.m, Channel 2).

How could he, as a friend and adviser to the late princess, make and narrate a film that would be different from all the other laudatory projects that aired after her tragic death a year ago?

"It's very difficult, isn't it?" Lord Attenborough conceded. "It's a very fine line. It's a very delicate choice to make. If pure sycophancy was there, if she is treated purely like an icon that we create shrines to her vitality, that would be an insult to this young woman's life. . . .

"But I hope that what we've tried to do is to honor what she stood for, to honor what she achieved."

If honoring her was his sole hope, then "Diana" succeeds.

Otherwise, the two hours play like an overlong episode of A & E's "Biography" series. Or a paid commercial.

Which, in a way, it is.

At the end of the program, an 800 number is flashed that enables viewers to pay $29.95 for the video. The money goes entirely to charities that the late princess supported.

The first anniversary of Diana's tragic death has brought with it several TV specials on both American and Canadian television. You won't be able to channel surf without running into the face of this elegant woman somewhere.

Her celebrity, after all, is a ratings draw. And the timing of her death -- before the end of summer and the new season -- is a slow time for television, which is ripe for original programming like this.

A & E's "Biography," the History Channel, E!, MSNBC, CBC and CTV are all running specials for Diana addicts. And that doesn't count the Diana stories that are bound to fill the TV newsmagazines.

But Attenborough's two-hour program figures to be the most-watched, because it is the biggest special on a broadcast network.

He has been able to get new sources -- notably Diana's good friends Lucia Flecha de Lima and Lana Marks -- to say old things about this beautiful and charming woman's love of life and her ability to touch people.

A variety of female friends -- including her childhood nanny and the American woman who hired Diana to be her children's nanny, an astrologer, hairstylist, makeup artist and acupuncturist -- tell us the same things that were said about Diana in all those reverential specials a year ago when she was mourned.

There are segments devoted to Diana's childhood, her romantic view of marriage, and her ability to embrace common people who needed support from anyone and were thrilled it came from someone this lofty.

There are interesting minor touches, including learning that Diana used to put on her walls sweet cartoons of people she was feuding with, only to take them down when the feud ended. A cartoon of Elton John, for example, went up and later came down when things were patched up. A cartoon of Camilla Parker-Bowles, who maintained a close relationship with Prince Charles dur
ing his marriage to Diana, a relationship that apparently continues, presumably stayed up.

But, overall, you won't learn much new about Diana. She was a good-looking woman. A good mother. A good swimmer. A good nanny. A good friend. A good human being.

Good gawd, it does get to be a wee bit much after an hour and before all the people she helped give their testimonials.

And don't expect to be deeply moved, either. This is a documentary made with English reserve.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham are the most well-known names who share their insights about Diana. But it is the young sick people whom Diana helped and the people who took care of her makeup and her hidden insecurities who make more of an impact.

Notably absent is any member of the royal family. Lord Attenborough said that was by design. There also are many more women than men interviewed.

When he met the press in July, Attenborough said that he first met Diana at Prince Charles' invitation shortly after their marriage. The prince wanted Attenborough to help teach Diana how to speak in public.

"My real job was to give her confidence," Attenborough said. "My real job was to persuade her that she really had something to say and to offer. And that if she would be totally frank, if she would say what she really felt, if she was prepared to tackle causes and cases which did not conform to the strict convention of English society and royalty, then she could do her speaking and she could achieve what she wanted to say easily, because she would be speaking about something she really cared about."

He was persuaded to take part in the documentary by Robert Halmi Sr. of Hallmark Productions.

Halmi, who brought "Gulliver's Travels" and "Merlin" to NBC in recent years, said he made 120 documentaries before he ever made a movie and had a special reason for doing this one.

"I knew that the anniversary will come and I knew that all kinds of Diana documentaries will be made, all the tabloids will be full of it, and I just wanted to have at least one that is not highlighting and taking advantage of the blemishes in this wonderful life, but will kind of set the record straight about her accomplishments," Halmi said.

"It's kind of a reaction to all the tabloids. . . . Every day, there's a Diana story of one kind or another and it's really, really sad that most of the tabloids and journalists really pick on things that, of course, makes news -- because bad news makes news, good news doesn't.

"And I decided that the time has come to do what I do and Hallmark does, is to do something of value, do something that will stick around, that people would have a positive feeling of."

The primary value of the project is to give Diana fans who will watch anything about her something to cheer.

And what does Lord Attenborough think she would make of the public's fascination with her?

"I think she'd be totally surprised, totally overwhelmed, totally bowled over by the extent of the interest in her life. . . . I don't think she would wish us to continue simply demonstrating our distress and our sadness. . . . I think she would have thought it much more important for us to continue her work, to continue what she set out to do."

Amen.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 5

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