Diana tribute 'lovingly presented' Homage: Richard Attenborough, who won an Oscar for 'Gandhi,' has produced a two-hour special about Diana, Princess of Wales, that accentuates the positive.

August 26, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You might think NBC has invented a new programming genre.

Monday night, it will present a highly publicized two-hour special about Diana, Princess of Wales, on the first anniversary of her death. The program is produced and, in the words of NBC, "lovingly presented" by Richard Attenborough, who won an Academy Award for his direction of a little film called "Gandhi" and was made a lord by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993. NBC and Attenborough are calling "Diana" a "documentary tribute," which might seem confusing to some viewers. Doesn't the term documentary suggest finding the facts and telling the truth?

Yes, it does. But, in this case, Attenborough and NBC are presenting only those facts that make Diana look good -- sainted, actually. While the "documentary tribute" terminology is a case of trying to have it both ways -- the power of truth and the glory of Diana, the fairy-tale princess -- let's at least give Attenborough credit for admitting what he's up to when questioned about it.

When asked at a press conference in Los Angeles last month if his documentary tribute will deal with Diana's less-than-saintly liaisons, for example, he said: "It does not deal with the scandal. It does not deal with her private life in terms of the young men, various young men who she had affections for and some she had relationships with in her own admittance."

Under further questioning, he said: "Yes, it is a celebration, if you like, of a life, an all-too-brief life. It is not totally sycophantic, I hope."

Not totally, but close.

But, then, maybe Attenborough feels a need to help complete the public image and persona of Diana that we came to know through our media relationship with her. In his telling, he was key in helping construct the public Diana.

In answer to a question about how he and Diana met, Attenborough said: "I first met her, ironically, at Prince Charles' invitation. It was shortly after they were married, and Prince Charles asked me if I would teach his very naive and shy and embarrassed private young wife how to speak in public, how to use a microphone, how to find the techniques of dealing with public speaking.

"My real job was to give her confidence. My real job was to persuade her that she really had something to say and something 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, she could achieve what she wanted to say very easily, because she would be speaking about something she really cared about."

"Diana" airs at 8 Monday night on WBAL (Channel 11).

What frightens children

If you are one of the many parents concerned about how television and other media are affecting your kids, there's a new book that offers some answers and guidance.

"Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them" (Harcourt Brace) is written by Joanne Cantor of the University of Wisconsin, one of the leading researchers in the field of media effects and children.

While we are getting books about the evils of television from all sorts of self-anointed experts with no real training in media research, such as former education secretary William Bennett, Cantor has been researching and writing on the topic for more than 20 years. She is one of the few who understands how complex the problem is, yet she manages to give straightforward, understandable advice.

For example, as to what kinds of television programs or films scare kids, one of her surprising findings is that "Little House on the Prairie" was among the top-10 fear-producing shows in the early 1980s.

"Although the series offers a sensitive portrayal of a family facing joys and hardships, it addresses an enormous array of controversial and threatening issues, such as murder, child molestation and accidental death," Cantor explained.

So much for the so-called "family channels" that carry "Little House" in rerun today.

"It's very difficult for parents to predict what will frighten their child," Cantor says. "The way children see TV is very different from the way adults see it. For example, children under 7 are most affected by the way things look -- grotesque monsters, ugly witches and vicious-looking animals frighten them more easily than things that are really dangerous or could actually harm them. Fantasy stories that we easily dismiss as ridiculous and impossible can haunt children's nightmares for a very long time," she says.

As for what can be done once a child has been frightened, Cantor says fear-reducing strategies vary by age.

"For example, words and explanations are relatively ineffective xTC for children up to the age of 7 or 8," she says. "For younger children, the techniques that work best are nonverbal: a hug, a glass of water, or a distracting activity might help. Older children are more responsive to reasoning, especially information on why the horrible thing can't happen to them or how they can prevent it from happening."

One of the scariest genres for kids is television news, according to Cantor.

"Television news is very frightening to children and, unfortunately, it is becoming more so all the time. What's more, as children come to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, the news becomes scarier because children often worry that what they are seeing will happen to them. One of the scariest types of new stories for children is a story focusing on a child victim. Unfortunately, we have so many of those these days."

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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