Diana, a Year On
by Brenda Ralph Lewis
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales a year ago produced scenes of emotion,
especially in London, which startled those who presume - as foreigners often
do - that the British are frosty to the point of heartlessness. The idea that
a whole nation habitually puts its feelings on ice is, of course, an
exaggeration, but it is true enough that the British have frequently stood up
to tragedy dry-eyed, with a brave face, and a stiff upper lip. This made it
all the more startling when the traditional cold front broke apart at the
shock news of Diana's premature and totally unexpected demise. People cried
openly in the streets. Strangers hugged each other for comfort (the British
normally apologise if they just brush your arm!). Candlelit shrines appeared
round trees. September 6, the day of Diana's funeral, was preceded by all-
However, there was a certain amount of contrivance at work here: the non-
stop press and television coverage, frothing, as usual, with every mawkish
adjective in the book and majoring in high octane emotion, undoubtedly played
a large part in bringing this reaction to the fore. This did scant service to
those whose grief and emotion was sincere. However, their blanket
concentration on the most dramatic scenes also meant there was little or no
room for the other side of the coin.
|"The conclusion was obvious: if they would cry for Diana, they would buy for Diana..."|
Now, a year later, the other side has unmistakably surfaced. Since last
September, different, contrary, feelings about Diana have filtered into
press reports and public polls. It now transpires that the whole of Britain
was not, after all, totally entranced by the Princess of Wales. Few have gone
so far as two Sunday school teachers who recently told their class that
Diana's 'unchristian' and immoral lifestyle had consigned her to Hell, but the
pendulum has undoubtedly swung.
Even at the time of Diana's funeral, sentiment about her was not all it
seemed. As proved in a TV documentary due to be screened in Britain this 6
September, the weeping, grieving press of people who swamped London a year
ago were not the only ones there. There were also a fair number who were
'more a mob with a terrace mentality (a reference to the mindless , often
brutish, mass emotion of British football fans) than a collective in grief.'
Some of those interviewed were more interested in filming the funeral and
'recording history', having a thrill day out or finding out the names of the
rich and famous people attending the memorial service inside Westminster
This is only one of several concurrent TV programs debunking the Diana
dementia of 1997. Another seeks to explode the idea that the Princess's much-
publicised anti-personnel land mines campaign produced much benefit: its claim
is that the situation in Bosnia and other wartorn places which were the worst
affected , is not likely to improve. Yet another program features comments
from the 25 million Britons who did not bother to switch on their TVs during
'Diana week', the week following her death. The screening took place in the
late evening, since some of the opinions expressed were deemed too boorish
for prime time TV, when children and those of a nervous disposition are
presumed to be watching.
The paradox here is that, a year on, British television, which made such a
mighty meal of Diana week, seems so intent on rubbishing its own coverage.
Others, however, are not tainted with the whiff of hypocrisy this implies.
Since Diana's death, British churchmen have regularly objected to the
'deification' of the dead Princess. They see her as a false goddess with
suspect morals who ought not to be allowed to upstage Jesus Christ. They
admit, though, that Britain has suffered a vacuum of faith - regular
churchgoing has long been a minority activity for the British - and that
Diana somehow filled it.
Much more ferocious and judgmental are critical views about the loss of
dignity and self-control in public visible last year to millions of television
viewers, 20 million in the US alone.. One prominent member of the British
Parliament made his contribution to this view when he called the public
display: 'An extraordinary wave of self-indulgent mush.'
Another critic, Professor Anthony O'Hear accused the 'self-centred', self-
proclaimed 'victim' Diana and her millions of fans of undue sentimentality and
of abandoning proper British discipline and sense of duty. He concluded
that this was a sign of national decline. The popular press in Britain does
not appreciate professors who, they seem to believe, are dry and dehumanised
and live in ivory towers far distant from 'real' everyday life. So,
inevitably, Professor O'Hear came under merciless fire from the media for
'daring' to downgrade the public's feelings and the object of their devotion.
To his own bemusement, he became a man to hate for quite a while as the pro-
Diana faction, led by a fulminating press, came out in force to defend their
heroine., brandishing insults for weaponry.
Nevertheless, O'Hear was not alone. Diana always had her critics, and had
them from the very beginning, in 1981. In the anti-Diana scenario, the
Princess was a manipulator, a publicity freak and a self-absorbed fixer
majoring in feminine wiles. Some did not hesitate to call her psychotic. None
believed she was up to the job of being Princess of Wales - arguably the most
arduous of royal public roles - and found their prejudice proved at her every
The traditionalists among them thought that Diana veered much too far in
the direction of fashionable - and therefore impermanent - culture and
grossly overstepped the social standards by which royals had always lived.
This may seem a rather snobbish view, but what Diana's critics saw was not
a beautiful, affectionate 'People's Princess' capturing hearts, but a Royal
Family import trampling on cherished principles. For them, royal traditions,
dignified royal behaviour and the indefinable but much-valued royal mystique
were being undermined by an image too closely connected to TV soap operas and
the overblown outpourings of the pop music world.
The darker side of Diana devotion added fuel to such arguments because of
the way it opened the door to those normally considered to be crackpots. An
Internet astrologer, for instance, connected Diana's demise with the 'intense
transition points' caused by phenomena such as eclipses. Within hours of the
accident in Paris, no less than 31,000 conspiracy theories were posted on
the Internet and dark doings were laid at the doors of secret services. One
theory, recently aired, was that the British MI5 caused the fatal accident
while engaged in a bungled attempt to kidnap Dodi Fayed and Diana. MI5's
idea, it seems, was to grill the couple and so terrify them that they would
agree to give each other up: this, for the sake of sparing the Royal Family
the embarrassment of having a future king, Prince William, lumbered with a
Muslim stepfather and maybe a few Muslim half-brothers and -sisters as well.
It all went wrong, apparently, when Henri Paul, the driver of the doomed
Mercedes. entered the tunnel at the Place d'Alma at a speed - about 120 mph -
which meant the car could not be stopped as planned, but crashed instead.
This sort of thing has proved influential . Last June, for instance, the
conspiracy theorists had a British TV documentary all to themselves when a
program was screened pointing out inconsistencies in the official, French,
account of the crash. Though the program came to no conclusion one way or
the other, and in fact promised much more than it delivered, the public poll
which followed revealed a large majority in favour of the 'no accident'
theory. Conversely,a second, anti-conspiracy, program screened the following
evening elicited no such response.
At the time Diana died, some 84 percent of Britons presumed the crash that
killed her was an accident but the balance seems to have tipped the other way
in the year since. A week before the first anniversary, a poll for a British
Sunday newspaper revealed that a quarter of those questioned have since
changed their minds. Some 41 percent are now convinced that the fatal crash
was not accidental, and 24 percent believe there was a conspiracy to murder
A further example of the downside of the Diana effect is the way the
souvenir industry has homed in on the public pocket. This was inescapable.
Every day in the first week of last September , television coverage revealed
thousands of potential customers. The conclusion was obvious: if they would
cry for Diana, they would buy for Diana and with that, the memorabilia began
to proliferate. Some of the souvenirs have been thoroughly tacky, including
Diana dolls, Diana statues, Diana mugs, Diana plaques, her signature on a tub
of margarine, and even a Diana tartan. The tide of tat has, in fact, been so
marked that Prime Minister Tony Blair has publicly condemned it.
No less distasteful has been a three-cornered struggle to hijack Diana's
memory. The Royal Family, the Spencers and Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed,
have all claimed that their way of commemorating the dead Princess is the one
and only proper way. The spiky Spencers, always a contentious family, have
even taken to fighting each other over the way her official memorial fund
should be run . Add to this inelegant spectacle the self-interest, some might
say brute self-interest, shown by the villagers of Great Brington, near the
Spencer family seat of Althorp in Northamptonshire and the residents of
Kensington , London, where Diana lived. Their idea is to avert invasions on
their territory by hordes of tourists. By the emotional rules of last year,
these people would have broken their necks to claim the 'honour' of having
Diana memorialised on their patch and the publishing industry jumped up with
great rapidity to encourage such an approach. In the first few weeks after
Diana died, a whole clutch of books and special magazines was published
with, it seemed , magic rapidity. Just as magically, they disappeared from
bookstands and newsagents within days as the British fell over themselves to
buy. The market has since fallen off, and latecomer authors have found the
public less avid and their sales more routine.
Among the publications, the most cynical product of all was undoubtedly
'Diana Her True Story, In her Own Words', Andrew Morton's book of 1992
('Diana, Her True Story') republished and furnished with new material. Morton
is not popular with the British press, even though he is a member of it.
Jealousy could be an ingredient here since, back in 1992,he was first past the
post in getting his hands on some solid facts about trouble in Charles and
Diana's marriage. The rest of the press had had to make do for years with
gossip and speculation. Though the popular press in Britain is never so
savage as when it gets on its high moral horse, there is some justification
for their assault on Morton. In 'Diana, Her True Story in Her Own Words', he
revealed a long-kept secret: the fact that Diana helped him directly in the
writing of it. Previously, this had been vigorously denied. Morton's claim
that he was doing right by Diana, when he was doing her memory no favours
at all, provoked especially savage attacks. But two weeks ago, completely
undeterred, Morton published his book for a third time, having added yet more
fresh material. By then, the press which had criticised him so roundly had
gone into a memorial mode of its own. A spate of reverential newspaper
articles began telling the Diana story all over again. At that stage, it
was difficult to tell which was the more exploitative - Andrew Morton or his
There is, however, a sub-plot to all this which underlines the radical
change between last year's attitudes and this. Last fall, when the Royal
family went back to work, as it were, after the upheavals which followed
Diana's death and funeral, their popularity, which had taken such a beating,
appeared to be already on the mend. When she appeared in public, the Queen,
who had been flayed for not showing enough emotion over Diana, was greeted as
of old, with welcoming smiles and cheers. The Golden Wedding anniversary of
the Queen and Prince Philip on 20 November 1997 produced fulsome headlines in
the British press which, for Diana's sake, had once done everything this side
of sedition to put the royals on the rack.
Even Prince Charles, so long the villain of the piece, quickly recouped a
popularity which in a short time exceeded that of the then new Prime Minister
Blair, the best-liked PM Britain has ever known. In fact, Diana had been dead
only two or three months before large numbers of people seemed to have done a
total turnabout and backtracked on all they had believed before. Now, they
saw Charles not as a cold, distant, uncaring father - his image when Diana
was broadcasting her problems - but an extremely loving, involved parent
adored by both his sons and a fine fellow after all.
Nevertheless, some solid resistance was expected on a particularly touchy
subject: Camilla Parker-Bowles, Charles' longstanding mistress who was reviled
and physically attacked - though, fortunately only with bread rolls at a
supermarket - when the Diana controversies were at their height five years
ago. Charles and Camilla appear determined to stay together no matter what,
but they have been noticeably wary this last year about letting the popular
press get more mileage out of their relationship. So much so that they went
into virtual seclusion, rarely seeing each other. Yet even this once highly
emotional controversy appeared to be set aside when Charles decided the time
was right to resume his quest, which Diana's death interrupted, to make his
mistress acceptable to the public. A first tentative move, in July, was a
'chance' meeting between Camilla and Charles' son and heir Prince William.
Charles was undoubtedly relieved when the news passed off with little comment.
So little, in fact, that a poll taken this mid-August revealed a majority of
54 percent - not much, but a majority nevertheless - in favour of the idea
that Charles and Camilla should eventually wed. A year ago, that was the
ultimate blasphemy as far as the British public was concerned.
A year ago, too, they would have crammed the streets solid to take part in
the six-mile charity walk along Diana's funeral route in London which, this
year, on 23 August, attracted a mere 300. The organisers, who lost heavily on
the event, had expected five times that number. This shows how radically the
cult of Diana has fallen away. So does the discovery that three-quarters of
the public now believe the cult should end and, what is more, 62 percent have
no personal plans to mark the first anniversary of the Princess's death.
A year on therefore, it is evident that minds have changed, or alternatively
those who were never spellbound by Diana have spoken up at last and the media,
once so replete with Diana propaganda, has given them space to make their
viewpoint known. Emotion has certainly ebbed, though, and less adulatory
views of the dead Princess have supervened . There is even a degree of Diana
fatigue in the British attitude a year on: in one of the many virtually non-
stop polls that have taken place in the last few weeks, 83 percent of those
questioned said they thought the press had given too much space to Diana
news and would they please, please shift to something or someone else. Or, as
the sceptics might say, the British have finally come to their senses and
retrieved their more normal unflamboyant discipline. If, indeed, hysteria has
been replaced by a new, more considered mind-set and something more like
equilibrium has taken over, it serves to make the late Princess a much more
reasonable proposition: a woman with virtues and flaws, successes and
failures, talents and follies - in other words, not an icon, not a saint, not
a goddess, but a human being.