Two decades after one of the most shocking celebrity deaths in recent times, the wounds of the 1997 tragedy are still being picked at. More than anything, it was the year the high and mighty lost their hold on national imagination
Princess Diana brought popular passion to the royal stage
It is tempting to wonder how Princess Diana would have been remembered had her fatal accident occurred in the social media age. Smartphone cameras intruding on her final moments as the British public is instantly alerted to the calamity via messages and phone calls, late night anxiety turning into dawn grief and then overwhelming sorrow. The tragedy in the tunnel would have saturated our daily life for months.
Two decades later, Britons would have undoubtedly had a different response to the question: Where were you when Diana died? Instead of hazy recollections, for many, the query would today trigger a deeply personal reaction.
As it was, there was no instant broadcasting from the scene. People woke up to the news on a weekend morning. The shock struck like a hammer blow. A nation spilled out in sorrow and anger to the streets to mourn.
Tony Blair, then a new and fresh-faced prime minister, declared the divorcee the “people’s princess”. Within days, there was public insurrection. Anger was directed at the Queen and the immediate family ensconced in the Scottish highlands. The Oscar-winning performance of Helen Mirren in the eponymous movie captured the sheer terror at the reports coming in from the outside world. It was only after a decisive intervention by Mr Blair that the royals faced up to the mood of the country.
As the 20th anniversary looms, the events of late August 1997 are back on the front pages. The old wounds have been aired again. Courtiers from the Diana camp are laying afresh charges against Buckingham Palace and the Prince of Wales, reviving the slights of the divorce.
Earl Spencer, the brother who is a self-appointed keeper of her memory, called Princess Diana the most hunted women in the world at her funeral. His perspective is no less bitter today than it was during the tumult after her death.
There is more to come. A sensation looms when a distasteful video of her intimate conversations with a voice coach will be screened by a broadcaster for the first time. All those old enough to remember 1997 are familiar with the Diana story. Most chose their own slant on her life long ago. But there have been some fresh insights amid the torrent of recycled reporting.
Sons Prince William and Prince Harry participated in another documentary to speak about their experiences after losing their mother.
Monarchy is the family business for the young men of Windsor. Speaking from the heart is risky. While they must be willing participants in the national remembrance, if they say anything interpreted as an attack on their father, or even the Queen, “the firm” would face renewed damage.
It was striking that Prince Harry, who has inherited his mother’s talents for empathy, spoke of the difficulty of walking behind her coffin as it was carried on a gun carriage.
It was touching when both revealed how little they remember of her. Prince Harry gave a telling revelation when he spoke of the impact of recently finding a letter she had written about her work on landmines.
It is clear that both are still discovering feelings and views about their mother well into their adult lives.
The question posed at the top was how social media might have altered Diana’s memory among the public.
The outpouring of shared reports, images and reactions on social media may have resulted in a national catharsis. Lady Di’s hold on the popular imagination could have come and gone in the deluge of tweets and Facebook commentary. Instead, there were many years of questions surrounding the accident in an almost empty Parisian underpass. Only lately have these been more or less resolved. Conspiracy theories, notably those pushed by her boyfriend’s father, Mohammad Al Fayad, have, too, been scotched.
The bigger picture is that Princess Diana’s death was the cultural point at which the Victorian stiff upper lip tradition lost its hold on the national imagination.
She remains a national touchstone precisely because of the hole that remains. There has been no one emerge at the highest levels who can match her emotional intelligence and caring tolerance for the excluded.
Britain did not start emoting when Princess Diana was killed. Televised soap operas had thrived off the country’s love of melodrama for decades. But Princess Diana brought popular passions worthy of the soaps to the royal stage.
From the White House dance with John Travolta, to her many love affairs and Elton John singing Candle in the Wind at her funeral, she was at one with modern tastes.
This is a country where the x-rated Love Island reality television show has been the main silly season talking point. Across the classes, those who put their inner selves on full display are the most feted and popular.
Princess Diana is an icon because she is still the closest to the people’s type of princess.