Lincolnshire

Giles McNeill: Remembering the warmth and glamour of Princess Diana, 20 years on from her death

For the United Kingdom 1997 was a year, perhaps more than others in recent times, that was defined not just by what happened during it, but the lasting impact its events would have on the years and decades that followed.

In January, Brian Harvey is dismissed from the band East 17 after publicly commenting that the illegal drug Ecstasy is safe.

In February, the Roslin Institute announced the birth of a cloned sheep name Dolly – seven months after the fact.

In March, the UK’s entry Walking on Sunshine, performed by Katrina and the Waves, is the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.

April is consumed by the general election being fought between John Major’s Conservatives and Tony Blair’s New Labour.

In May, Tony Blair wins with a massive majority and 18 years of Conservative rule come to an end.

In June, J. K. Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is published.

At the very start of July the UK transfer sovereignty of Hong Kong, the largest remaining British colony, to the People’s Republic of China as the 99 year lease on the territory formally ends. It is an event that will be widely seen by contemporary commentators and future historians as the end of the British Empire, the largest imperial endeavour in the history of mankind.

However it is the events of the last day of August of that year that had a profound impact on the both the British as a people and how the United Kingdom was perceived by the rest of the world.

I suspect many people will remember when they learnt of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales at the end of August in 1997. Of course there is now a whole generation who have been born since who have only known of her after her death. But for many, who remember her, she was a figure that touched the lives of all, in some way or another.

Diana, Princess of Wales is perhaps best remembered for her philanthropy, warmth and glamour and perhaps too for her marriage and traumatic divorce from Prince Charles.

She is still an icon of her era – for those old enough to remember her. And like other iconic celebrities who died before their time (think Marilyn Monroe or James Dean) she is preserved in memory, timeless, ageless and unchanging.

She had an unusual combination of beauty and grace, yet a vulnerability which didn’t stop her from connecting effortlessly with people from all backgrounds. Not since the 1950s and early 1960s with Princess Margaret has there been a royal who encapsulated glamour with such ease and certainly not since the Tudors and the Stuarts has there been a royal who has held such sway over fashion.

Nor has there been such an emotional outpouring at the death of a royal (even the tragic death in 1817 of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the prince regent, later George IV, who died after giving birth to a stillborn son).

As one of Thatcher’s children, born right at the start of the 1980s, my childhood was lived in parallel to that of her eldest son Prince William, who was born a few months after me.

I certainly remember where I was. For some reason I woke up unusually early and rather than turnover and try to get back to sleep I turned on the television that was in my bedroom. It was just after half past three in the morning and the BBC was running the news, read by Martyn Lewis, who was reporting on a car crash involving Diana, the Princess of Wales, in Paris between midnight and one o’clock that morning. At this point the extent of her injuries was quite obviously being underplayed as I don’t remember sensing that her mortality might be showing.

At 4am she was declared dead.

Sixty-five minutes later Martyn Lewis, now wearing a foreboding black and grey striped tie, announced that ‘Diana, Princess of Wales has died after a car crash in Paris’.

Everyone else in my home at that time remained asleep, as no doubt is much of the rest of the country. For someone who lived her life in the glare of the public spotlight, the moment of her death – and the announcement of it – occurred to a slumbering world. The banality of a car crash, late at night, was such an ordinary fate, for such an extraordinary individual.

I felt saddened by her passing and would be glued to the television until her funeral a few days later.

The election earlier in the year had been a choice about two utterly different ideas of Britain, a choice less to do with political ideology or the economy, but the more important issue of who we are as a people.

The people being raised in areas traditionally associated with Conservative values and thinking were increasingly not sharing those values. Many people’s attitudes towards sexuality, drugs, manners, dress, food, swearing, music and religion had little if anything to align them with traditional conservative principles.

The death of Diana would widen and expose the gap between traditional values and the socially liberal, progressive and emotive values that were emerging. What we would discover was a country divided into traditionalists who were astonished, puzzled and even offended to hear pop songs and applause at a funeral – seeing mourners who wept one minute and took photographs of the cortege the next.

The second, younger group were equally bamboozled by the restraint and self-discipline of the other, seeing it as a failure to show correct emotion.

It was perhaps the first global news event of the internet age, with the BBC establishing a dedicated website, millions of people would tune in the following day to watch the coverage from RAF Northolt as the aeroplane carrying the Princess’ coffin landed.

The streets were lined solidly with people who watched the cortege make its way through the countryside and all of it is covered by television.

It can hardly be surprising which of the groups that had emerged dominated. Initially television, which took the side of the new, emotional, victim-loving faction, made it seem as if the pro-Diana, anti-Windsor mood was universal and unchallenged.

The Queen and Royal Family were being much criticised for their absence from public view; away from prying eyes at the Balmoral Estate in Scotland.

The Queen, quite rightly in my view, was tending to the needs of her son and two grandsons – who had just lost their devoted mother – and the wider family.

One of the most consistent stable measures of public opinion that exists in this country is the number of people who say they would abolish the monarchy. The late Henry Luce III, London bureau chief of Time wrote in an article in 1969 that “…most startling to an American visitor is the discovery that about a sixth of the British people think they would like to see the Monarchy abolished.” So it was in 1969 (18% Mori), so it was in 2007 (18% Mori) and so it was in 2017 (19% Opinium).

Yet a poll for ABC news, immortalised in the film The Queen, found that just shy of a quarter of the population thought the country would be better off without the monarchy. The demand, often barked with tears to camera, of the public was that they should be sharing in the outpouring of grief. For those who were at Buckingham Palace – a particular focus of much of the display – by the fourth day there was an unnerving quiet in central London, despite the mound of floral tributes and the size of the crowd.

I recall the increasing apprehension that not all was well. The papers, by this point, were echoing the populist masses’ demand for the Queen to demonstrate her feelings to the country. If the event of The Queen be true or not is immaterial.

The Queen and Royal family would return a day early to London, the union flag would be flown at half mast at Buckingham Palace; they would do a walk-about and the Queen would address the nation on television and, in another first, she would do so live. This all eased the rising tensions and ensured that monarch and peoples found accord. A month later the figure had returned to 18%. I suppose that things could have turned out very differently.

As the day of her funeral arrived the effect of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales on the British public was as perplexing as it was profound.

At the time the Evening Standard observed that the streets were stained with our tears; whilst the Independent concluded that she had brought an intensely personal language of pain and love to the discourse of public life.

Yet on the day of the funeral the public consisted of people mourning her death, people drunk on a Friday, tourists who found themselves in the midst of a spectacular event. Not to mention those who identified with Diana; gay people, people with problems in their own lives, and those mourning her as part of the mourning for someone in their own lives – to the extent that mourning as a group activity helped the healing process.

At the time, as a teenager, who was about enter my final year of GCSEs, I found myself surprised at the tidal wave of emotion on display on the television.

I struggled to understand why there were people wandering the streets of London weeping into camera about Diana, but it has always struck me that this was not my experience.

Now, I think that the death of Diana, more so than her life, redefined the British Monarchy – it forced an acceptance that the will of the people had been greatly strengthened in the decades since the Queen’s ascension to the thrown in 1952.

Her legacy however is her two sons who seem to have successfully blended the duty that is to be a Royal with their mother’s charisma, openness and compassion.