Magazine article The Spectator

Those Touchy-Feely Times

Magazine article The Spectator

Those Touchy-Feely Times

Article excerpt


Anthony Howard's brilliant six-part series about the monarchy on Radio Four drew to a close on Monday with an assessment of the effect on the royal family of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, then and now. Fifty Years with the Firm was text-book documentary - sober, shrewd, reflective - and those who had appeared throughout the series were all the right people and, as is the refreshing fashion these days, they spoke with candour and honesty.

The death of Diana and the immediate aftermath was, as we know, an extraordinary period in our lives. It certainly taught me something about the nature of modern Britain that seemed to me to be rather unattractive, if not frightening. As I watched with some horror the crowds and flowers building up in front of Buckingham Palace, the sheer nastiness of the red-top tabloids, the hysteria as the funeral cortege drove away from Westminster Abbey through the north London suburbs, I wondered what had become of the Britain of my birth. Who were these people throwing flowers at the hearse? What emptiness in their own lives led them into this absurdity.

Would the driver, blinded by petals on his windscreen, crash? It wasn't just the death of Diana, it seemed to be the demise of the private Britain and the apogee of mass exhibitionism.

In this programme, Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, put his finger on it: `It was the first time I'd felt what it must be like when the mob takes over and the mob in London were whipped up - the media were definitely to blame here - and they were whipped up into a frenzy, not just of grief but a sort of anger at the royal family.

They were looking for someone to blame and the Queen would do.' Michael Shea, the Queen's former press secretary, had on the Saturday night of the fatal car accident in Paris, seen the early editions of the Sunday tabloids which he said were 'vicious' about Diana's behaviour with Dodi al Fayed. `They were some of the nastiest articles I had ever seen about the royal family. And within two hours [after the accident] they had changed into creating this saint.' Howard commented that it was a spontaneous outbreak of anger and resentment at the supposed coldness of the royal house.

The former foreign secretary Douglas, now Lord, Hurd, was taken aback. He knew her well and was surprised she'd become an icon overnight. …

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