The Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales 2.0
Last Thursday night there was a 21st-anniversary re-enactment of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Shortly after 6.30 p.m., a crowd – the Daily Mail estimated 160 – gathered under a bridge in Salford, some carrying flowers, most dressed in black. A Daily Star article the week before, and another that afternoon – ‘Fury as “sickos” prepare to “EXORCISE” Princess Diana in “funeral 2.0” TONIGHT’ – may have helped publicise the event. The editor of Royal Central (‘the latest news on the royals of Europe’) was said by the Star to have ‘raged’ that ‘the production will also be casting people to play living people, including Diana’s brother Earl Spencer … No doubt when William, Harry and Diana’s closest family find out about this production, they will be disgusted.’
The coffin was draped in a black-and-white flag and topped with a wreath. As we followed it down the streets, through an underpass, over a bridge and along a section of dual carriageway, people in cars and restaurants seemed unsure if they were gawping at a real body. Two paparazzi were in the crowd, looking by turns confused, angry and nervous, their telephoto lenses quaint in the shoal of cameraphones. No one seemed sure if they were part of the performance or not.
They weren’t. When we got to the venue, the White Hotel (a fairly new place on an industrial estate near Strangeways Prison, named for D.M. Thomas’s novel), its artistic director, Austin Collings, told the bouncers not to let the paparazzi in. The photographer who sold his pictures to the Star told the paper that ‘the “mourners” were all too young to remember Diana’s funeral – they were all bohemian arty types’. He seemed oddly proud of being a member of the press corps who was around at the time. He filed his photos sitting against an outside wall hung with print-outs of pictures that the Mail – which bought his colleague's snaps – had dug up last year: Diana playing tennis in a shirt and swimsuit.
Inside the White Hotel, there was neither a Mercedes S280 nor a white Fiat Uno but a black VW Polo, its door ripped off, bonnet and windscreen smashed, flowers strewn everywhere, airbags out and scraps of blonde wig in the footwell. The official mourners were sitting on pews to the right of the stage behind a barrier. Proceedings began with a fanfare from a Mexican mariachi trumpeter. Stanley Schtinter, the artist responsible for the event, was among the speakers. In the promotional material, he both pointed out his own slight physical resemblance to Diana, and archly suggested that her death ‘liberated’ Britain from Protestantism, putting it
more in touch with its feelings. Before Diana any public expression of grief was forbidden; after Diana public expression of grief became mandatory. This paved the way for the renaissance of feeling which facilitated Facebook, live-streamed suicides and store-bought guacamole. The renaissance of feeling is now over.
Tony Blair was played by Rob Thornber, a friend of Collings who thought he’d been picked for having the poshest voice available. The face-twitching effort not to smirk every time he was booed and heckled – ‘say sorry Tony!’ – made the impression all the more convincing.
The most deliberate moment of pantomime tastelessness involved a bearded man among the official mourners putting on a gas mask and shooting the actor dressed as Jill Dando: a mummers’-play reminder of the conspiracy theory that she and Diana were murdered because they were about to expose Jimmy Savile’s paedophile ring.
The lights went out and music played: the Aloof’s ten-minute electronica instrumental ‘The Last Stand’. Radio 1 had played it every thirty minutes on the day Diana died. ‘Haunting and incredible – it matched the mood of the nation perfectly that day,’ one of the commenters on YouTube remembers. If it did, though the drum rolls occasionally sound vaguely courtly and official and the strings have pretensions to the orchestral, there’s very little funereal about it. It’s major-key and optimistic, like the credits of an uplifting film in which someone has been freed. The vocal version which mixed in afterwards, ‘One Night Stand’, adds in a bassline and 1990s lad-mag lyrics: ‘Why am I lying here and what was her name? I feel nothing at all/I feel no shame.’
The Funeral of Diana 2.0 may not have been the spectacle of manipulative hypocrisy that the first one was, but it wasn’t straightforwardly and cynically satirical, either. Everyone stood in silence for Jonathan Meades’s eerie performance of Earl Spencer’s speech. And as the mariachi trio performed a broken, lilting ‘Candle in the Wind’, people threw roses and sang along. At the end of the song, someone who'd been waving their lighter in the air lowered it to their lips and blew it out.