Zoe Williams - Ghost stories

Television - Long after death, Diana still brings out the idiot in people. By Zoe Williams


It's not so unusual to feel alienated from one's countrymen, but I think it is fair to say that it is unusual to feel as alienated as anyone with any sense did, following the passing of the "people's princess". This programme opens with a senselessly respectful replay of the days after Diana's death - focusing, understandably, on the self-indulgent keening of a bunch of weirdos whose large number did not make them any less weird (despite the tripe dished out by the tabloids).

It moves, predictably enough, to the funeral speech given by Charles, Earl Spencer, in which he promises to tend to the young princes so as to make sure "their souls . . . can sing openly as you planned". I think we can all agree that he did a marvellous job. It is hard to say what William's soul is singing, but I'm getting a cracking visual of Harry's singing "Don't Give Daddy Any More Whisky".

If we hadn't already done so, the narrator and I would have seriously parted company when he described the squabble between the Windsors and the Spencers as "a bitter feud between two great dynasties". Bitter, fine; feud, maybe a bit over-blown but still just about acceptable; two great dynasties? Somebody shoot me. This lickspittle struggle to make lion-hearts out of a bunch of talentless, chinless, pompous, unaccountable, self-serving no-marks really . . . well, it really gets my goat.

Yet to judge the programme by that momentary display of wholly misplaced deference would be to misunderstand its purpose. In truth, and rather subtly for the talking-heads format, it delivered this message: Diana's blood family was preternaturally greedy and Diana's in-laws were secretive, cowardly and bent double with petty malice. That the talking heads themselves didn't seem to be aware that they were engaged in painting such a picture only made it more enjoyable.

If one person comes across as infini- tesimally less bad than all the others, it is the Queen, if only for her post-mortem speech. "I share in your determination to cherish her memory," she said. Her face said: "You people are all frighteningly mad; I hope you go away soon." The woman lies so badly, it amounts to a masterclass in honesty ("Now, children, if a mean person forces you to lie, you can still tell the truth by curling your lip, like so").

The laughable avarice of the Spencers is played out in small details that it is pleasing to be reminded of. They ignored Diana's "letter of wishes", a legal but not binding document attached to her will, in which she expressed a desire to see a quarter of her wealth divided equally between her godchildren. Instead of an estimated 300 grand each, the godchildren received "a belonging", which in one case amounted to an Argos tea set. The narration noted that no one knew, precisely, why this decision was made, leaving rather deftly unsaid the obvious suggestion that her family members were greedy, horrid people. They fought tooth and nail over the rights to her image; her mother played mawkishly on the beautiful bond between child and progenitor, despite having not seen the princess once in the six months before the accident; her brother turned his pile into a Lady Di theme park, glossing over the fact that he hadn't let her use it as a bolt-hole while she was alive because she might have brought trouble with her. It's just unarguable: horrid, greedy people.

The royal family fares no better, with Prince Charles's pasting on Panorama replayed just for the hell of it, and the shady accusations of a "sex act with a member of staff" revisited. "What a leap," said one head on a stick, "for the public to take. When you think of the handsome, dashing man that he once was."

What hilarious balderdash.

If all that weren't funny enough, this enterprise was studded with statements that were just dumb, as if the programme-makers could have reshot the participants to make them seem less stupid, but gleefully couldn't be bothered. Jane Atkinson, some kind of PR representative for Diana, said: "In a sense, she continued to haunt everybody in a way that I don't think would have happened if she'd been alive." (This reminds me of the brother of a homeless guy who was killed when vicious youths set fire to him in a park. "He was a lovely man," the brother said, "who would have lived a lot longer if this hadn't happened.") Harry Arnold of the Sun called Di a "harbinger of secrets", obviously misunderstanding either the word "harbinger" or the word "secret". Robert Jobson of the London Evening Standard said of the royal family: "If they embraced her a little more, gave her a little more, she would not have come back to haunt them so often." As if he, like, honest to goodness believed in ghosts!

And that, I believe, is Diana's true legacy - she brought out the idiot in people while she was alive, and continues to do so from beyond the grave. It is rare to see such an accurate and meaningful point made so exceptionally well.

12 issues for £12

Next Article