“The Royal Family Was Behaving as a Family”

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Having finally had the chance to watch the BBC documentary on the seven days between Diana, Princess of Wales’s death and funeral, it seemed appropriate to address the period now described as a crisis akin to the Abdication. And while that seems dramatic at face-value, the fact remains it was a moment of reckoning for the British Royal Family and the British people.

If you’ve somehow managed to miss this story, the quick version is that over the course of a week there was a global wave of mourning concentrated in London as people openly and publicly grieved Diana’s death. Enormous crowds convened at the gates of Kensington Palace (Diana’s home) and, more critically, Buckingham Palace (the monarch’s official residence.) The first few days saw blame aimed at the media for “killing” Diana thanks to paparazzi chasing her car in Paris, while the latter half saw anger that the Queen and the rest of the BRF remained at Balmoral instead of returning to London to acknowledge the death publicly.

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It’s not quite correct to call a public mood “wrong,” if for no other reason than it’s beside the point. Even so, the hysterical grieving process that appeared to unite millions of people was – and is – unusual to the point of being an aberration. We expect certain events of public importance to freeze day-to-day life, but the death of a celebrity, even a royal, isn’t one. There are a few points that put that into context, though they fall short of explaining it – 1) Diana was the only member of the RF who appealed to the public at a human level at that time and 2) Diana was simply the most famous person in the world when celebrity wasn’t quite as all-encompassing or saturating.

In watching the BBC documentary, or any of the others that cover this, it’s always poignant and moving. It’s also difficult to fathom, even for those who lived through it. Personally, my only recollection of that time – far from London and very young – was that all of a sudden Diana’s picture was everywhere and I hadn’t been cognizant of her before. Now, 20 years later, I obviously have much better sense of who Diana was and the phenomena she inspired, but even with that understanding, this particular snapshot of British history is unknowable. Nothing really explains it.

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The wave of anger directed at the RF and the Queen is fascinating, particularly in this context. On the one hand there is this sense that Diana was mistreated by an unfeeling institution and cold group of people, and yet when the Queen actually puts self before duty – in this case, caring for her grandchildren before her people – she is criticized for it more harshly than she’s even been criticized before. It underlines the great hypocrisy of all of this – we call the media killers when we consume their content; we call the Queen remote but demand she put duty first.

In watching the documentary there was a mix of slightly stunned bewilderment from Diana’s friends and family, and there was also an acknowledgment of anger. Those on the monarchy’s side of the field are indignant about what the Queen had to endure when she was doing the right thing. Those close to Diana cautiously express the feeling that, well, none of you really knew her and you summoned forth her grieving children to make yourselves feel better?

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The images of Diana’s body processing from St. James’s Palace to Kensington Palace and the flash bulbs from cameras was particularly jarring. Even then, even after that level of attention literally led to her death, still she was subjected to an unbelievable level of intrusion.

Twenty years later we’re still doing it.

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Which brings us to her sons, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Frankly, their interviews during the film were the most interesting because you truly realize how unprecedented their level of candor is. You feel, again, their anger at the media – at one point William refers to paparazzi as “a pack of dogs” and both reference that many of their memories of their mother are of her crying about the press and their helplessness at being able to do anything about it. Then of course there is the chilling fact that they are well-aware that photographers, once the crash occurred, continued taking pictures of Diana while she was dying in the backseat instead of calling for help. The unspoken question then is, if someone had responded sooner, could she have lived?

So, yes, you understand why William has a reputation for being controlling about his and his family’s privacy – he says, quite plainly, “Once you’ve opened [that door], you can’t close it again.”

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And yet…their roles demand press attention. Literally, they need the press to survive. If the Queen will be defined by her longevity and the evolution of the Commonwealth, Charles by what he has made of his long wait and first marriage, then William will be known for how he has managed a still evolving media.

As for that particular week-long period, both men refer to it with the neutrality and empathy of two people who have had a long time to process it. They oscillate between the visceral memories of shock and discomfort and their adult comprehension of the bigger picture. Understandably, they refer to “that walk” as one of the hardest things they’ve ever had to do. I have a feeling 50 years from now, they’ll still feel the same way.

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What I liked about this documentary was the lack of attention on Diana’s marriage. Charles was barely mentioned and when he was, notably, it was in his capacity as a father. That was the elephant in the room during their earlier documentary, but I was pleased to see his role as a father and a man also grieving acknowledged. It emphasizes that of course he was a part of this picture – in fact, as we now know, he was the one behind the scenes demanding that Diana be treated like literal royalty.

As for that whole narrative that sprang out from the Newsweek article about whether or not Harry wanted to walk in the funeral cortege and the Princes not talking about their father, fun fact: all three interviews were conducted in March. All is quiet on the Windsor front.

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