Belfast Telegraph

Our fixation with celebrity deaths is a consequence of unanswered questions which shroud their fate

 

By Barbara McCarthy

Fascination with Diana, Marilyn and JFK driven by our urge to find out what really happened.

When Princess Diana married Prince Charles in July 1981, my granny in Germany had a black-and-white telly, so we went to watch the royal wedding at my great auntie's house. She had a colour TV.

You could hear a pin drop on the streets outside the sleepy southern German town we lived in, bar the roar of crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace and the chime of St Paul's Cathedral emanating from people's windows on a hot July day, a mere 36 years after the end of the Second World War.

It marked the beginning of people's love affair with the princess and it hasn't waned since, not in Germany, nor anywhere else.

When she passed away, besides knowing where I was and who told me, I even remember what I was wearing.

It was like when Formula One driver Ayrton Senna died at the San Marino Grand Prix, in Imola, three years previously. I wanted to go to his funeral in Sao Paolo - having checked flights at the travel agents - but couldn't think of a lie big enough to tell my parents about where I would have disappeared to.

In hindsight, I should have taken my hard-earned cash and gone. It would have been incredible. Over the top, you think? For a person I never met? I don't.

If someone wants to mourn the death of a celebrity, let them. There's no need to judge, as we so easily do on social media.

It's like a formula. Someone dies, we all feel terrible and post songs, or anecdotes, then the armchair warriors post photos of a poor child in Somalia, or somewhere, going: "And what about this child? You don't care about them, yet you care about this rich person?"

Well, here's some news: neither did you until five minutes ago.

The unapologetic, relentless sobfest that followed Princess Diana's death was real and heartfelt and the collective crying outside Kensington Palace marked the birth of mass oversharing and herd thinking we are now so familiar with.

It was so shocking to see such an outburst of hysteria in the UK, home of the stiff upper lip and dogmatism. Whatever about the Brazilians and their racing hero, the reaction to Diana's death was unprecedented.

It did make me ponder, though, as I, like many others, had been glued to anything featuring the mesmeric Princess of Wales, what it was that made her so fascinating?

Unlike the friends she fraternised with, including Freddie Mercury, Kenny Everett, George Michael, or Gianni Versace, the princess had, by her own admission, few talents, merely a way of engaging with people from across the social strata.

The doe-eyed pioneer of dishing out personal information, which has since become an unfortunate global obsession, was observed by the establishment as a myopic nihilist, a scourge to the House of Windsor, while the rest of the world was enchanted by her.

On Sunday night, Channel 4 aired the controversial documentary Diana: In her Own Words, in which the princess described in videotapes her isolated existence and loveless marriage within the gilded walls of Kensington Palace, the fizzling out of her sex life with Prince Charles, the fact that they met only 13 times before they were married, the "ghastly" engagement interview which left her traumatised, Camilla Parker Bowles and lots more.

In her posh, flirty voice, she spoke of the "bumping off" of the "greatest love" she ever had.

"When I was 24, or 25, I was deeply in love with someone who worked in this environment," she said. "But then it was all found out and he was chucked out and he was killed."

Barry Mannakee, who she never referred to by name, was her bodyguard for about a year in the mid-1980s before he died, aged 39, in 1987 as a passenger on a motorcycle - ridden by a friend, who survived.

Like the modern-day sex tape, these recordings were meant to be private and sacrosanct and certainly not for public consumption, but somehow they made it from the hands of Coronation Street actor and voice coach Peter Settelen onto our TV screens some 25 years after they were recorded, and reopened the never-ending Diana debate. Plus, it had the biggest Channel 4 viewership since 2014. Interested now?

I don't know what these personal revelations have to do with voice coaching, but it proves that Diana just keeps on giving. And, despite much antipathy about the tapes being aired, I think she would have loved it.

In 10 years' time, there will probably be more tapes. And another batch in 30 years' time.

Controversial icons and their deaths are always shrouded in unanswered questions - and therein lies our fascination.

I just spoke to a friend, who insists that Diana was killed because she saw Charles was, in fact, a lizard alien.

It's the same with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Jim Morrison and JFK: we'll never know what really happened and it's driving us mad. Did Jim Morrison's girlfriend kill him? Was Marilyn murdered? What about JFK?

The lure of Diana is not dissimilar and the intrigue she generates is extraordinary. I've heard rumours from friends who were in hospital the night she died saying she was pregnant and/or on cocaine. (One or the other, I would have thought.)

Anyway, the conversation about her death and life will pick up in the coming weeks, ahead of the anniversary of her death on August 31.

She was a legend and, like many legends, she was enigmatic and died in contentious circumstances. Most importantly, in this shallow world we occupy, she was good-looking.

If she wasn't, we wouldn't be talking about her now.

  • Alban Maginness returns next week

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