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Why Princess Diana's death, 20 years ago, marked the end of an era of putting duty before self

By David Quinn

The best series on TV this year is The Crown, about the reign of the Queen and the events and the people who shaped it. It is superbly acted, superbly produced, looks superb and, above all, is superbly written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Queen, set at the time of the death of Diana, with Helen Mirren playing the title role.

The 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana looms large and the media has again been analysing the Diana phenomenon.

Last Sunday, Channel 4 aired Diana: In Her Own Words and, a few weeks ago, we were treated to a documentary in which the princes, William and Harry, gave their thoughts on their mother.

The Channel 4 documentary was largely a bit of codology, a few bits of taped conversations with her consisting mainly of tittle-tattle and lots of filler including, bizarrely, lots of footage of cows being slaughtered and incinerated at the time of "mad cow" disease.

Diana was the most massive cultural phenomenon and is worth trying to understand. Millions upon millions of people thought she walked on water.

She was a quasi-deity to them, they wanted to touch the hem of her garment. They believed she could cure them, if not of physical injury and ailments, then of psychological ones like low self-esteem, which these days is counted as a psychological ailment.

In other words, Diana is to be partly understood in religious terms. She was not regarded by her devotees as an ordinary mortal. She was above that.

Watching that Channel 4 documentary, the part that resonated with me most strongly was an interview with a wheelchair-bound woman who, when she was still in her teens, met Diana. The encounter made a lasting impression on her.

The fact that the world's most famous woman would spend a few moments with her and offer a few kind words meant a huge amount to her. That's what celebrity does.

The week following the death of Diana was epoch-making in its own way. It has been remarked many times since then that it was the week which made fully visible the country's passage from being a stoical society of the stiff upper lip to a therapeutic one that was much more about feelings and letting them show.

Letting them show is healthier and more authentic, apparently. Sometimes it is, but there was, and is, a sinister side to it as well and it was more and more on display as that week went on.

At the start of the week almost everyone was shocked by the sudden and awful death of Diana, but as the week dragged on all the feelings unleashed turned in many cases to anger and the anger was directed towards the senior members of the Royal Family, especially Prince Charles, Prince Philip and the Queen herself.

It was a week when the monarchy looked to be in danger of toppling. The senior royals were not mourning in the required way. They weren't being emotional enough. They were being too stoical, displaying too much of the stiff upper lip. Maybe they didn't care at all.

Peter Morgan's film The Queen captures a monarch totally bewildered by what was happening. Morgan has her express dismay that the Britain she grew up in and understood was now gone. Now she didn't know what she was dealing with.

Musing on Diana and Charles and how they always seemed to put their own desires first, she says at one point: "I was always taught to put duty before self."

That same tension is one of the central themes of The Crown. In flashback, we see that the last time the monarchy almost fell was when another of its members, Edward VIII, put self before duty by abdicating in 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson.

Twenty years after the death of Diana, the Queen represents the old stoical virtues, not the new, feelings-based ones.

Which are better? It probably depends on circumstance. But what we can certainly say is that duty and stoicism hardly get a look-in anymore. And it's hard to see how that serves us well.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph