Television: Last Night

It was well into the morning before somebody (I think it was Lord Archer) made the obvious comparison with the death of President Kennedy. For most British citizens, though, the answer to the question of what they were doing when they heard the news would be identical - they were waking up to it, a familiar cliche of acceptance given a literal truth by the timing of her death. Those on screen had obviously had more time to absorb the tilt the dependable world had taken in the middle of the night but even they were still a little dazed. "You might not believe this," said Anne Davies on GMTV, summing up for new viewers, "but I'm afraid it is true." An hour later on the BBC Martyn Lewis also recapitulated for those who had just turned on their sets: "You are joining us for a special programme," he said, and then paused as though he couldn't quite credit what he was going to say next, "because the Princess of Wales has died."

The premature abruptness with which a great national storyline had come to an end was at the heart of the shock. Anyone tuning in to find the BBC showing a Union Jack at half-mast and playing the National Anthem, as they did after the hourly bulletins, would probably have assumed that it was the Queen Mother who had died. But surely not Diana, a character whose triumphs and disasters had insinuated her into the imaginations of many people for whom the royal family itself was a negligible anachronism. David Starkey (taking the hazardous step of speaking rationally at a time when a certain hysteria was the order of the day) pointed out on Channel 4 that she represented more than just pedigree: "She was a Marilyn Monroe," he said, "she was a James Dean. She died like James Dean." And like those two figures you could feel the bands of myth tightening around her as you watched. Later in the day, ITV ran a montage of slow-motion archive shots over "Candle in the Wind", Elton John's song about Monroe, and not long after you could have heard Lord St John of Fawsley talking about her "genuine gift of healing". This slow constriction of sanctification was eased only by the frequent reminders that she left behind people for whom she didn't "symbolise" anything - for whom she was just a mother, or a sister, or a friend.

Tony Blair's statement, when it eventually came, faltered with something that must have been a compound between real sorrow and a leader's obligation to feel things on behalf of the public. Television has a similar duty of communal expression, of course, and by this time the strain of mediating between reporting (with its conventional agenda of issues and reaction) and emotional response was beginning to tell. Diana, said Martyn Lewis, "now has an incredible status that really transcends what anyone else can achieve". Just a few minutes later, on ITV, Dermot Murnaghan described the story as "probably the most momentous event of the late 20th century". Repeatedly the cameras cut back to Buckingham Palace, in an attempt to find there an emblem of national grief. "I imagine the mood there is one of utter misery," said one studio anchor, but the mingled crowd of tourists, mourners and rubberneckers couldn't bear such weight.

The best tributes to Diana were not such moments of hyperbole (forgivable as they were), nor the cliched statements from world leaders (which trampled the same thin phrases flat) but the simpler remarks from those who came to lay flowers at Kensington Palace. "I'm not a royalist," said one young women, "but it seems so absurd that the best one of the lot should go first." Channel 4 had returned to its normal programming by that point - the first of the networks to break away from observance. That was a real mistake, because this was one of those rare moments of communion between a population and its television sets. For that reason it didn't really matter that there wasn't anything new to say after the first few hours - even an awkward pause was better than changing the subject so quickly.