Television Review

I'VE ALWAYS admired Christopher Hitchens' reckless appetite for blasphemy, partly because he penetrates further into the nasal passages of the pious than almost any other journalist, and it's fun to watch their apoplectic sneezing, partly because all dogmas should occasionally be tested against heresy. Those which are genuine will easily survive and those which aren't shouldn't anyway. He has already risked the jihads of devotees of Mother Teresa and Spike Lee, but last night, in Diana: the Mourning After (C4), he took on a still more popular subject - the paroxysm of grief which followed the death of Princess Diana. He did not, rather notably, question the Princess herself (barring a waspish observation that this paragon of charity had left not a penny to charity in her will); indeed, there was a brief panegyric towards the end about her qualities of warmth, beauty and compassion which would not have disgraced the pages of the Daily Mail. But he did question the assumption that reaction to her death had been universally bonding.

It wasn't the best of his television essays, because there was a sense that he had to prop up his target in case it fell over before he could knock it down. "What was and is the significance of the death of the Princess?" he asked at the beginning, implying that this question had been suppressed in maudlin hysteria that her death unleashed. In truth, you could read about little else in the clearing-up period that followed her funeral, the wave of lachrymose display having been followed by a tidal wave of instant social analysis, which contained many different facets of opinion, from disgusted to idolatrous. What's more, his vaunted statistic that 41 per cent of televisions were turned off that day was mischievously selective - a great many were turned off because people gathered together to watch the funeral with friends or family: if Hitchens really thinks there is a vast silent army of refuseniks who spent the day playing Monopoly, then he's kidding himself. It doesn't necessarily follow, of course, that everybody watched for the same reasons or with the same moist reverence - but then that would hardly come as a revelation.

It is true that the mood immediately following the death had its ugly and coercive side. Visiting Kensington Palace on the Wednesday night (empty- handed and in a spirit of historical curiosity), I recall being slightly anxious for my children, who were making what some pilgrims might have deemed inappropriate remarks about Diana's obvious surfeit of cuddly toys. In that extraordinary atmosphere, it didn't seem entirely outlandish that children might be nastily upbraided for being irreverent about the patron saint of kiddy-cuddling. But the objections to this mass expression - amplified by the tabloid newspapers but not invented by them - have a patrician tinge to them, a dread of the mob, which you would not normally associate with Hitchens. Far from delighting in the humiliation of the Royal Family, forced to haul the flag to half-mast in breach of long tradition, Hitchens almost appeared to tut-tut over this offence to protocol, as if his strong republican instincts had briefly been eclipsed by a larger distaste.

He also had to look a little obtuse about the nature of human sentiment - approvingly citing the question of one conscientious objector: "How can you grieve for someone you've never met, or never known?" The answer to which is "incredibly easily", because public figures, and stars in particular, often represent ideas or values. Grieving for such people may be an unwise emotion or even a misplaced one - but it can still weigh heavily on the heart. What's more, to feel insulted or threatened by the specious grief of others, however monolithic it seemed for a time, is surely a touch over-sensitive. Hitchens ended his film with the perfectly sensible injunction: "Get a life!". Which only made me wonder why he'd devoted a portion of his to this matter in the first place.