Diana 1961-1997: Television - A week captured by two moments

Less was better when it came to verbally escorting the gun carriage to the Abbey, writes David Aaronovitch
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The Independent Online
At 6.20am ghostly figures in the half light were caught on camera, moving slowly about in public squares and by the side of palaces. And weaving among them were the young fixers of television companies, connected to each other by headsets, seeking yet more interviewees for GMTV, ITN and the BBC so that the question "What did Diana mean to you?" could be asked just a few more times. When they found likely candidates, these were carefully shepherded in the direction of Diana Madill, Jill Dando or some other black-clad, elegant, sympathetic reporter.

With television, the simple things you see are all complicated. For every shot you saw there was a camera, and for every picture shown a decision had been made by an invisible director. And standing next to the director in the gallery or the outside broadcast van was an unseen programme editor. On the phone to her was an executive. Most of the time you would not have guessed and, in general, the coverage was best when at its most unobtrusive and informal. We did not need anyone to tell us what to think about this particular funeral.

But what would people do? We didn't know. The commentators didn't know. Maybe the mourners themselves didn't know. So when, at 9.15, the coffin appeared and a woman standing outside Kensington Palace shrieked "Di-an- a!" it seemed momentarily possible that we were about to see an extravagant and dangerous grief. Not actually being there, simply watching it on screen, made such embarrassment seem possible. But no - it was the last such cry. As the procession made its slow way to the Abbey, David Dimbleby's sparse commentary on BBC seemed far preferable to John Suchet's ITV prolixity. The tradition of telling us about the horses, the uniforms and the old- fashioned penumbra seemed as out of place, as distancing, as the fancy dress of the Archbishop and some of the more formal parts of the service did later. And anyway, the microphones were picking up every necessary sound - the creak of the carriage, the clop of the hooves and the occasional cry of a small child.

It was 10.15, as the BBC mixed between the cortege and the arrivals at the Abbey, that the first treacherous tear appeared, prompted by the sound of Pachelbel's Canon, and doomed any attempt at dispassionate reviews. Who wants to think about camera angles when something like this is happening in real life? And, successfully, television conveyed to us just how sad it all was. But not everything was got right. The BBC, having left the acute Dimbleby in the streets outside, went into the Abbey with a commentator who clearly did not realise that things had changed. Tom Fleming started his stint with an adjectival gush, and threatened to overwhelm the early part of the service with his extraneous information about Purcell and anecdotes about his own past royal commentaries.

When the choir sang Spare us, Spare us, O Lord! they echoed my feelings about this strangely intrusive voice from a different era.

It's not my intention to hurt this doubtless excellent man, but he was doing things the old and discredited way.

Two different moments, both unprecedented, meant more than any others, and best represented what had been going on all week. The first was Elton John's farewell song - the song that could replace God Save the Queen as the real English national anthem - at the end of which I could scarcely see the screen at all. And the second was Charles Spencer's bitter, loving and determined oration; part tribute, part manifesto. Applauded by the congregation, and, as shown by ITV, by the crowds in Hyde Park and lining the streets, it was one of the most memorable television moments of my life.

When Earl Spencer sat down, something in Britain had changed, for (as we later discovered) the applause had started in the streets outside.

Then the minute's silence, the stiff retreat of the Windsors to Buckingham Palace and the long eerie haul to Northamptonshire. And one police motorcyclist in the cortege, as it passed through some grey part of London close to the North Circular, sported a stray bouquet of white carnations sticking out crazily just beside the rear wheel.

It was time for the news bulletins to take over. And, unseen by cameras, the choirboys were probably getting ready to go home to play football and get on with their lives. Something had happened, but not even David Dimbleby could tell us what. As ever, it was Tony Blair who summed it up yesterday. We saw, but as through a glass darkly.