My fourteen-year-old, Gwen, received a positive Covid-19 diagnosis a few days ago. There was no arguing the point. Her test was part of a pilot scheme organised by scientists at Porton Down, a few miles from the school she goes to in Salisbury.
And so time is on her hands, and mine. We’ve all got quarantine books. Mine is The Life and Times of Graham Greene, written by Richard Greene (no relation). It calls to mind an era – not so very long ago – when contemporary culture was hugely shaped by Catholic converts, from Edith Sitwell to Evelyn Waugh.
I’m not reviewing the book here, only drawing out one of the many thought-provoking observations that the biography presents. Namely, that Graham Greene saw saintliness in others, even if his own life was morally complicated. He maintained, for instance, a devotion to Padre Pio in spite of scepticism inside the Vatican about the Capuchin Friar.
Which brings me to my family’s other lockdown diversion; The Crown on Netflix [reviewed in these pages by Ingrid Seward here]. It’s been criticised by some royal watchers as fiction dressed up as fact. But it remains watchable and offers a crash course in twentieth century British history for anyone born in the 21st. My teenagers, for example, have been taught lots about the American civil rights movement. But, astonishingly, most of them knew nothing about the Falklands War until it animated Episode Four of this season’s Crown.
I haven’t reached the end, so I’ve no idea whether screenwriter Peter Morgan will offer up rival interpretations of Diana’s behaviour. I hope he will.
Episode Three of this series, meanwhile, is unusual. The show’s creators normally offer not one sub-plot, but several. Episode Three, however, dealt just with the courtship of Diana. It presented her as a victim of a monarchical machine that left her isolated and depressed. Charles is a seen as a heartless prevaricator who wants – like Edward VIII before him – to put love for a woman who’s already been married to another man (in this case Camilla) – above all else. I haven’t reached the end, so I’ve no idea whether screenwriter Peter Morgan will offer up rival interpretations of Diana’s behaviour. I hope he will. His efforts with seasons one to three have revealed a satisfying willingness to show complex characters capable of both folly and wisdom.
There are those, of course, for whom Diana can do no wrong. She is, in effect, a secular Padre Pio. Or “Our Lady of Versace”, as Private Eye dubbed her. For Diana’s followers, the princess’s sufferings were not spiritual, but physically inflicted by the media who dogged her final moments on earth.
When I was a royal correspondent – a member of the hated royal “rat pack” – I came across some of these diehard fans of hers. A few were out-and-out fanatics, keepers of the flame, custodians of her sacrosanct memory. I remember how they sought to block anything that smacked of posthumous criticism. Memorably, I saw them howl-down David Starkey in Kensington Palace Gardens on the first anniversary of Diana’s death. The now-disgraced historian was conducting a live interview with the BBC and had to be escorted away by police officers for his own safety after openly impugning the late Princess’s integrity. For many of these devotees, her legacy is unimpeachable. She is fixed in aspic. Forever young and forever glamorous. And this was, remember, before the internet took hold. The ludicrous conspiracy theories about her “murder” in the Pont D’Alma tunnel would have been supercharged beyond all imagining if she’d died in 2007 or 2017, rather than 1997.
There are those, of course, for whom Diana can do no wrong. She is, in effect, a secular Padre Pio. Or “Our Lady of Versace”, as Private Eye dubbed her.
My children were wrapt by The Crown. They had heard of Diana, of course. My 17-year-old daughter Agnes had read “something about her being murdered in Paris by MI6”. A little-too-triumphantly, I pointed out that I’d sat down and done an interview with the crash’s sole survivor, Trevor Rees-Jones. He lived because, unlike Diana and Dodi, he reportedly wore a seat-belt. Nor was he under the influence of drugs and drink, like the driver Henri Paul.
What I didn’t tell them, is what I saw in Paris in the summer of 1998. In the build-up to the first anniversary of the fatal car crash. Something I saw because Mohammed Fayed had allowed me and a camera crew into his son’s flat, just off the Champs Elysees. It was an insight into the life that Diana was careering towards. Not glamorous, not classy, but a little grubby and rather seedy. The apartment was where Diana and Dodi were heading after dinner at the Ritz Hotel on the night they both died. I was told nobody had been there since then. And, certainly, the dust in the glitzy entrance vestibule was a centimetre thick.
Yet what stays with me isn’t the sense of finding a time capsule, but the playboy tackiness of the place. The kitsch mirrors on the bedroom ceiling. The pile of magazines next to the loo – which you could charitably describe as “erotica”. This was the world she was – however briefly – moving into. Maybe, for her, it was a joyful unbuttoning. A complete and utter repudiation of the stuffiness of starched royal duty and service.
But the mags? The mirrors? None of which featured in my broadcast, obviously. It was all too sensitive. There was still a sense of respecting someone so recently deceased. Watching The Crown, we are reminded that Diana has passed – sketchily – into history. I would go further. Having seen her depiction in The Crown, it’s hard not to conclude that her saint’s bones have been dug up. Her memory, still sacred to some, is being weaponised all over again by those who wish the monarchy ill.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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