Diana, Richard, Judy and me
It is – as anyone with a pulse must realise – exactly twenty years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and I have been reminded all this week of the tiny part I played in the strange events of the week immediately following the shocking news.
As well as the inevitable tributes and memorials in print and on TV, there seems to be almost as many people commenting, usually with puzzlement, on the “oddly un-British” response to Princess Diana’s death. The public mourning, the “sea of flowers” outside Kensington Palace, the bullying demands that the Royal Family “show us they care”, the flowers thrown at the hearse and so on…
To some of us – and I include myself – it seemed odd at the time as well. I watched it all unfold from the offices and studios of the phenomenally popular ITV daytime show, This Morning, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan and it was definitely peculiar.
Diana died in the early hours of Sunday, August 31, 1997. I learnt the news from a taxi driver, at midday.
The next day I was due to start a new job as one of five programme producers on This Morning. I sensed that this was a day when I might be expected to turn up and lend a hand and I was right: by the time I got to the offices on London’s South Bank, it was all hands on deck: producers, researchers, directors, plus the new programme editor, Nick Bullen, were already there, preparing a brand-new programme for the following day.
The signs that this was different from a “normal” celebrity death were instantaneous. I breezed through the doors with a flip journalist’s joke about someone waiting for a day off before popping their clogs. I was met with an icy stare from my new colleagues.
The show the next day – the first of the new series – went off fine. Judy cried a bit, Richard was sombre; it was pretty much all wall-to-wall Diana. The celebrity guests on the sofa abandoned plugging their new book, and talked about Diana instead. The bits that weren’t Diana-centric, such as pre-recorded recipe slots, or a gadget item, just felt wrong.
And so when it came to planning the next day’s show, Nick took the decision that we should ditch all the non-Diana stuff and go full on Princess Di. Out went the recipes, the quirky medical items, anything that might detract from the focus on Diana. The phone-in was people talking about how much she meant to them, the celebrity guests likewise. For one hundred and fifty minutes.
The ratings were excellent. I mean – stratospheric. Whatever we had done, the viewers had loved it.
Surely, however, that was it? Surely the viewers had had enough? It turns out they had not.
The next day, we tried to normalise the show, reintroducing familiar items. But, wedged as they were between more Diana phone-ins, and the weekly fashion slot (rejigged as a look at “Diana The Fashion Icon”) they looked and felt uncomfortable.
Again and again we used every available clip and still photo we could rustle up – clips that I cannot see now without being reminded of that week. Diana and “the boys” (always “the boys”) hurtling down a flume at Thorpe Park; Diana, in huge hounds-tooth check greeting the boys on the Royal Yacht, Diana arriving at the Palace of Versailles in a dress by Catherine Walker, Diana in the plastic head-protector for the landmines charity…
We trawled the sound library for sad music to accompany yet another slowed-down montage of pictures.
We even recruited celebrities with a vague connection to Diana – among them Wayne Sleep who had once danced with her and Sir Trevor MacDonald who had once interviewed her – to come to the studio and read sad poems from a large black book. My idea, that one. Sorry.
By Thursday we were getting desperate, but still the mood of the nation suggested they wanted more of this stuff, and more was what we gave them.
Denise Robertson, the show’s agony aunt, hosted a phone-in for people traumatised by the Princess’s death. We found another angle on the fashion thing. Nicky Clarke reminisced about Diana’s hairstyles, and The Sun’s photographer, Arthur Edwards, told for the umpteetnth time the story of Diana’s “see through” dress.
I think we stopped short of a recipe slot on “Diana’s Favourite Food,” but I can guarantee someone will have suggested it in a production meeting.
Through it all, Richard and Judy held the show together, steering a course between serious and sentimental, seldom hitting the rocks of mawkishness. I learnt in that first week on the job that their skill in judging their viewers’ mood was what made them as popular as they were. And also why they were sometimes harsh with programme producers who did not match their exacting standards. Two and a half hours in front of the cameras can shorten the mildest of tempers.
There were tears aplenty after the Friday show, although not mine: even after a week of immersion in the death of Diana, I still did not know her. I made no more flip jokes that week, though.
And I knew that, whatever critics might have said about the media coverage immediately following Diana’s death, nothing we did was fuelling the national mood. On the contrary: we struggled to keep up with it.
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