The death of Diana (BBC1/BBC2/ITV/Channel 4/Channel 5 etc., 1997)
I wanted to do a piece on here about UK news presentation, so I’ve decided to review this, because it was an historic TV moment. This piece isn’t going to analyse the politics of the event, such as the role that the monarchy plays in this country or attitudes to grief, it’s just going to concentrate on the TV coverage on various channels on 31 August 1997, and I’ll also reveal for anyone interested where I was when it all happened.
I suppose the most remarkable thing about it really was its timing. It was at the end of August early on a Sunday morning, a time when not much is usually happening, and it’s when lots of people are usually away. If there really is a time of year when news departments can deal with having fewer people around because it’s quiet, it’s this. What’s the worst that can happen?
The first report about the crash interrupted a film on BBC1 at about 1:15am. It was hosted by Martyn Lewis as it seems that he was the presenter who lived closest to the studio and they needed to get someone on air as quickly as possible. There was another news report interruption before the film ended at around 2:30am (which was rather late for a BBC1 closedown in those days, I wonder what would’ve happened if they had gone off air around 12:30am that night?). There was also a news report on BBC2.
When it was time for the planned closedown, BBC1 actually stayed on air, and for the first time they handed over to BBC World News for continued coverage (the BBC’s own rolling news channel didn’t launch until November 1997). Having watched the story develop all night, it must have been a remarkable moment for people when it hit them that this wasn’t going to have a happy ending, the moment when you realise that something has gone horribly wrong.
BBC1 returned at about 6:30am with Martyn Lewis presenting again. It was clear that this was an occasion where they had to get the balance right as unlike most news programmes it could be repeated for years after. It’s reported that channels do rehearsals of royal deaths coverage so that when the time comes everything is carefully planned and scripted. But they really did seem to have nothing ready for Diana, it was just so unexpected.
Because of this news, coverage was also shown on BBC2, meaning that for the first and only time a special generic “BBC” ident was used, along with a rather alarming announcement that regular programming had been suspended, bad luck for people waiting to watch the EastEnders omnibus. Another thing about news is that presenters mustn’t get too emotionally involved in a story, but it was clear that it was difficult in this case, you could really sense the disbelief coming through.
Watching some coverage again, one thing that strikes me now is just how straightforward and sombre it is, there are no oversized captions or tickers on the screen, and little use of that increasingly devalued phrase “breaking news”, and the whole presenting team weren’t all bussed out to stand outside Buckingham Palace or some such place all day, and it does still pack an emotional punch.
For the rest of the day on the BBC, Peter Sissons took over as presenter at around 1pm, and joint coverage ended around 3pm when BBC2 showed some sport. There were also some special programmes on BBC1 including documentaries, and the day seemed to turn into an endless edition of The Nine O’Clock News. What had started out as a quiet summer Sunday ended as the biggest operation in the history of BBC News.
As for what happened on ITV, they also had a few news reports throughout the night, before at around 5am The Chart Show was famously interrupted to begin the coverage from ITN that was hosted by Dermot Murnaghan and Nicholas Owen, before at 6am they had to join GMTV. When that ended at 9:25am, it was back to ITN for most of the day. The only scheduled programmes I remember surviving on LWT were Coronation Street (minus its Cadbury’s sponsorship) and Heartbeat, which was followed by a special programme hosted by Trevor McDonald.
Also, it seems that Channel 4 showed some news reports throughout the day along with The Art Of Landscape, but I think most of their schedule stayed the same, although there was an hour-long special edition of Channel 4 News in the evening with Jon Snow. Channel 5 eventually pulled their programming to be replaced by Kirsty Young and Rob Butler in the studio with a desk and everything.
As for where I was when this all happened… I was in bed. Well I was, no-one knocked on my door overnight to tell me what had happened or anything like that, this was how I found out. The summer of ’97 was really the only time that I regularly listened to Capital FM, and it meant that I must have heard the biggest hits of that time including “D’You Know What I Mean?” and “Freed From Desire” hundreds of times on that station.
It was a Sunday morning and I was going back to school a couple of days later so I thought that I would have one last chance for a lie-in. I decided to put Capital on at about 10am but instead of music I heard a news presenter talking about Diana. I wasn’t really sure why, I didn’t know why they were talking about her yet again, then I wondered suddenly… had something happened?
So I went downstairs and saw the BBC News coverage along with newspapers such as the News Of The World and I was rather shocked. It was so unexpected, my first thought was “she won’t be in the newspapers or on the TV any more”, although that wasn’t really how it turned out of course. There had been so much constant speculation (maybe too much) around this time about Diana’s next move that for all of it to end so suddenly really was the most unusual and unforgettable experience.