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Monday, 29 July, 2002, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
When She Died: Death of a Princess

The Princess of Wales as an operatic heroine in Channel 4's "When She Died: Death of a Princess"

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)


MARK LAWSON:
When She Died, John Dove and David Harnett's television opera about Diana, Princess of Wales. Ian Rankin, some people regarded her as a prima donna at the time. Does the operatic form suit her?

IAN RANKIN:
(HE SINGS): It wasn't too bad, I have to say. (SPEAKS) Once you start that, you just can't stop it. I really enjoyed it actually. It either started badly or I had preconceptions about what it would involve because it starts po-faced and reverential, and it's got this couple who are royalists, monarchists who are preparing a little memorial to take down to London with them so they can go and visit Kensington Palace.

After that, you're introduced to other characters, a couple who seem to have lost a child. You are not sure what's happening there. There is a rather strange yuppie figure, who thinks he knew her, almost in a sexual sense, and takes that to some extremes, which may get them some trouble from kind of right to reply-type audiences.

But as an opera, I thought it worked fairly well. I think they used the medium of TV very well. It was unusual to see something actually sung in English. I'm not used to that at all. Some of the dialogue was perhaps a little bit bland. Then I suddenly realised that actually when you see subtitles when you're watching an opera in Italian or German and you watch the subtitles, they are incredibly bland lyrics anyway.

MARK LAWSON:
Natasha, we should explain that the thin lady never sings in this. It doesn't dramatise Diana.

NATASHA WALTER:
No, indeed.

MARK LAWSON:
Although, as Ian says, there is this quite bizarre scene, out of keeping with the rest of it to some extent, where a prostitute is hired who looks like Princess Diana and the yuppie does things with her?

NATASHA WALTER:
Yes. I thought that was maybe the bit that worked the least well. Well, there's one other vignette where an obsessive commits suicide or that's what you're lead to believe. It's these very kind of extreme vignettes which really don't work. They're not knitted in enough to the rest of the opera, but I agree with Ian that it kind of comes into its own somewhat.

I felt that by the end, it did capture something of the atmosphere that there was around the funeral, which was incredibly heightened emotion, and people sort of picking up bits and bobs of myths and trying to really work themselves up into a fever pitch about the image of Diana.

So I thought in some ways it did work, but I think there were a lot of problems with it. I think there was often this terrible mismatch between the visuals and the vocals. When you have somebody sort of spreading butter on bread and they're pouring out this voice that could have filled an auditorium, I mean it's this very strange mismatch.

Sometimes the lyrics are just absurdly banal and sometimes the music does descend also into this kind of repetitive banality that doesn't work that well. But again, I agree with you, I think the hybrid form, a television opera is something that's very interesting.

MARK LAWSON:
The libretto has some fantastic lines. Also, as you say, there are problems. There is this problem with modern opera libretti. I never thought I'd ever hear sung in an opera the line, "We can't take the car, Doris", which somebody has to sing at some point.

PAUL MORLEY:
Yes, that's my favourite bit, when the car breaks down when the middle-aged couple are on their way to London. The word that particularly stuck in my mind was Sainsbury's. (HE SINGS): Sainsbury's, why wasn't it Sainsbury's?

(SPEAKS) It's not a word I ever thought I'd hear in a song, not even sung by Jarvis Cocker. It's a very, very strange thing this is, it has to be said. I mean, Willard White wandering around as a tramp with a can of Tennents Extra, singing that Diana is the girl who could tame a unicorn, it's not without entertainment value.

The thing itself I just found most peculiar. The music I found somewhere sort of between Harrison Birtwistle and Lionel Bart, kind of Bartwistle. Most peculiar. Not sure if it was heavy opera or, you know Marks & Spencer avant-garde.

But the thing that most disturbed me in the end was saying it could only be made for television. I felt if it was slightly more abstract and they didn't rely on keeping introducing the original footage of Diana into it to give them their true emotional weight, then maybe it would have been a braver thing.

The thing itself, I think, on stage, as an abstract opera, might approach a Philip Glass-type treatment of a subject that generally needs to be treated in terms of "Can this unexplainable thing be explained by art?" I think in there somewhere is a brave, bold move somewhere.

MARK LAWSON:
I thought that was greatly to its credit. I mean, I found it¿

PAUL MORLEY:
(HE SINGS): I want to sing the end of this bit, please, Mark. I just don't know in the end if it had enough power to really communicate that idea that this was a most inexplicable kind of thing that happened, a phenomenon.

IAN RANKIN:
It did start to ask a lot of the questions though that I think I remember asking at the time about how why would people be drawn to go to London even if they hadn't really known her?

And then, of course, during the course of the evening, as they are walking amongst the flowers, they start to come to the realisation that none of them knew her, she didn't belong to them. And then during the funeral, you get that real catharsis, you get that sense that there's a kind of unholy energy has been earthed by the funeral itself.

PAUL MORLEY:
Did you feel they were sympathetic with these people or taking slightly the mickey?

MARK LAWSON:
That's the problem, isn't it? I think the name Doris, for example, is a signal that he does seem to be sending them up for a large part.

NATASHA WALTER:
Yes, they seem to be caricatures of the kind of people that were expected to have been at the funeral. Definitely, yes.

PAUL MORLEY:
That's what slightly worried me, that they were slightly taking the mickey out of that kind of thing. It never really resolved as such and didn't quite know how to end. And old Willard wandering around, having finished his Tennents Extra, you know¿

MARK LAWSON:
I thought he was a strong character. I think the great thing to be said for it, is as a TV critic, you tend to start now by writing in the notebook all the things they remind you of on TV. You couldn't say this about this. I thought this was a genuinely original piece of work.

PAUL MORLEY:
And musically too. The only thing I can think of that it reminded me of musically was an early album in the 1970s by a French group called Magma.

MARK LAWSON:
Ah no, there is a more specific comparison which I thought was a problem with it which is John Adams' so-called docu-operas. In fact, there is one point musically where he gets far closer to Nixon In China than I think John Dove might be comfortable with.

PAUL MORLEY:
But a little bit out of peter. It didn't have the internationalism of that, it didn't have the ground-breaking sense which is where it's a little bit quaint.

MARK LAWSON:
Although it's clearly in that line, it's an attempt to do an opera on current affairs.

IAN RANKIN:
I don't think anybody will be leaving their sitting rooms whistling the main themes. But I think it was an interesting take on Diana. It's good to see it actually dealt with now at that kind of distance and be able to say, take a breath and say, "Well what was going on there?"

NATASHA WALTER:
And it did well dealing with such a complicated subject that has become so mythical, much better, I think, than a straight documentary could do now.

MARK LAWSON:
Well, I thought it definitely caught the strangeness of that week, five years ago.

PAUL MORLEY:
Very strange.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Panel
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