It seems like only yesterday, but twenty years have passed since the tragic night when one of the most iconic figures in the world met with a fatal accident in Paris and stirred a mass outpour of grief not seen in Britain in many years. That terrible accident, the death of Princess Diana, would also become the most memorable and challenging event during my two decade radio broadcasting career with the Bangla Section of the BBC World Service Radio.
I was the producer and presenter of the dawn programme, Probhati, which is broadcast at 1:30 am British Standard Time and 6:30 am Bangladesh Time. All preparations were going as planned and my colleague, Mustafa Kamal Milan and I were set to go to the studio 15 minutes before the broadcast for a rehearsal with the Studio Manager. But as we were getting ready to leave the loudspeaker at the Bush House, the BBC’s headquarters, announced that Princess Diana had been in an accident in Paris. The news immediately changed the whole running order and became the top headline. I asked Milan to take the papers and tapes to the studio and explain the situation to the Studio Manager and that I would join him after translating the top news.
We were lucky to have an efficient and experienced Studio Manager like Chris Millward during the broadcast and I told him what signs I would be giving him during the session. The programme started with me reading the news of the accident, the story of the Mercedes S-280, carrying Diana and her friend Dodi Fayed, smashing into a pillar in the Alma tunnel in Paris, which straddled the dual carriageway alongside the Seine River. Only a few minutes earlier the car had left the Hilton hotel in Paris and was travelling at high speed to escape the paparazzi giving chase. We told our listeners that more news was coming in. As the first tape was played I asked Milan to get me the scraps that were coming in thick and fast to the teleprinters of the studio. There was no time to have the news translated to Bangla for broadcast. I steeled myself and began translating on the fly, translating in my head as I read it out. Milan was a great help, continuously feeding me the one-liners for the broadcast. News of Diana’s death had not come in by the time the programme ended. As we know, she was taken to the Pitie Selpetriere Hospital in Paris, where she underwent surgery, but to no avail. The hospital announced her death at 4:00 am Paris time on August 31, 1997.
Only a few months earlier Tony Blair had won a historic victory for Labour and had taken on the post of prime minister. He was informed about the Princess’s death, as were the Royal family, who were at Balmoral in Scotland. Blair, in his statement, hailed Diana as the People’s Princess and maintained constant contact with the Queen. Prince Charles informed his two sons, Princes William and Harry, who were 15 and 12 respectively at the time of their mother’s death.
Prince Charles, whose divorce from the Princess was finalised in August of 1996, flew to Paris with her two sisters Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes to bring Diana’s body to London. They were met by French President Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette when they reached the hospital where the 36-year-old princess’s body lay. I was fortunate to be involved with two broadcasts, Probaho and Parikrama, of the BBC World Service’s Bangla Section on that day. Ali Riaz, who now teaches at the University of Illinois in the US, was the producer that day. Parikrama ended before the plane carrying the princess’s body landed at RAF Northolt, where it would be met by Prime Minister Blair was present.
In the meantime the Queen returned to London and made a special broadcast to the nation. She had been criticised for not addressing the nation earlier, and finally, bowing to public pressure and demand, the Royal Flag at Buckingham Palace was flown at half-mast.
Mourners from all walks of life turned out to lay flowers and tributes at the gates of Kensington Palace where Diana’s body was taken. Thousands of people thronged the palace gate in the next few days to place flowers, cards and candles in an outpouring of grief the likes of which were rarely seen before or since. Even my mother-in-law, who I remember was quite frail at the time, insisted on being taken to Kensington Palace to place a card and flowers.
The funeral was fixed for Sept 6, 1997 at Westminster Abbey. It was a Saturday, the day I was to be at Bush House to produce and present the weekly sports programme, Mathe Maidane, which I had been doing for almost a year. I was very pleased that I would not have to make the trip Bush House that day and could watch the funeral on television from the comforts of my home. But, little did I know, the Bangla Section had other ideas. I was called by the Section Head on Thursday and told I was assigned to cover the funeral. I went through all the formalities and got my Photo ID Card on Friday.
Thousands of people began gathering around Westminster Abbey on Friday night to get vantage points, and by the time I reached Westminster at about 6:30 am on Saturday, the whole area was stuffed with a vast sea of people. I struggled to get through the huge crowd to the main road and showed an on-duty policeman my credentials to receive entry the temporary studio just behind the abbey. For the first time, I saw the roads of London being washed.
In those days the Bangla Section would broadcast a programme at 9:00 am British Standard Time (2:00 am Bangladesh Time) and I was asked to send a short scene-setting piece (to be recorded) before beginning by live report. My scene-setter also included a translation of the first four lines of a song that was to be sung at the funeral by Elton John.
Soon, Guests and dignitaries had begun to arrive at Westminster Abbey. They included royalty, friends and family, and celebrities from the world of films and entertainment, such as Tom Cruise, his then wife Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, director Steven Spielberg and singers George Michael and Luciano Pavarotti. Also present were Hillary Clinton and Bernadette Chirac, the respective wives of the American and French Presidents. Suzanne Mubarak represented Egypt. Also present were the family of Dodi Fayed, with whom she died. Dodi’s father Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, was accompanied by his wife Heine.
Princess Diana’s body, draped in the Royal Standard, had earlier been carried in a horse driven hearse from Kensington Palace. Following the hearse were Prince Philip, Diana’s brother Lord Spencer, Princes William and Harry, and Prince Charles. The Queen and other members of the royal family came down to the Palace gates as the hearse was passing the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. The Queen was seen bowing her head and paying her respects to the departed princess.
The funeral service itself was a very moving and heart-rending occasion. Many inside and outside the Abbey could not hold down the tears when Elton John rendered a re-written version of his 1973 song, ‘Candle in the Wind’, which had originally been written in tribute to Marilyn Monroe. The first verse of this new version went as follows:
Goodbye England’s rose,
may you ever grow in our hearts
You were the grace that placed itself
where lives were torn apart
You called out to our country
and you whispered to those in pain
Now you belong to heaven
and the stars spell out your name.
The new version was recorded on September, 1997 and the proceeds donated to the charities patronised by Diana in many countries. Elton John, despite repeated requests, never performed the revised song in public again.
Twenty years later the memories of reporting Princess Diana’s funeral live are still rekindled on occasion, even as the popularity of the princess shows little sign of waning. On that day Probaho was presented by Dr Gulam Murshed. As the programme was coming to a close, Diana’s body following the public funeral, was being taken up the M1 to the Spencer family home for a private farewell. Her final resting place is at the Spencer family seat at the pleasure garden at Althorp House, Northamptonshire on an island in an ornamental lake.
After returning to Bush House following the assignment, I was asked to produce a recorded piece recapping all the day’s events for the late night broadcast which was to be repeated for the following morning’s programme.
I have covered many memorable events during my radio broadcasting career but nothing compares to Diana’s funeral. As print and electronic media relive the events surrounding this remarkable lady’s tragic death 20 years ago, I look over those memories, the accident, the death, the funeral, and find them etched sharp and deep and likely to linger forever.