It seems just like yesterday, but twenty years have passed since that tragic night when one of the most iconic figures in the world met with a fatal accident in Paris and the mass outpour of grief that followed in Britain had not been seen for many years.
That terrible accident and death of Princess Diana was also to become the most memorable and challenging event in my radio broadcasting career with the Bangla Section in BBC World Service Radio that spanned over two decades.
I was the producer/presenter of the dawn programme, Probhati, as it is known as, which is broadcast at 1:30am British Standard Time and 6:30am Bangladesh Time. All preparations were going as planned and my colleague, Mustafa Kamal Milan and I were all set to go to the studio 15 minutes before the broadcast for the rehearsal with the Studio Manager.
But as we weregetting ready to leave for the studio, the tannoy in Bush House announced that Princess Diana was involved in an accident in Paris. This obviously changed the whole running order with this news becoming the top headline. I asked Milan to take the papers and tapes to the studio and explain what we were going to broadcast to the Studio Manager and I would be there after translating the top news.
We were lucky to have an efficient and experienced Studio Manager like Chris Millward in that broadcast and I told to him what signs I would be giving him for the session. The programme started with me reading the news with the top item being that of Princess Diana being involved in an accident when the Mercedes S-280 carrying her and her friend Dodi Fayed smashed into the 13th pillar of the Alma tunnel in Paris, which straddles the dual carriageway running alongside the River Seine.
The car left Hilton Paris just a few minutes earlier and was travelling at a very high speed to avoid the paparazzi that were chasing the car. We also informed the listeners that more news was coming in. As the first tape was being played after the news, I asked Milan to get me the one-liner news that were coming in thick and fast into the studio. There was really no time to get these news items to be written in Bangla for broadcast and that was the real challenge that I faced.
I took up the challenge and just broadcast the news in Bangla from these one-liners sent in English from the news-roomjust by looking at them. Milan was a great help as he continually brought the one-liner news and handed them over to me for broadcast in Bangla. By the time the programme ended, we did not receive the news of Princess Diana's tragic death. As we all know, she was taken to the Pitie- Selpetriere Hospital in Paris where she had undergone surgery but sadly the hospital announced her death at 4:00am Paris time on 31st August, 1997.
Tony Blair had won a historic victory only a few months back and became the Prime Minister. He was informed about the Princess's death and so was the Royal family who were at Balmoral, Scotland at the time. Blair, in his statement, hailed Diana as the People's Princess and was in constant touch with the Queen. Prince Charles informed his two sons, Princes William and Harry, 15 and 12 respectively at the time, of their mother's death.
Prince Charles, whose divorce from the Princess was finalised in August, 1996, flew to Paris with her two sisters Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes to bring Diana's body to London. When they reached the hospital where the 36-year-old Princess's body lay, they were met by French President Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette.
I was fortunate to be involved with two broadcasts, Probaho and Parikrama, of BBC World Service, Bangla Section on that day. I remember Ali Riaz, who is now teaching at the University of Illinois, USA, was the producer on the day. Parikrama ended before the plane carrying the princess's body landed at RAF Northolt where Prime Minister Blair was present.
The Queen in the meantime had returned to London and made a special broadcast to the nation. There were criticisms that she did not address the nation earlier, and bowing to public pressure and demand, the Royal Flag at Buckingham Palace flew at half-mast.
Mourners from all walks of life began to lay flowers and tributes at the gates of Kensington Palace where Diana's body was taken. For the next few days thousands of people thronged the palace gate to place flowers, cards and candles in a show of grief very rarely seen. I remember even my mother-in-law who was quite frail at the time insisted on her being taken to Kensington Palace as she also wanted to place a card and flowers.
The funeral was fixed for 6th September, 1997 to be held at Westminster Abbey. That was a Saturday, the day when I have been present at Bush House for almost the whole year, to produce and present the weekly sports programme, Mathe Maidane.
I for one was very pleased as I would not have to go to Bush House on that day and would be able to watch the funeral on television from the comforts of my home. Little did I know that the Bangla Section had other ideas. I was called by the Section Head on Thursday to be informed that I have been assigned to cover the funeral for the section. I had to get all the formalities completed including getting my Photo ID Card done on Friday.
Thousands of people have been gathering around Westminster Abbey since Friday night to get tovantage points and by the time I reached Westminster at about 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, the whole area resembled a vast sea of people. I had to struggle getting through this huge crowd to come to the main road and show a policeman on duty my credentials so that I could go to the temporary studio just behind the abbey. For the first time, I saw the roads being washed in London.
Bangla Section, in those days, used to broadcast a programme at 9:00am British Standard Time (2:00am Bangladesh Time) and I was asked to send a short scene-setter piece (to be recorded) before reporting live. In that scene-setter I also included a translation of the first four lines of a song that was to be rendered by Elton John at the funeral. Guests and dignitaries had begun to arrive at Westminster Abbey.
They included royalties, friends and family, and personalities from films and entertainment world like Tom Cruise, his wife Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, director Steven Spielberg and singers George Michael and Luciano Pavarotti. Also present were Hillary Clinton and Bernadette Chirac, wives of the American and French Presidents respectively. Suzanne Mubarak represented Egypt.Present too were the family of Dodi Fayed, with whom she died. Dodi's father Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, arrived with his wife Heine.
Earlier, Princess Diana's body draped in the Royal Standard was 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. As the hearse was passing the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, the Queen and other members of the royal family came down to the front of the Palace gates. The Queen was publicly seen bowing her head as she paid her respect to the departed Princess.
Back at Westminster Abbey, the funeral service itself was a very touching 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 was originally written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. The first stanza of the 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.
This new version was recorded in September, 1997 and all proceeds went towards Diana's charities in many countries. Elton John, despite many requests, declined to render this revised version in any public performance.
Reporting Princess Diana's funeral live from Westminster for Probaho for BBC Bangla Section on that day was an experience that is rekindled after 20 years when the popularity of the princess does not show any sign of waning. Probaho on that day was presented by Dr Gulam Murshed and as the programme was coming to a close, Diana's body, after the funeral, was being taken up the M1 to the Spencer family home for a private funeral.
Her final resting place is at the Spencer family seat at Althorp House, Northamptonshire on an island in an ornamental lake known as The Oval Lake within Althorp Park's Pleasure Garden.
After returning to Bush House after this eventful assignment, I was asked to produce a recorded piece describing all the day's events for the late night broadcast which was to be repeated in the following morning's programme.
I have had some very memorable events to cover during my radio broadcasting career, but this single event of Princess Diana's funeral has no comparison. As the print and electronic media relive the events of 20 years ago surrounding this remarkable lady's tragic death, the events from her accident anddeath to her funeral remain ever-engraved in my memory.
The writer is a senior journalist, political commentator and
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