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TV UK, 29 August

Channel 4 experiments with a TV opera about people with Princess Diana psychoses.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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TV opera is an underexplored form for obvious but unsatisfactory reasons. I mean, opera? On TV? Forget about it.

But actually, it is a terrific idea. Opera is the ultimate audiovisual experience after all. It could have been made for TV, and certainly ought to be.

When She Died: Death of a Princess (Channel 4, last Sunday) marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, a hook just controversial enough to persuade Channel 4 to take a risk on the form.

When She Died focuses on three individuals who bring their own neuroses to the famous ‘shared national experience’ of 1997. In fact in two cases the neuroses are psychoses. There is an infertile woman who believes she had a baby that died and who somehow elides that imagined loss with the death of Diana, and an obsessive Dianamaniac who thinks he was receiving coded messages from the princess, and who pays a prostitute to dress up as Diana and then strip so he can perform some weird ritual.

Perhaps all this nuttiness was a ploy to distract attention from the famous weirdness of modern music, and the discomfort unfamiliar audiences feel when opera is sung in English. Maybe we’re supposed to think, ‘Opera! Innit bonkers?!’. But while Jonathan Dove’s music is fittingly quirky, it is hardly revolutionary, and David Harsent’s libretto is subtle and often quite witty, so the excessive focus on lunacy is quite distracting, and actually weakens the film’s effect.

The most interesting character is Doris, the unremarkable suburban woman who simply feels the need to say goodbye to The People’s Princess, The Queen of Hearts, etc. The early role call of clichés as Doris tries to decide what to put on her tribute is a highlight of the piece. We can laugh at it now, but at the time it was considered entirely respectable to get caught up in the emotional outpouring; it was dissidents who were considered to be sick.

It is a sad but illuminating coincidence that the broadcast of When She Died came so soon after the murder of the two girls in Soham, and the ensuing TV phenomenon. The opera can be read as a critique of the outbreak of emotionalism that followed the princess’s death. It is a critique that has become familiar and in some cases clichéd, but current circumstances make it difficult and indeed vital again.

If you think Dianamania was an aberration, just imagine the opera’s reasonable refrain ‘We didn’t even know her’ applied to Holly or Jessica. That we didn’t know the girls is no reason to be blasé about their murder, but we should be sceptical of the media’s efforts to turn a horrible crime into a shared national experience. The girls’ parents will have to live with what happened forever. The rest of us should avoid turning it into a cultural moment to be remembered on I Love 2002.

A better candidate for that slot would be the Witch Craze (Teenage Kicks, Channel 4, last Tuesday). Apparently witchcraft is all the rage among teenage girls these days. But the striking thing about the witches in the programme was how conventional they were. It isn’t just that their pagan beliefs come straight off the shelf (and that they even reject complicated ‘grown up’ books on the subject), but that they didn’t seem particularly alienated or even surly.

In part this is surely because proper teenage witches wouldn’t have agreed to appear on TV, and so the producers were forced to settle for 13-year-old lightweights (in pink!). But it also reflects the more general mainstreaming of hocus pocus. In between incantations to the goddess, the girls mumbled vaguely about respect, and insisted they would never cast wicked spells because you get it back three times worse. Whatever.

Faced with the genuine horrors of the Bible, these kids would run a mile. And as for opera? Don’t even go there.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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