NB: This post was originally written for elsewhere. But as that blog now no longer exists, and given the impending 20th anniversary and its pop culture significance, I figured I’d give it a new home on FTS, albeit in a revised and updated state. Apologies if you’ve a sense of deja vu reading it…
The only time I’ve had something approaching deja vu in my life came at the cinema. It was 2006 and I was attending a press screening of the Stephen Frears film, The Queen.
Towards the end of the film, there is a scene where assorted members of the Royal Family, having been safely ensconced inside Balmoral, face the media for the first time since Princess Diana’s death by inspecting the flowers left at the gates of the Deeside castle.
Watching the scene on the big screen was a decidedly eerie experience. Because the camera angle used for the wide shots, from where the massed public are supposed to be watching the Queen and Charles, is where the press pen was opposite Balmoral.
It’s where I was standing at the time.
Okay, quick bit of context. In August 1997, I had been working for the Press and Journal for five months as their district reporter for Kincardine and Deeside – a patch of the North East of Scotland that extended south from the Aberdeen city limits to the Angus border, and west out to Braemar.
If that sounds like a big patch, you’re not wrong. It’s about five hundred square miles all in, covering the fishing harbours of the south Aberdeenshire coast, the oil industry firms of Portlethen, the farming lands of the Mearns and the forests and hills of Deeside.
Whoever was on the K&D beat effectively became de facto royal correspondent, especially when Her Majesty and the clan were staying at the castle on their summer holidays. It was a beat that meant you were at Crathie Kirk on Sunday mornings, grilling the then minister Reverend Robert Sloan on what his sermon was, just in case it related to some tabloid headline about the Royals.
It meant you were at the Braemar Gathering watching what the Royals were wearing while trying to cover the stone throwing competition.
And it meant, even if you were a nineteen year old trainee barely in the office five months, you were the one that got the call if there was a story involving the Royal Family.
“Are you coming into work today?”
I’d been off the previous Thursday with a stomach bug. The K&D and the Forfar offices rotated a six-four shift, meaning you spent one week working Sunday to Friday, then having the weekend off. The following week you worked Monday to Thursday and had Friday and Saturday off. This Sunday was my day in.
It was light outside, and the phone had woken me up. I thought I must have slept in, but John Ripley, the P&J’s likeably grumpy Mancunian assistant news editor at the time, reassured me I hadn’t.
“But we need you to get out to Balmoral right now. Princess Diana’s been killed in a car crash.”
I thought he was on the wind-up, a prank call from the weekend revelers on their way back from a very early breakfast at the Granary, and went to hang up. I could hear him shouting down the phone to put my telly on.
Click. There was Martin Lewis, looking sombre. And then footage of a wrecked car.
Within ten minutes I was in the office car and on the North Deeside road out of Aberdeen. By 7AM I was at the Tourist Information office car park opposite Crathie Kirk, which was already starting to fill up with satellite trucks and the crappy low-spec pool cars you’d find in most newspaper offices of the time.
This was the regular parking space if you were on a Balmoral job. In 1997, Crathie was a tiny hamlet on the A93, about halfway between Braemar and Ballater, and perched on the banks of the River Dee. It had a couple of houses, a church up a steep hill, a small tourist information hut, and a single red phone box.
Splitting off the main road was a smaller route into the hills which crossed a stone bridge, just past which was the entrance to Balmoral.
There were already some familiar faces milling about the car park – hacks I was on nodding terms with from Stonehaven Sheriff Court or crossing paths on deathknocks. The chat was whether or not Charles and the Boys would attend church that day. Most reckoned they’d skip it. A few seasoned voices thought they’d go, since the Royals were all about routine.
That red phone box was the only way to reach anybody. Very few of us had a mobile phone at that point, and even if we did, getting a signal in that part of the country was at best unlikely and at worst hysterical.
Later in the day a few foreign hacks, better equipped than us, would be balanced on the top of a pile of grit and shale dumped in the overspill car park for surfacing work, pivoting on their heels as they tried to find a sweet spot to get a call out.
After a few minutes getting the lie of the land, I called the newsdesk, who said they were putting an edition out on the Sunday. I was to watch for the Royals going to Church. But before that, I was to rendezvous with big Colin, one of our photographers, in Ballater, where we were to do some voxpops.
My heart sank. Getting Royal voxers in Ballater was a nightmare even under the cheeriest of circumstances. It was a town where the majority of people either worked for, or knew someone who worked for, the Balmoral estate and as such were reticent to put their name to a quote on the Royals, let alone get their photo taken.
Doing so at 8am on a Sunday morning, as everyone was waking up to the news of the Princess of Wales’ tragic demise? Not going to happen. No matter how much you hear the dread phrase, ‘the editor thinks it’s a good idea’.
The only shops open in Ballater that morning were the local hypermarket, a newsagent and, bizarrely, the Edinburgh Woollen Mill. No coffee shops. Nobody wandering about. Nothing.
We stalked the shops that were opened for a bit, accosting anyone that came out for a quote. All shook their heads sadly and said it was a terrible shame and they were so sorry for her sons and no, thank you, they didn’t want to give their names, not even for the Press and Journal.
Then we tried the shops themselves. Inside the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, the two women behind the counter tutted and said it was very sad. A man in tweed brushed passed the snapper and I to buy socks, then marched out the shop before we could grab him for a quote.
Outside, the snapper grimaced.
“That guy. I think that was Charles’ equerry. I’ve seen him before.”
Marvellous. Not only had we failed to get a voxer, we’d also pissed off the servant of the guy we were asking questions about.
We were back at Balmoral before half nine, so the photographer could get set up for that all important shot of the Royal range rover driving up the steep hill to the Church. This was as near as we were ever allowed to get, until the Royals had been and one.
On most weekends you’d get two or three snappers – the P&J, and a couple of agencies, largely staffed by ex-Journals shooters. There’d be a clutch of reporters and, if it was a really quiet news weekend, maybe Grampian’s TV cameras.
Over the summer we’d seen a few more hacks and snappers show up from out of the region, trying to get a glimpse of recently elected Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife during their summer visit to the royal estate. But usually it was the same old faces.
This time, the place was rammed. Getting space to see up the ramp, and not get in the way of a snapper’s lens or a camera crew, was near impossible. It was two deep, with the local plod watching on amused as everyone shuffled around to get the best view.
We watched, waiting for the point around half ten when the cars would appear by, police temporarily shutting the A93 at the junction to allow the vehicles to drive straight across, and up the road to Crathie Kirk.
As we waited, a car drove by along the main road, slowing down. A woman screamed out the window: “Fucking murderers. This is your fault.”
(Addendum: This happened more than once over the day. Colin reminded me on Facebook: “I… remember vividly standing on the roadside leading up to Crathie Church waiting for any of the Royals arriving at church. I photographed a woman who was walking along the road clutching flowers. She stopped, looked me in the eye and said “You might as well have killed her yourself” – I have never forgotten it.”)
Not long after, the police shut the road. The cars swept by at speed, with a wall of flashes and clicks the only sound other than their engines. True to form, the old boys were right – Charles and the boys were there, attending church as normal. I wondered if he was wearing the socks from the Edinburgh Woollen Mill.
Squint and you can just see the back of my head…
They were in for about an hour. Afterwards they swept back out again, the collected hack pack watching as they drove back down the hill, onto the police-blocked road and back behind the protected gates of the estate. We surged forward, mobbing poor Reverend Sloan in undignified fashion to find out what had been said.
Had he mentioned Diana? What did the Queen say? Did Prince Charles say anything? The minister was remarkably cool and collected despite a barrage of questions, dealing with the media’s demands courteously without giving too much away. We got our quotes, and scurried back down the slope to the car park, hacks retreating to fences, benches and their cars to cobble together their pars ready for filing back to base.
But then came the challenge of getting those words back home. One phone box was the only outlet – a scruffy, weather-beaten red call box at the base of the slope to the church, the verge from the road brushing up against it. A queue of journalists began to form along the verge, waiting their turn to call copy takers across the country, and send their words down the line.
My turn came and went in a blur, calling the freephone number we had for sending copy back, relaying my hastily scribbled, clumsy paragraphs to the news desk as the presses began to roll on a rare Sunday edition for the Press and Journal.
There was no point heading to Forfar, looking to find a few faxes and open the weekend mail in the Harry Potter-esque office under the stairs in a bid to get some downpage fillers for the edition. The special, and the next day, were pretty much a write-off. By the time copy was filed and orders received, it was past teatime. Stand down, because you’ll be going back out first thing tomorrow.
I eventually got home for the back of seven, driving a hell of a lot slower back than I did on the way out. By the time I staggered back into my flatshare, the news was showing live footage of Diana’s coffin was arriving back in the UK.
It was the first bit of the coverage, other than that very brief glimpse in the morning, that I’d seen. My only contact with the way the world was covering the death was stolen listens on the radio while sheltering from the rain or writing up my copy for sending through. The sheer scale of reaction had passed most of us by at Crathie until we got home.
It meant I hadn’t seen seen the blanket coverage across TV that day, wiping out the TV schedules. It also meant, like most people, I hadn’t seen the incredible moment when unlucky Britpop plodders Catch had their Chart Show video exclusive interrupted by the breaking news on ITN, condemning them to a life of being a pub quiz trivia question…
Fast forward to 1m 10s. Unless you’re Catch, obviously.
Day two meant heading back at Balmoral again, this time in torrential rain, trying to grab yet more voxpops and file colour from the dreich Deeside car park. There were no glimpses of the Royals, and the number of reporters, camera crews and photographers stationed at the tourist information office began to dwindle.
Around six pm, with nothing happening, I got the all clear to head home. Halfway between Crathie and Ballater is a big, sweeping left hand bend , overhanging the sheer drop to the River Dee. In the wet conditions, I lost the back end of the office car coming out of the corner.
Although I managed to correct the skid I was still going way too fast for the run-off, managing to straighten the car out just in time to hit the steep, muddy track down to the river. The Astra bounced its way down to the bottom, eventually coming to a halt just before a tree.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t doing well at that point. Out in the middle of nowhere, with who knows how much damage done to the car, which was comprehensively stuck in the mud and smelling of scorched brakes. I legged it up the bank, just as a car came round the corner.
Fortuitously, it was big Ian, another of the paper’s photographers – who had been out at Balmoral all day and had left a few minutes after me. He saw me, screeched to a halt, and ran over to check I was ok.
At which point a passing truck, with a sense of timing bordering on the comic, came round the corner and clipped the side of his big German motor, taking the wing mirror with it.
He dropped me off in Ballater, where I waited for the P&J garage truck to come out. Amazingly, the Astra was completely undamaged. It had survived being dropped down towards the river better than Ian’s car had.
The next couple of days were business as usual. A couple of hours spent at Balmoral, the rest doing the regular regional newspaper work the Kincardine and Deeside office demanded.
There was less pressure on finding splashes and leads since Diana and the aftermath of her death dominated the front. But there were still local news pages to fill.
Most of the hacks had slipped away from Balmoral by now, with no signs of the Royals coming out and no word coming from within the estate’s walls. The silence from the Queen and company made it hard to produce anything but colour from there, although not for a lack of trying.
One legendary tale came from then, however. One of the nationals had told its journalists to stay in situ at Balmoral regardless. They were to stay in a local hotel and put whatever they needed on expenses, to make sure that if the Royal family so much as put a foot outside the gates of the estate, they would be ready.
The journalists, who shall remain nameless, tested the limits of those expenses. The legend goes that one morning, one of them was found lying asleep face down next to the hotel pool, still clutching one of the champagne bottles he’d ordered the night before in a fit of well-funded largess.
It became one of those stories that, even allowing for pub exaggeration and Chinese whispers, was a celebrated part of the Balmoral experience. However close to the truth that legend was, it’s easier – and more fun – to believe the version told in the car park…
And then came the flashback day. A sudden call early in the afternoon as the newsdesk phoned.
“The Queen and Charles are going to look at the floral tributes outside Balmoral this afternoon,” came the word from the desk.
Bedlam and fraught calls ensued as various reporters, including myself, hassled the poor royal press officer Sandy Henney for details and timings.
Cue another scrambled drive back along the North Deeside Road – this time a little more carefully going around the bends – before piling up to the tourist information office. This time the car park was rammed.
Visitors had been dropping by to lay flowers outside the gates of Balmoral. Not quite on the same scale as Buckingham Palace, but still enough that a decent sized tribute had built up.
Tourists and visitors were lined up alongside the narrow country lane by the entrance to the castle. The press was gathered at one end, right on the bend, in a pen facing the entrance to the gates.
The estimable and well-dressed Ken Banks was already there, one of the P&J’s main reporters, along with another one I only vaguely knew. It was a three pronged approach – voxers, colour, copy. The full bhuna from everyone there. This time folk were only too willing to give their names and play for a voxpop – mainly visitors wanting to pay tribute to Diana and to the Queen at this difficult time.
Towards the end of the afternoon, cars arrived, pulling up at the gates. Out came the full family – the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Rothesay and his sons, returning from church. Walking slowly, inspecting the tributes, occasionally pointing something out and speaking quietly to each other.
It was the first time they’d all been seen since Crathie, five days earlier, amid the growing clamour for the Queen to be more visible – and more importantly, from the English media’s point of view, for her to be in London rather than hidden away in Deeside.
The thing I remember most was the quiet. That far down the road to Balmoral, you’re enough away that you can’t hear much of the traffic anyway. And the murmur and noise from the crowd waiting to see the Royals gave way to virtual silence, save for the snapping of photographers, once they were out and looking at the flowers. It was eerie – a mild, late summer afternoon, almost completely still and silent for a few minutes.
And that’s the memory, the visuals and the noise, that comes back when I catch that film, caught in a digital aspic uncannily close to my own memory of it.
The week ended as it began. At Crathie tourist office, in the rain.
I was back there on the Sunday. The focus had switched down to London for the funeral the day before, but on the off-chance there was any developments at the castle, it was a final return for the week to deepest Deeside. Even the Highland Games, due to be staged on the Saturday, had been cancelled for the first time in living memory. The story had moved on from Scotland.
This time there was no crowds. No massed ranks of photographers and camera crews camped out in the car park. Just me, a photographer, and a BBC camera crew sent on the off-chance.
The only distraction was a Scotland game, being played – controversially, given everything else had been postponed – at Aberdeen’s Pittodrie stadium. The satellite truck managed to find the feed from the game, and we huddled round the entrance, peering at a tiny CRT screen to watch it.
Everything had gone back to normal.