Diana's funeral: re-enacted in Salford with Jill Dando and a mariachi band

‘Princess Diana to be EXORCISED in ‘sick and twisted’ FUNERAL re-enactment,” raged a recent tabloid headline, announcing a “satirical remake” at Salford’s White Hotel to mark the 21st anniversary of her death. The paper even quoted Charlie Proctor, editor of regal website Royal Central, who blasted: “Whether you are a monarchist or a republican, some events should be beyond humour, and the funeral of Princess Diana is one thing nobody should be laughing at.”

But are the artists involved in this event really laughing at Diana? Or is something more interesting going on? I decide to find out for myself, and so I join the procession as a coffin draped in flags is carried through the streets of Salford. As requested, everyone is wearing black and many carry flowers. The procession walks in respectful silence while traffic slows, bystanders gawp and people peer from behind twitching curtains. Genuine paparazzi hurry after the procession, just as they chased Diana’s Mercedes before the fatal crash in Paris. Someone says: “This is going to be the weirdest experience we’re going to have this year.”

‘It’s all become an exercise in fake news’ … a mourner at the re-creation. Photograph: Phil Taylor/SWNS

They’re not wrong. The Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales 2.0, is a free entry, word-for-word re-creation but with a mariachi band in place of Elton John. The event – put together by well-known faces from the arts and featuring novelist and film-maker Chris Petit as “master of ceremonies”, and writer and documentarian Jonathan Meades as Diana’s brother Earl Spencer – was always going to be controversial. Posters for the event (provocatively depicting Diana, Jimmy Savile, Jill Dando and Barry George) have been torn down across town.

“We sent out a press release knowing what would happen,” says author Austin Collings, who is directing the re-enactment. “But it’s very Chris Morris/National Enquirer to talk about an ‘exorcism’. The papers used a picture of the wrong building and said we’re having a Jimmy Savile impersonator, which is nonsense. So it’s already become an exercise in fake news.”

For most people in the procession, what awaits us at the hotel is shrouded in mystery. Those involved are being cagey. Film-maker and artist Stanley Schtinter says only that it will “reclaim the people’s princess for the people”. Even one of the actors – Little Anthony, once of Manchester band Intastella – has no idea what he’s getting into: “All I know is that my role involves a pair of union-jack boxer shorts.”

Required for context … the wrecked car is a VW rather than a Mercedes.

Required for context … the wrecked car is a VW rather than a Mercedes. Photograph: Karen Priestley/SWNS

Collings, who ran with the idea after Schtinter suggested it, was brought up a staunch anti-royalist, but researching the project by watching hours of old footage made him reappraise Diana and her attitude to the royals. “I love the factshe was a passionate thorn in their side,” he says. “The more you watch, the more endearing she is. When you see footage of the Queen Mother approaching a crowd, she keeps her distance, whereas Diana bowls right in.”

‘Her legacy is still subversive’ … TV producer James Norton as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

‘Her legacy is still subversive’ … TV producer James Norton as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Photograph: Karen Priestley/SWNS

Collings is old enough to remember the original, emotional funeral and the way that – briefly – the nation turned against the royal family because of the way they treated Diana. And he remembers how the press treated her:“She was the first woman to have her cellulite homed in on, when she was at the gym. It was the precursor of the Kim Kardashian treatment of celebrity, almost Ballardian.”

What about Jill Dando and Barry George (who was wrongly convicted of her murder)? How do they come into it? Collings says he sees both Dando and Diana as “ciphers, truth-tellers to power. Savile, as a friend of Charles, was a marriage counsellor to the royal couple. Diana had a terrible feeling about him from the start. She had emotional intelligence.

“At the time, putting her hands on black babies and all the stuff with landmines seemed like PR, but you look at it now and maybe she became a woman in a way they hadn’t let her. And the men she chose later on – an Indian doctor [Hasnet Khan]; Dodi [Fayed], a Muslim – were V-signs to the royals. So we’re essentially telling an absurd story of class, monarchy, racism and corruption.”

‘I think she’d have liked it’ … Diana in 1996.

‘I think she’d have liked it’ … Diana in 1996. Photograph: Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty

The procession arrives. The paparazzi are refused admission to the old club-turned-arts space. Everyone gathers in uneasy silence. But for all the mystery beforehand, it’s largely as Schtinter envisaged: a word-for-word re-creation, but taken vastly out of context. The rundown space, with its huge speakers and 24-hour licence, is no Westminster Abbey. It feels truly surreal, emphasising the strangeness of our social order.

Tony Blair, hissed and booed, is the pantomime villain, brilliantly played by Rob Thornber, a kitchen worker and club promoter. He had four days to learn the part but studied footage to send up the pomposity of the then-PM’s original speeches and bizarre, dramatic stutter. A car wreck – a Volkswagen, not a Merc – filled with flowers feels a bit crass, though Collings argues that it provides crucial context.

Earl Spencer’s emotional, almost vengeful eulogy about how Diana’s “blood family” will protect the princes is, however, received in awestruck silence. The words are delivered by Meades via a deliberately bad recording, so people hang on every word. We never do get to see Little Anthony’s Brexit boxer shorts: his role was dropped. Nor, despite subsequent tabloid reports, is there any reference to Savile, apart from on that initial poster. Instead, the Aloof’s The Last Stand – the most-played song on Radio 1 on the day Diana died – closes proceedings at punishing volume, while mist descends and George shoots Dando.

A world away … the funeral at Westminster Abbey in September 1997.

A world away … the funeral at Westminster Abbey in September 1997. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

Afterwards, everyone I speak to has a different perspective. Alex Taylor, 28, from Stockport, sees it as an exercise in challenging the limits of free speech. Artist and musician Dalitso Moni believes dialogue about taboo subjects “brings people together – it’s an artist’s job to give you experiences you might not have thought of”. Isabel Aitken, who gave some of the readings, identifies with Earl Spencer’s idea that “people were drawn to her because they saw one of the dejected and vulnerable. She was such a part of the establishment, but struggled to assert her individuality, and I admire her for that.”

It’s not always clear how the creators intended the piece to be received. But for art student Alice Pennington, playing Dando in a performance about Diana has made her think about #MeToo. “For me, things haven’t changed in terms of growing up surrounded by idealised womanhood. I think Jill Dando was on the verge of exposing something, and there are parallels with these young women who were killed in mysterious circumstancesand who embodied female innocence. Diana was the fairytale princess who refused to play the game.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, AKA TV producer James Norton, says: “People still get pissed off with William and Harry for being emotional and talking about depression, but that’s Diana’s legacy – and it’s still subversive. They don’t think royals should behave like that.”

“It’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen, but I think she’d have liked it,” says 19-year-old Huddersfield student Eve Pennington. “She was a rebel, wasn’t she?”

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