To watch Mohamed Al Fayed give evidence at the inquest into the deaths of his son Dodi and Princess Diana on Monday was to go through a grab-bag of emotions: anticipation, sympathy, confusion, amusement and did-he-really-just-say-that disbelief, all rounded off with a strong dose of existential angst.
Nobody was expecting any major surprises. For the past ten years, the Harrods boss has been doggedly and publicly accusing Prince Philip of orchestrating Diana and Dodi's murder, deluging anyone who would listen with the details of his conspiracy theory. Monday's testimony wasn't so much about what he had to say, but how he would say it. If his past performances were anything to go by, Al Fayed's testimony promised ranting, speechifying and insulting the Royals just what everyone had been waiting for. And on that, he delivered.
This was, literally, Al Fayed's day in court, and he started by outlining the main points of his argument. Hunched over the desk, dressed in a checked suit and checked silk shirt, he read from a list of events and suspicions that he maintains is evidence of a murder and its cover-up. He mentioned the now familiar Mishcon note, in which Diana wrote to her lawyer, the late Lord Mishcon, about her fears of being killed in a car crash. Al Fayed said his suspicions of murder were confirmed when he discovered that the note "such a devastating note," he said, which laid out the plot "in black and white" was never turned in as evidence during the original British investigation into Diana's death. He relayed how Diana had personally told him that Prince Philip wanted to get rid of her, and that she was keeping the proof in a wooden box with her initials on it the box that now nobody can find.
Al Fayed also claimed that Diana's sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, told him two days after the crash that she thought it fishy, only to change her story later. He insisted, as he's done many times before, that driver Henri Paul wasn't drunk but was, in fact, paid by British intelligence to take part in Diana and Dodi's "slaughter" and that the blood that scientists used to conclude he was over the drink-drive limit was, Al Fayed declared, not Paul's blood. Al Fayed also told the jury that Diana had spoken to him just hours before her death to break the good news that she and Dodi were engaged, and that she was pregnant. "I am talking to the jury, they are ordinary people," he said. "You don't see this as a major cover-up?"
But soon the proceedings descended into a muddle of tangents and tub-thumping, and there was little the lawyers could do to rein in Al Fayed. He accused the government of prejudice against him, pointing out that he's contributed "billions" to the British economy in business and taxes, and, yet, is still denied a passport. He railed against a corrupt system where everyone from the French ambulance crew which he says was infiltrated by the secret service to Prime Minister Tony Blair (by way of the British authorities, the CIA, the French security service, Britain's top police officers, two French pathologists and several newspaper editors, to name but a few) had a hand in killing Diana and her lover.
And he let loose on the Royal Family, saying that the Princess had "suffered for 20 years in this Dracula family," a family which only saw her as "an incubator" for the heir to the throne. For good measure, he also took a swipe at Prince Charles and Camilla: "[Prince Philip and Prince Charles] cleared the decks," he said. "They finished [Diana], they murdered her and now she is happy. [Charles] married his crocodile wife and he is happy with that."
But Al Fayed saved his sharpest jabs for Prince Philip, with whom, he said, he used to have a friendly relationship once or twice he even opened up Harrods "for him and all his Nazi German relations to come over for dinner." The well-known fact that Prince Philip's family had links through marriage to the Nazis has provided plenty of fodder for Al Fayed's attacks on the Royal over the years. (Prince Philip hasn't done himself any favors either, having over the years accidentally publicly insulted various nationalities, like the time he visited China in 1986 and told a group of British students "If you stay here much longer, you'll all be slitty-eyed" or when he asked an Australian Aborigine in 2002 if his people were "still throwing spears.") During the testimony, Al Fayed called the Duke of Edinburgh a "Nazi" and a "racist"; he even cracked himself up when he added that it's "time to send him back to Germany... You want to know his original name? It ends with 'Frankenstein.'"
Members of the public starting lining up at 7 a.m. this morning to nab free tickets to watch the proceedings in the court annex. The seats filled up instantly, and there was so much demand, they spilled over into the press section. While Al Fayed's testimony might not have revealed anything new about the deaths of Diana and Dodi, it spoke volumes about how his quest for justice is, to most, just another source of entertainment. He must have known that many people think his allegations are just the ramblings of a madly brokenhearted man, a way to get revenge against the British establishment for not accepting him as one of their own. He was surely aware that his testimony on Monday like all the statements he has made since the crash in 1997 would be the subject of curiosity and ridicule. And it was for he could not but play to type.
The rules stating that the annex is technically an extension of the court and subject to the same rules of decorum went out the window: every wacky comment Al Fayed made was greeted with howls of laughter, every snarky comeback by a lawyer was accompanied by snickers and knowing nods. A couple sitting next to me were holding hands, giggling and whispering to each other, as if they were watching a play in the park instead of witnessing a man desperately trying to find a reason no matter how outlandish for why he lost his son ten years ago. Beneath all the accusations, conspiracy theories and name-calling is a man in deep, constant, indescribable pain. Ironically, because Al Fayed has made his suffering so public, we find it so much easier to ignore.
At the end of the day, when his testimony was over, Al Fayed left the stand with one final plea to the judge and the jury: "I need your help, please." The question is, has it all gone too far? Does the jury the group of ordinary people he fought so hard to have at this inquest still have enough sympathy to really listen to anything he has to say? And can anything it decides really help him finally put his son and his princess to rest?