London, Dec. 6: By a twist of fate, the news of Nelson Mandela’s death was broken last night at the Leicester Square Odeon in London where royalty, celebrities and fans were watching a premiere of the film Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom.
One or two screams were heard as the Royal film performance, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was ending but the audience were told just as the credits rolled.
Prince William and Kate were tipped off by aides a few minutes in advance.
As he came out, a sombre Prince William, who has inherited his concern for Africa from his late mother, Princess Diana, spoke briefly to reporters: “It was extremely sad and tragic news. We were just reminded of what an extraordinary and inspiring man Nelson Mandela was and my thoughts and prayers are with him and his family right now.”
After the film, Idris Elba, the British actor who plays Mandela, took to the stage with Harvey Weinstein, a producer, to hold a moment’s silence.
Damian McCarthy, 45, who was at the screening, said: “I’ve never felt an atmosphere like that. It was unbelievable. It went from being quite a high-spirited occasion to absolute silence — stunned silence. It’s one of those moments where people say, ‘Do you remember where you were?’ It’s definitely put a bit of a bizarre twist on the premiere.”
The film, based on Mandela’s autobiography and many years in the making, goes on general release in the UK on January 3. Its main producer is the Indian South African Anant Singh.
Last night’s UK and European premiere was also attended by two of Mandela’s daughters, one of whom, Zindzi Mandela, had told reporters as she went in: “My father is fine. He’s 95 years old and he is pretty frail. We are hoping to see more of him.”
The news of her father’s death was given to her minutes before the rest of the audience was told.
Although Mandela’s passing is being mourned by the whole world, there is special regard for him in Britain. For example, there was a round-the-clock vigil maintained outside the South African high commission during his long years in prison.
This morning flowers were placed by members of the public by Mandela's statue in Parliament Square and his bust on the South Bank.
Tributes were led by the Queen who said she remembered with great warmth her meetings with Mandela and that he had “worked tirelessly for the good of his country, and his legacy is the peaceful South Africa we see today".
Prince Charles called Mandela “the embodiment of courage and reconciliation”.
At 10, Downing Street, where the Union flag is being flown at half mast, David Cameron evoked Nehru’s words after the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 and said: “A great light has gone out in the world.”
The former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, called Mandela “the greatest leader of our generation”.
There was a message, too, from Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai: “I have learned so much from Nelson Mandela and he has been my leader. He is a perpetual inspiration for me and millions of others around the world.”
A card left by his statue in Parliament Square summed up the popular feeling: “Thank you for the sacrifices you made for all of us.”