Books: Visions Before Midnight — Anne and Mark get married | clivejames.com
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Anne and Mark get married

Niggle as they might through the days leading up to the main event, the iconoclasts cut little ice.

Switching on The Frost Show (LWT) late, as part of my usual preparation for switching it off early, I found Alan Brien declaring that it was nonsense to treat the Royals as something special and that what he had recently done for Anne he would have done for any girl — i.e. travel to Kiev and position himself beside a difficult fence in order to describe her as bandy-legged when she fell off her horse. Angus Maude, MP, then gave the hapless Brien what small assistance he still needed in alienating the audience’s sympathies, and with a healthy sigh of anticipation we entered the period of curfew, or purdah: from here until lift-off the tone would be affirmative, nem. con. It was hard to see why this should not be so. Though nobody out there in the videospace knew very much about Anne’s personality or anything at all about Mark’s, the wish to see them properly spliced was surely very widely shared.

On the Monday night the BBC and ITV both screened the same interview with the betrothed twain. Andrew Gardner, wearing the discreet grin and the cheery twinkle, represented commercial television. Alastair Burnet, wearing the awe-stricken pallor and the beatified smile, incarnated the spirit of Establishment broadcasting. The Princess immediately proceeded to run deeply incised rings around both of them. Anne, it was suddenly apparent, was perfectly at ease, more than a tinge larky, smart as a whip and not disposed to suffer fools gladly. To help her prove this last point, Gardner and Burnet did everything but dress up in cap and bells: whether because their lines of inquiry had previously been checked and vetted into inanity, or because both had fallen prey to a shattering attack of folie à deux, they served up questions the like of which had not been heard before in the history of the human race. It was a mercy when an embarrassing point was abandoned so that a fatuous one might be taken up.

Anne had an opinion on everything except the political role of the monarchy — an understandable lacuna. Mark’s views were not so easily elicited. Here was Beatrice, but where was Benedick? Still, Benedick himself had been a stumbler for love: for these fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favours, they do always reason themselves out again. Much more inhibiting was the problem of impersonal speech: second nature to Anne, it was as yet an obstacle to Mark, who had still to grasp the principle that the whole art of making oneself understood when one is confining oneself to the one pronoun is just to bash on regardless even when one’s ones threaten to overwhelm one. His shy charm there was no denying, although the piercing Colortran lights gave him blushes that were younger than his years. The theme by which his life was linked to hers, it inexorably emerged, was horses. From this rich deposit of equine subject matter, one guessed, would exfoliate much of the media-men’s symbolism on the magic day. And so, with a head full of Piesporter fumes and the first bars of the overture to a Wagnerian dose of flu, your reporter flamed out into the flea-bag.

The Day dawned over Islington in the form of a flawless canopy of pietra serena rubbed with crushed roses — a spectacle which gradually transmuted itself into the palest of pure Wedgwood as one fed a hot lemon drink to one’s throat-load of streptococci. The Beeb led off with the official photos and a daring, jauntily suitable use of the Beatles’ ‘When I’m 64’. Fyffe Robertson was on hand, reading with undiminished verve from what might have possibly have been a steam-powered autocue. Nationwide reporters were everywhere among the citizenry. Asked how tall she thought Anne was, a little girl guessed three feet. Ursula Bloom, purportedly the author of five hundred books, and lately the perpetrator of something called Princesses in Love, gave an interview in which it was pretty thoroughly established that Anne is good with animals. Astrologers were called in: Anne’s Fourth Node was in the Fifth House of Creative Love so the whole deal was already sewn up tight, no sweat. A woman had been to ten thousand weddings.

At 8 a.m., Alastair Burnet came on, still radiating a nimbus while dutifully flogging the tone of portent. ‘And no doubt, if the bride is awake and has peeped out through the curtains...,’ he speculated tweely. Valerie Singleton promised that in the course of the next hour we would be shown what the dress might look like, to tide us over the further two hours before we would be shown what the dress did actually look like. Another astrologer gratuitously proclaimed that Mark wasn’t as dreary and ineffectual as one might imagine — Leo and Virgo had complementary strengths. Bob Wellings talked to Mark’s tank crew. ‘Is he, is he, does he, is he ... popular?’ ‘Yes.’ Film of Mark protruding staunchly from the reverse-parked turret of a Chieftain belting along a road in Germany indicating that Virgo came not unarmed to the combat with Leo.

Valerie Singleton talked to Richard Meade. Meade alleged, sensationally, that Mark was very shy. In Belfast, Mr and Mrs Monahan were interviewed. Married for seventy years, they were as sweet-natured as they were unintelligible. Burnet chaired a discussion with some Miss World contestants. My compatriot, Miss Australia, the current titleholder, ventured intrepidly into the nether levels of depth psychology: ‘I think, arm, it must be a nerve-racking experience for both of them.’ ‘I oper,’ said Miss Belgium, ‘I oper we will be seeing it on Belgian television.’ She could rest assured: five hundred million people would be plugged in by the time the real action started.

Alison Oliver, Anne’s trainer, was interviewed upcountry. ‘What’s the atmosphere like before a big event?’ Mrs Oliver explained persuasively that it could be quite tense. At 9 a.m. Pete Murray was shown coaxing record requests from people lining the route. A bystander, Julie Granchip, thought the wedding was great, and the reason she was here was to see the wedding, because the wedding, she thought, would be great. ‘Julie, thanks for talking to us.’

To the West Country, where Mark’s village, Great Somerford, has slept through the centuries awaiting its encounter with Cliff Michelmore. The local bell-ringers thought the programme of five thousand odd changes scheduled for the Abbey was a breeze: they aimed to double it. ‘You’re goana doublet?’ bellowed Cliff. ‘I doan believe ya.’ The Red Arrows performed to the music of Buddy Rich — the most gripping imagery of the morning.

‘A lot of people, perhaps,’ intoned Burnet, ‘are wondering why Captain Philips is not the Earl of Somerford.’ The Richmond Herald said that a title had been withheld for political reasons. Richmond, you could see, thought that democracy was getting out of hand. In the Abbey the carpets had been cleaned and covered with druggets. The druggets were being cleaned.

Michele Brown talked to a little girl. Why was she here? ‘Wedding.’ ‘Japan,’ said a Japanese, ‘has a loyal famiry rike you have.’ Too tlue. A résumé, in stills and film, of Mark’s career, showing how he rode before he could walk. One got the impression that he had trampled the midwife.

‘Do you think that she’s a typical young girl?’ Michele Brown asked a typical young girl. ‘No.’ ‘Do you think she’s got too many privileges?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What privileges?’ ‘Horses.’ Anne Monsarrat, a mine of royal information, told us that James I’s daughter had had the most expensive gown and that Henrietta Maria’s train had a man underneath it. Dimbling suavely, Tom Fleming introduced the scene in the Abbey and environs.

‘And here’s the Bride’s home...’ he jested, over a shot of Buckingham Palace. ‘Perhaps he’s there in spirit...’ he conjectured, over a shot of George VI’s statue. Fleming flannelled devotedly for some time, being particularly careful, in the early stages to keep us in ignorance of who the guests shown to be arriving might in fact be. Janey Ironside extemporized a commentary, with mixed results, on the range of hats available. It was a suitable time for the bored viewer to switch over to ITV, discover it to be screening a Profile of Princess Anne, and switch back again. The Household Cavalry rode out of the Palace gates. ‘For a bride and groom who have an interest in horses,’ ventured Fleming, ‘this must be a thrilling sight.’ Mark’s parents arrived at the Abbey. ‘A few weeks ago,’ announced Fleming, with that peculiar combination of awe and vulgarity which the BBC needs so acutely to be rid of, ‘people might have said, who are they?’

Blues, Royals ... Glass Coach! She was on the way. Cut back to the Abbey, where Mark stood poised before the altar — the final fence for a clear round. What did Stendhal say about the novel, that it’s a mirror going down a road? The British Constitution is a Princess going down an aisle. As the Dean and the Archbishop begin to read their text, the prattle of the media-men perforce ceases, and for a while the resplendent poetry of the marriage service lifts the proceedings beyond the grasp of straining hacks, before the demented chanting and the kapok-voiced lesson-reading of the minor clerics haul it back down to drugget level.

No less buoyant than its hallowed cargo’s hearts, the Glass Coach spins back to the Palace, where Fleming’s voice awaits them with the completion of the week’s recurring theme. ‘I’m sure,’ he sings, ‘these horses know that they’re home.’

18 November, 1973