Books: Glued to the Box : Wedding of the century | clivejames.com
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Wedding of the century

The Royal Fireworks (BBC1) were laid on in Hyde Park by Major Michael Parker, First Gentleman of the Rockets and Sparkler in Waiting. Raymond Baxter supplied the commentary, excelling even Prince Charles in the strain he put on a certain vowel, or veil. ‘The Queen and twenty craned heads from other lands ... bonfire built by Boy Skates ... the Boy Skates, Sea Skates and Air Skates ... the fuse darts ate across the grass.’ Up went the rockets, but not so as to take your breath away. Billed as ‘the most tremendous fireworks display since 1749’, it looked a bit sedate. ‘And neigh, the twenty-one guns of the Queen’s Troop ...’ As the sky healed, Prince Charles could be seen talking to Major Parker. What was he saying? ‘A pretty average fireworks display, Major. Or should one say ... Sergeant?’

Early next morning ITV stole a march by getting Leonard Parkin into position outside Lady Diana’s window while the Beeb was still clearing its throat with a Bugs Bunny cartoon. ‘She’s just peeped out of her window ... the famous hairstyle ... The Dress is in there.’ The BBC’s coverage began with Angela Rippon sitting in a vast flesh-coloured Art Deco salesroom for pre-war cosmetics. ‘We’ll be speculating on The Dress,’ said Angie. Michael Wood, now promoted, or demoted, from whizz-kid academic to all-purpose presenter, said, ‘I’m going to look at some of the funnier moments,’ a line not calculated to get you laughing. Both channels evoked a huge dawn security operation featuring underground bomb-sniffing Labrador dogs at large beneath the city, but already it was apparent that ITV, with a less elaborated studio set-up but more flexible outside coverage, had the legs of the Beeb, which was interviewing boring old buskers while the other side had successfully tracked down the people who had made The Dress. Plainly they would reveal nothing even under torture, but it beat looking at a man with a mouth-organ.

‘I’ve moved out into the Mall,’ said Leonard Parkin, ‘and this is the scene Lady Diana saw when she peeped out of the window.’ If she peeped out of the window again, she would see Leonard, but no doubt she was busy climbing into The Dress. Meanwhile, back at the Beeb, Lord Lichfield told Angie how hard it was to get snaps of the Royals. ‘The thing to do is keep their attention because they tend to talk to one another.’ Another BBC scoop was Herbie, the notoriously bad waiter from Costello’s. He described a past catastrophe, pronounced castastrophe, which he had apparently visited upon a previous Prince of Wales. ‘Zer banquet turned out to be a castastrophe for myself ... zer soup went all over his leg ... which he had to go inner zer barseroom and have it removed.’ ‘Do you have a message for the present Prince of Wales?’ ‘A present?’ ‘No, a message.’ ‘God bless zer Royal Family.’

On ITV, Andrew Gardner was with Barbara Cartland. ‘What I believe in, of course, is Romance.’ Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff. They were equalled for baroque contrivance by the creation decorating the top lip of the BBC’s next guest, Sir Ian Moncreiffe of That Ilk and That Moustache. ‘No time is known’, he explained, ‘when there weren’t these magic royal people.’ On ITV, Judith Chalmers had the job of being enthusiastic about The Dress, sometimes called That Dress for purposes of emphasis. ‘That Dress ... The Dress ... I’m looking forward to it.’ Sandy Gall tuned in from Hyde Park Barracks, where the Blues and Royals of the Escort were already providing a formidable example of horse activities. Prince Charles was Colonel of every regiment in sight but actual power resided in the glistening form of Regimental Corporal Major Lawson, who would be the senior NCO on parade. ‘The majority on parade’, rasped the Corporal Major, ‘will never ever see a parade of this enormity.’ Filling the close-up, the hirsute extravaganza adorning the Corporal Major’s top lip made That Ilk’s paltry ziff look like a dust-bug.

ITV explored St Paul’s to a well-written voice-over from Alastair Burnet, although later on he slightly spoiled things by calling it the Abbey. Katherine Yochiko of Fuji TV was interviewed. ‘Royaroo famiree ... so exciting reahree.’ She predicted that The Dress would be ‘just rike a fairy tayaroo’. ‘It’s just after nine o’clock,’ said Andrew Gardner, ‘so we’ve only got two hours to wait now before we see That Dress.’ Aloft in the ITV airship, a camera watched the first soldiers march away to line the route. The air shots were destined to be a big plus for ITV throughout the day.

Back with Angela at the cosmetics counter, Eve Pollard the fashion expert was asked to predict what The Dress would look like. ‘Cinderella dress ... real fairy-tale.’ The first guests were arriving at St Paul’s as ITV took its turn to hear from the Archbish about how prayers kept him going when the chips were down. ‘Do you suffer from nerves on occasions like this?’ ‘I say some prayers.’ The Beeb’s chief commentator, Tom Fleming, clocked on for a long day. ‘Once upon a time ... what you will see now is no fairy story, but the story of two very real young people.’ Never appearing in vision, Tom yet wears a morning suit in order to get himself in the right mood for dishing out the hushed tones of awe. ‘Daunting journey that will carry her through this gateway ... a new life of Royalty...’ But ITV had caught the Earl Spencer, a natural star even in his infirmity. ‘Are you a little apprehensive about today?’ ‘Not in the least.’

With fine young ladies poised beneath them, big hats were floating into the cathedral like pastel Frisbees flying in slow motion. ‘I think it’s going to be the most amazingly chic wedding of the century,’ burbled Eve on the Beeb. ‘It’s because she’s such a knockout ... endless huge hats.’ For ITV Alastair Burnet did a voice-over about the buildings on the route. Gracing the proceedings with a touch of wit, his commentary was yet another plus for the commercial channel’s coverage, which by now was making the Beeb’s look and sound sclerotic. But Tom Fleming ploughed on. ‘Queen Elizabeth, like Prince Charles, loves horses.’ Spike Milligan, who loves whales, showed up after all: having learned at the last minute that Prince Charles was responsible not for whales but for Wales, he had temporarily shelved his protest on behalf of the threatened cetaceans and made it to Moss Bros just in time. ‘Here is the King of Tonga,’ said Tom Fleming, neglecting to add that the King of Tonga is roughly the same shape as the much-missed Queen Salote but lacks the bounce. Nevertheless the King of Tonga was an acquisition, looking rather like Lord Goodman giving one of those interviews in which the face is kept in shadow for security reasons.

The Queen’s carriage left the Palace accompanied by the cheers of the multitude. ‘There they are, all waving their flags,’ said Tom Fleming as the people waved their flags. ‘Hats,’ he said, as the screen filled with hats. Lady Diana was dimly visible through the window of the Glass Coach. Tom was ready. ‘A fairy-tale sight ... that shy smile we’ve grown to know already ... these bay horses look hale and hearty.’ Lady Diana alighted to mass agreement that she looked like a princess in a fairy tale. ‘Ivory pure silk taffeta!’ cried the Beeb’s Eve in triumph, her predictions fulfilled. ‘Isn’t it a fairy tale?’ asked Judith Chalmers rhetorically. At least one viewer thought that the dress had been designed to hide the outstanding prettiness of its occupant’s figure as thoroughly as possible, but to say so would have been treason and anyway the lady had only to smile in order to remind you that she would look good in a diving suit.

With all those present in the Cathedral and 700,000,000 viewers throughout the world dutifully pretending that her father was guiding her instead of she him, the bride headed down the aisle towards the waiting groom, Charles Philip Arthur George, shortly to be addressed by Lady Diana as Philip Charles Arthur George, a blunderette which completed the enslavement of her future people by revealing that she shared their capacity to make a small balls-up on a big occasion. ‘Here is the stuff of which fairy-tales are made,’ drivelled the Archbish, adding further fuel to the theory that he’s the man to hire if what you want at your wedding is platitudes served up like peeled walnuts in chocolate syrup: he’s an anodyne divine who’ll put unction in your function. But the soaring voice of Kiri te Kanawa soon dispelled the aroma of stale rhetoric. Singing a storm, she even managed to make you forget what may have been the only surviving example of Maori national dress.

Spliced at last, the Prince and Princess headed for the door with Tom Fleming’s voice helping you master the details. ‘The cap-holder appears with cap and gloves,’ said Tom as the cap-holder handed Charles his cap and gloves. Off they went down Ludgate Hill in the landau. While Tom told you all about the bells of St Clement’s (‘the bells that say oranges and lemons’) Alastair Burnet recalled that Dr Johnson had defined happiness as driving briskly along in a post-chaise beside a pretty woman. By that definition Prince Charles was the happiest man alive, but Tom didn’t want the horses to feel left out. ‘These horses ... certainly not reacting to the cheers ... and yet perhaps...’ ITV snatched the best shots of the bride. The policemen who were all supposed to be facing outwards spent a lot of time facing inwards. It would have taken a saint not to drink her in.

‘And so, slowly,’ intoned Tom, ‘the horses find their way home.’ For the balcony appearances ITV supered a shot of the Royals over a background of the cheering crowd. The BBC, perhaps because there were no horses on the balcony, showed less flair. While the Princess got on with the job of changing out of The Dress into her almost equally eagerly anticipated going-away outfit, the television companies went off the air for lunch. The BBC wedding party was still going on when they came back on the air at 3.30, with Frank reminding us that what was taking place in the studio was a true festive occasion, in case we thought it was a funeral.

In an open carriage weighed down with rose petals and buoyed up by balloons, the newlyweds headed for Waterloo. The Princess of Wales, wearing the kind of tricorne hat in which Edward VII’s Alexandra was wont to wow the public, looked good enough to eat. ‘It would be good,’ said ITV’s Alastair without any real hope, ‘if people didn’t intrude on their privacy at Broadlands.’

As the only clean train in Britain set off on its journey, the Beeb’s Tom was ready with the words whose solemn gravity so exactly failed to sum up the occasion. ‘Throw a handful of good wishes after them ... from the shore as they go ... may they carry these memories ... to cheer them on their journey into the unknown.’ But the people were less frivolous. Having put off the tone of portent until the inevitable day when it would come in handy, they were dancing in the streets.

2 August, 1981