Essays: On the Charles trail |
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On the Charles trail

PURPLE TUESDAY was the most stunning event in the history of the British monarchy since King Harold got hit in the eye with an arrow. By the time the sirens had stopped howling, all the television channels were at action stations and pumping out special programmes like a pom-pom barrage.

Frank Bough was in charge at Nationwide (BBC1). Large photographs of Prince Charles and Lady Diana were behind him. Around him were some plants. Casually but neatly attired, he had the air of one who knows how to stay calm when the crisis bursts. ‘So at last the long wait is over ... we’ll be telling you more ... start by going over to Hugh Scully, standing in front of the building which has been at the heart of today’s events.’ Frank meant Buckingham Palace, in front of which Hugh Scully was now discovered to be standing, accompanied by several hundred sightseers and some falling snow.

It was cold and dark, but Hugh was undaunted. ‘People waiting to catch a glimpse ... that hasn’t happened ... we can’t actually see ... the floodlights have not actually been switched on.’ The bits of Hugh that were inside his sheepskin-lined car-coat were probably quite cosy, but his face was stiffening while you watched. Nevertheless he managed to prise a vox pop out of a nearby woman, who explained how she planned to stay warm during what promised to be an all-night vigil. ‘I put two of everything on ... stay up overnight.’ ‘Is it worth it?’ croaked Hugh. ‘Oh yes. Television is not the same ... wonderful, very nice girl.’ ‘It is quite cold, isn’t it?’ asked Hugh at random, like someone reciting poetry while freezing to death on Everest.

Back to Frank in the nice comfy studio, where he had a theory about why Charles and Diana had not appeared on the balcony. ‘I think they’re both inside cracking a bottle of champagne ... highly significant day in the history of the British monarchy.’ Sue Cook appeared, with three little ducks flying up the shoulder of her pullover. ‘It was while he was at Cambridge,’ Sue told us, ‘that Charles really first discovered girls for the first time.’ There followed a comprehensive survey of the girls, culminating in the one who ‘could literally be the girl next door.’ This last assurance was accompanied by a photograph of next door. There was also a picture of Barbara Cartland, perhaps to galvanise anybody in the audience who had been tending to nod off.

‘Amongst our guests tonight,’ Frank announced, ‘is Harry Herbert, a lifelong friend of Lady Diana. What’s she really like?’ ‘She’s terrific ... leads the outdoor life ... lot of sport ...’ ‘She’s had some good friends in these past few months,’ ventured Frank, meaning those flat-mates who had fought off the media. ‘Does she have the kind of personality that can withstand that glare ... pressure ... publicity?’ Tina Brown, editor of the Tatler, was there to agree that Lady Diana had what it took to ward off the intrusive Press. ‘She’s absolutely trained for it. And so are her friends.’

Sue Cook reviewed the activities of ‘some of the world’s most highly trained newshounds.’ Prominent among these was the exceptionally highly trained James Whitaker of the Daily Star. Whitaker has been on the Charles trail for yonks, but has not grown cynical. Quite the reverse. Plainly he is besotted by Lady Diana. ‘I think she likes me ... I have been very intrusive now for five or six years.’ Whitaker said all this while wearing binoculars and standing in a phone booth, presumably to demonstrate his outstandingly high state of training.

It was made clear that the British Press, however highly trained its news-hounds might be, was a model of discretion compared to the foreign Press. Sandro Paternostro and his very thin moustache were adduced as representatives of Italian television. ‘They are like fairy tales,’ trilled Sandro, adding something about ‘psychological escape from the gloomy of everyday’s life.’ You could see why Frank fancies himself to be a cut above that sort of thing. ‘I bet she’s glad to be well rid of that lot,’ he scoffed, obviously never contemplating the possibility that she might be offering up prayers to be well rid of him too.

‘Let’s join Hugh Scully,’ Frank suggested, ‘and of course he’s still standing outside Buckingham Palace.’ By now Hugh was frozen into position like Shackleton’s ship in the pack ice. ‘It’s now snowing quite heavily ... hoping for a glimpse ... snow ... cold.’ An Australian lady standing in the drift next to him was more ebullient. ‘I’m so glad I’m here for this occasion. It’s been the highlight of my trip.’ Back to Frank. ‘Marvellous people down there at the Palace this evening,’ he crooned snugly, settling further back in his soft leather chair. It wasn’t snowing where Frank was. The North West plugged in. ‘She seems a noice enough gurrul, you know,’ said a rude mechanical from Dufton, but obviously the Prince’s absenteeism had given rise to a certain lack of gruntle in the locals. ‘Do you think you’ll see a lot of them?’ ‘Well, if we don’t see more of him than we do we won’t see much.’

An expert on royalty called Audrey suggested it might be a quiet wedding. ‘Very swish wedding?’ asked Frank. ‘What?’ ‘Swish.’ ‘Oh yes, very swish.’ Someone going under the name of Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd dazzled Frank with a lot of science about genealogy. ‘All four grandparents ... links with godparents.’ ‘You’ve just about lost me,’ frowned Frank, but perked up when the bride’s father appeared and immediately established himself as a hit act. ‘He asked my permission, which was rather sweet of him. Wonder what he would have said if I’d said no.’

The Earl belted on as if P. G. Wodehouse had invented him. ‘Diana’s life has been very difficult. No protection at all. Very grateful for those girls in her flat. Incidentally, when she was a baby she was a superb physical specimen.’ The Earl was hastily supplanted by a filmed interview with none other than the magic couple, so there was an opportunity to check up straight away on the current state of the superb physical specimen. She looked just fine. They were asked what they had in common. ‘What a difficult question,’ mused the Prince. ‘Sport ... love of the outdoors.’

At about this time a Thames Special started up on the commercial channel, with Peter Sissons in charge. The show began with the same interview, so you got two chances to watch the happy couple. ‘We sort of met in a ploughed field,’ said Lady Diana, and in the background you could hear the roar of accelerating Land Rovers as the highly trained news-hounds headed up-country to get pictures of the ploughed field. In the foreground was a close-up of the Prince scratching Lady Diana’s hand. Or else it was his own hand — it was hard to figure out which fingers were whose, a conundrum which only added to the charm.

‘Can you find the words to sum up how you feel today?’ the digitally entwined twain were asked. ‘Difficult. Delighted ... happy.’ ‘And, I suppose, in love?’ The Prince looked as if he had just found Sandro Paternostro hiding under his bed, but did his best to find an answer. Cut to Keith Hatfield outside Buckingham Palace. Spattered by those few flakes of snow which had not already accumulated on Hugh Scully, Keith tried to snatch an interview from the bride’s parents as they left. ‘Don’t talk about it,’ the Earl instructed his wife. ‘We’ve just done it. Just talked to the BBC and ITN about it.’ The Countess found a more gracious way of fobbing Keith off. ‘So many imponderables,’ she said evasively.

Meanwhile, ‘Nationwide’ was winding up. ‘Almost all,’ said Sue Cook, ‘but first back to Hugh Scully in front of Buckingham Palace.’ Lit by a sun-gun in the chill darkness, Hugh looked like Scott of the Antarctic several weeks after making the last entry in his diary. ‘Crowds outside the Palace now beginning to disperse as it becomes clear that they are unlikely to get a glimpse ... cold ... and happy day.’

The Observer, 1st March 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]