“She’s such an inspiration. She’s class.” That’s how 17-year-old Bianca, in her gold-lamé miniskirt, summed up Kate Middleton, 90 minutes before the British royal wedding. Like many others, Bianca was positioned alongside the Mall in central London, but unlike most she had the advantage of a view. She was being carried on the shoulders of her long-suffering boyfriend, Luke, who was dressed as if auditioning for a role in Brideshead Revisited. Gazing graciously down upon me, she continued, “She’s so reachable. She’s made me want to help people more.”
We have been here before, of course, most notably on the summer day 30 years ago when the Prince of Wales went down the aisle at St. Paul’s Cathedral with Lady Diana Spencer. And it wasn’t just the gray skies and cheering crowds waving their miniature Union Jacks who stirred memories of the earlier occasion. Even more than in 2011, the British people entered 1981 in a state of abysmal economic gloom. Over the previous three years, private-sector company profits had plummeted 22 percent, manufacturing output had fallen by 15 percent, and unemployment had almost doubled—the biggest leap since the Great Depression. One can argue today about the nation’s ultimate debt to Margaret Thatcher, but her austerity measures after taking power in 1979—slashing the hitherto relentless increase in government spending and raising the value-added tax—made her few friends at the time. Beset by press criticism and a series of violent public-sector strikes, the Conservative government seemed in meltdown. In May 1981, Michael Foot’s hard-left Labour Party stood 27 points ahead in the opinion polls. When Mrs. Thatcher and Chancellor Geoffrey Howe went on to introduce a budget that squeezed the money supply even tighter, freezing tax allowances that would normally have gone up in line with 18-percent inflation, 364 economists signed an outraged letter to the Times, claiming that the government was “plunging the nation into the abyss.” Substitute the names Cameron and Osborne for Thatcher and Howe, and you have a broadly similar set of circumstances in Britain today, with the exception of an annual deficit almost twice as large in real terms as it was in 1981.
So HRH Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, bore a certain amount of the nation’s hopes and expectations when it came to providing a communal sense of effusion, relief, and perhaps sheer escapism on the morning of April 29 last. It has to be said that they succeeded brilliantly. C.S. Lewis has Uncle Screwtape define four causes of laughter: Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. Both those thronging the streets of London and the two billion people who watched all or part of the wedding on television were treated to all four of the devil’s categories, thanks to a theatrical but genuine event. Not only was it aesthetically gorgeous, and the main players humorous and affable—though hardly more so than the friendly crowds, among them seemingly half the population of Tokyo—but the ceremony itself was wound about with excellent comedy. The grumpy small bridesmaid blocking her ears was good; the bolting horse an enjoyable divertissement; the pomposity of the various rock stars and television grandees in attendance a definite addition to the day. Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie further ramped up the light-relief quotient with hilarious pantomime-dame millinery. Within hours, there were dozens of jokes making the rounds of London pubs trading on Beatrice’s giant pretzel hat, while those with long memories made the sartorial connection back to the princess’s mother, Sarah Ferguson, never a martyr to false modesty and most certainly present in the abbey in spirit if not in body. Even better was the cartwheeling verger in his full black cassock, hurling himself down the red carpet to express general happy relief after the ceremony, the epitome of that wonderfully British genius for marrying formality and buffoonery.
Much that same union abounded in scores of communal singalongs, street parties, and other ad hoc celebrations the length and breadth of Britain. In one normally staid, tree-lined avenue in suburban Carshalton, Surrey, 250-plus people spent the afternoon milling around a multitude of tables in the road, popping champagne, Strongbow cider, and party streamers in equal measure, watching one of several TVs rigged up in the front windows of the local video shop and hair salon. Homemade bunting hung from the lampposts. Adele Krause, who is Belgian, told me, “I’m here because it’s so British.” She was right. It was—not only in the pomp and ceremony, but in the slightly flung-together nature of the whole occasion, the gently teasing sense of irony without which no British public event is complete. “Please, what is this?” Miss Krause inquired, as a bearded man in a full, faux-Middleton wedding dress, but with luxuriantly hairy legs, ambled up for a chat. Soon we were joined by a 6-foot-tall woman, wearing another two feet of dreadlocks and a papier-mâché crown. A serious, pipe-smoking type tapped away on his BlackBerry, a plastic tiara in his hair. An older lady, tanned, wore the tailored trouser suit, headscarf, and sunglasses of the latter-day Jackie Onassis, though Mrs. Onassis undoubtedly never sported a lapel badge signifying how enthusiastically she would respond to any carnal overtures a passerby might make to her. And among all this, approval for the royals came from unlikely places. “Yeah, they seem useless, but they’re harmless,” said Lee Glaze, 18, who managed to look quite frightening despite (or because of) wearing a soccer shirt and a pair of ripped-up fishnets. “It’s a bit of fun, isn’t it?”
Not everyone joined the happy consensus. On the night before the wedding, police raided a number of homes around London and the Home Counties, making 20 arrests. In one case, they seized a guillotine and took three men and a woman identified as members of the antiroyal group the Government of the Dead into custody. Members of the British security services also took the opportunity to visit the “Ratstar anarchist squat” in Camberwell Green, southeast London, where a further 19 people were detained. A representative of the group later posted a blog complaining that
comrades were dragged out of their beds and searched by jackbooted Nazis . . . all that was found was vegetables, chickens, bees and an enthusiasm to create a sustainable community in a world threatened by climate change.
The letter pages of the following morning’s newspapers contained a few similarly dissenting voices. Mark Moore of Hartford, Cheshire, was appalled that the RAF would be so insensitive as to include a World War II Lancaster bomber in the celebratory fly-past, “as this must have struck any German guest and viewer as totally sour and inappropriate.” To Gabriel Atsepoyi of Denver, Colorado, the bigger offense was that
the American news media would devote almost all its resources to cover a fairytale marriage in the United Kingdom, when more than 300 good Americans have died in a natural disaster in Oklahoma and six other states in the US.
The Economist, appearing on the day of the wedding, covered it thus: “A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central London on 29 April. Millions of Britons took advantage of the opportunity to take a foreign holiday.”
As the gilded carriages crossed Horse Guards Parade, and the trumpeters of the Household Cavalry put brass to lip to announce the bride’s arrival, the words low-key and routine might not have been the first to come to mind. And yet, as the Times reported on April 29,
Today, the world will witness the culmination of a remarkable love story, remarkable for the predominant reason that it is not remarkable at all. . . . Most likely, it will be remembered as the first royal wedding by a couple not of some exotic and lofty breed, but very similar in outlook to the majority. Pippa Middleton, the bride’s sister and maid of honour, is reported to have rowed with Palace staff, and won, over her desire that the happy couple should this evening enjoy a disco ball in the throne room. The aisle of Westminster Abbey is to be decorated with potted trees.
To Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail, this very “ordinariness” was the problem. “Inside the Abbey, it was obvious that most of those present, though they are our educated elite, felt awkward in church and did not know the words of what were once familiar hymns,” he wrote.
And even on the 400th anniversary of the majestic, poetic and powerful King James Bible, we had to endure a lesson (sorry, a reading) from some flabby modern version. . . . Almost everything about the day was false.
The 30 years since the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana have not been kind to the British monarchy, any more than to her armed forces. The Edwardian braid and sashes on show in the abbey looked sadly Ruritanian when one remembers how few soldiers, sailors, and airmen actually remain in the field. Discounting the World War II contingent, the Royal Air Force managed to provide a total of four planes for the day’s climactic fly-past, although perhaps this was all that could be spared of a service with just 945 active-duty pilots, many of them currently engaged in bombing the Libyan desert.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Libyan ambassador to Britain had his invitation to the wedding rescinded, and his Syrian counterpart was similarly exiled after the Daily Mail deemed it “grotesque [that] the red carpet should be rolled out for the figurehead of a government engaged in genocide.” Representatives from Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe were still welcome, however, sitting together at the front of the abbey in what was dubbed the “pew of evil.” They were joined there by Sheikh Khalifa Bin Ali Al-Khalifa, a former head of the Bahranian national-security agency, who attended in his role as that country’s “international goodwill minister,” and by the polygynous king of Swaziland. On the other hand, the palace authorities declined to invite Britain’s two previous prime ministers. There was speculation in the media that Tony Blair’s exclusion was connected to the belief that he had made political capital out of the 1997 death of the bridegroom’s mother, whom he famously dubbed “the People’s Princess.” Twelve months after making his protracted exit from No. 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown watched the event on television at his home in Scotland, where it is feared he is writing his memoirs. A spokesman for Buckingham Palace said that there was no protocol to invite the two men who had governed Britain for 13 out of the last 14 years. “It is a private wedding and the couple are entitled to ask whoever they want to it. Prince William is not the Prince of Wales or the King, and he hasn’t got that link to prime ministers in the way that the Queen does,” the spokesman said.
There were, of course, a fair number of real or presumed celebrities on hand. A Cup Final-sized cheer greeted the arrival at the abbey of former England soccer captain David Beckham and his sometime popstar wife, Victoria. The former wore stubble and the OBE he received in 2003 pinned to the wrong side of his suit; the latter, a severe navy dress and cap that made her look disquietingly like a Soviet air hostess. Among the last to take their seats were Sir Elton John and his civil partner, David Furnish, who were seen to remonstrate with an usher on first being shown to a secluded pew behind that reserved for charity workers and middle-ranking civil servants. A more visible position was found for the pair. “It wasn’t exactly the Oscars, was it?” Sir Elton was heard to observe on his way out. Many of the most prominent guests were dressed by the fashion house of the late Alexander McQueen, CBE, the professionally flamboyant designer who committed suicide in 2010. If the bride’s dress was properly the most anticipated of the day, her sister Pippa’s ran a close second, with a back view as considered as the front. The long-running British love affair with the derrière would again surface in a slew of articles and internet postings over the following week, an obsession one might truly call bottomless, were the word not so inappropriate. There was a strong element of both royal reality show and Masterpiece Theatre about it all. To read the Washington Post account was to enter the P.G. Wodehouse world of cucumber sandwiches, afternoon tea, dukes, earls, and the odd lovable eccentric—the last as embodied by London’s tousle-haired mayor, Boris Johnson, who arrived by bicycle, wearing tails.
For the most part, the broadcasters knew that their job, like royalty, was to keep up spirits in hard times. Apparently inspired by the newlyweds’ kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, the BBC’s Phillip Schofield was moved to plant one on his cohost, Julie Etchingham. “I never get that on News at Ten,” she replied serenely. On ITV, Mark Austin walked among the crowds on the Mall, from which a man wearing a toga and a red Indian headdress emerged to offer him his choice of champagne or a can of cider. “No, I really mustn’t,” Austin said, but he looked as if he was thinking about it. Later in the proceedings, a presenter named Jake Humphreys introduced himself from the cockpit of a “real, working Lancaster bomber,” mentioning the fact twice before pausing to put the mike to his ear to find out if anyone could hear him. It was possibly the strangest outside broadcast of the day, with the exception of the Sky News street party on the south bank of the Thames, to which no one came.
For the American media, the timing of the wedding hit a broadcasting sweet spot. The vows were uttered as people were awakening on the East Coast, allowing wall-to-wall coverage throughout the day. As several of their more grizzled British counterparts observed, the triumvirate of U.S.-network anchors—Katie Couric of CBS, Diane Sawyer of ABC, and Brian Williams of NBC—had a keener sense of entitlement than the royals themselves. Miss Couric, for one, was installed in a specially constructed loft outside Buckingham Palace, a red carpet adorning the steps leading to her sanctum. The bustling arrival or departure of these media eminences became one of the week’s talking points, attracting the same degree of peak-decibel paparazzi excitement as a Hollywood opening. Back in the United States, no commercial opportunity to cash in on the wedding was overlooked. Dunkin’ Donuts fashioned a “heart-shaped donut filled with jelly and topped with vanilla icing and a chocolate drizzle.” PEZ Candy produced dispensers with the heads of William and Catherine regurgitating its sweets. Papa John’s Pizza commissioned an edible portrait of the couple featuring a cheese dress and a mushroom veil.
Reviewing the royal wedding of July 1981, the Times wrote,
The English throne is now identified with exemplary family life. That is one reason for the respect and affection in which it is held. Part of the public gratification in the royal wedding is in the prospect it affords of that character being carried forward into the next generation.
Such words would now be met in some quarters with a snigger, and yet the events of April 29 clearly encapsulated many people’s most basic feelings, hopes, and desires. The whole affair was a reaffirmation of a simple truth about the U.K. constitution: It works above all because the vast majority of the people like it. Just six days after the last of the confetti was swept up at Westminster Abbey, Britons were given the opportunity of a referendum to decide whether they wished to cast aside the long-established simple-plurality system for electing Parliament. Campaigners such as pop musician Billy Bragg, actor Stephen Fry, and transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard urged what the last has called “the masses” to adopt the Alternative Vote procedure it was widely feared, or hoped, would lead to a succession of future coalition governments. In a result that seemed to chime with the nation’s mood that week, 68 percent of those who went to the polls elected to keep their basic democratic arrangements just as they were.