Pomp and circumstance have always gone over well on the small screen, and no people project it better than the British.
If the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was a major media event of the 1950s, the marriage of her son Charles to Diana Spenser in 1981 was arguably not only the wedding of the century but what’s now fashionably termed “a pop culture inflection point.”
Variety certainly thought so, and reported the shindig with flair — and a modicum of flippancy.
In a front-page feature headlined “Kitsch is King in Land of the Queen,” London-based editor Jack Pitman, a transplanted Yank, tried to deconstruct the rituals of the royals for the paper’s global readership.
As Pitman had it, the wedding was not only “a bonanza for souvenir manufacturers but for the media and in particular the electronic media.”
Not even presidential inaugurations or funerals get such “long shrift,” he opined in the July 29, 1981, issue, adding that the fascination Stateside said something about “the American sense of royal deprivation or maybe just a deep craving for fairytales with happy endings.” (Of course, he couldn’t know then what we all later found out about the couple.)
Naturally the BBC, which plays a central role in Britain as chronicler of national events, was front and center during the proceedings. And as with its many firsts for the coronation in 1953, the Beeb did some unique things for the wedding 28 years later.
BBC 2 projected supertitles for the benefit of the hard-of-hearing; BBC Radio engaged Richard Burton to deliver appropriate Shakespearean love sonnets as well as “commentate” the unfolding nuptials.
Variety suggested that the worldwide audience for the live coverage of the wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral would hit a record 600 million, and by most accounts it did.
Pitman caught the air of excitement surrounding the lovebirds with some telling on-the-scene reportage.
“Even the prosties (yes, Variety‘s word for hookers) in Soho — ‘models’ as their window cards claim — have patriotically hung out small Union Jacks and bits of bunting. A pub in town has changed its name to the Prince and Princess of Wales, with others sure to copy.”
The Savoy Hotel’s American bar even concocted one of its famed cocktail specials: the Windsor Romance.
And though his star dipped in subsequent years as Diana’s shone brighter, the groom at that moment enjoyed unquestioned personal popularity. So much so, said a U.K. poll, that 63% of British subjects wanted his mother to abdicate in Charles’ favor.
“But,” reminded Variety, “the odds are against them — only once in British royal history has a monarch abdicated, when Edward VIII married divorcee Wallis Simpson.”
Perhaps the kitsch reached its pinnacle in the music quickly minted or re-issued for the occasion.
Variety reported that 40 singles and six albums keyed to the event had been released by the time of the big day. A BBC compilation song and commentary album sold for $16. Not to be outdone, EMI issued “God Bless the Prince of Wales” with a male chorus and a military band; a kid-angled disk from Polydor called “She’ll Make a Lovely Bride” was sung by long-forgotten group Sarah’s Kids.
But not everyone in the British Isles was, even back then, a royalist.
Pitman noted, however, that during the wedding hoopla, such dissenters kept a low profile. All except a member of Parliament named William Hamilton, for whom, Variety said, “no royal is a good royal, and who figures the country will lose $500 million in output the day of, because it’s been declared a national holiday.”