Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announced their engagement in February 1981 and preparations began for the greatest royal wedding of the age, at St Paul’s Cathedral on July 29.
A series of briefings and dress rehearsals were arranged for the national and provincial press, a select number of whom – including me – would be seated out of camera shot in a cramped and tautological mini-grandstand in the South Transept, just a few feet from the Queen and the Royal Family.
Observing the ceremony was one thing. But how, in an age before mobile phones and digital cameras, would we get our copy and photos out of the cathedral and back home in time for our afternoon deadlines? The solution, agreed between the media and the St Paul’s authorities, was charmingly medieval.
We writers were each issued with a small velvet bag with a drawstring neck – the sort of bag you might expect to find Maundy Money in – and a length of cord. The idea was that we would write our account of the wedding on notepaper, put the story in the velvet bag and lower it to the waiting clergy below who would hand it to another reporter who would then find a phone box and dictate our deathless prose to a copy typist at the newspaper’s head office.
As he handed out the little velvet bags, a clergyman briefed us hacks on the importance of not merely observing the ceremony but becoming involved in it.
It was our duty, he explained piously, to sing the hymns. We smiled politely. Journalists simply love being told how to do their job.
It was a sweet plan but I couldn’t see it working and I certainly didn’t want to be experimenting with little bags and lengths of cord with a deadline approaching.
I had time, all being well, to dash out of the Cathedral by the back door at the end of the service and run to the CET London office a few hundred yards away off Fleet Street, and use the phone there.
But as a precaution I also filed what we call a holding piece, written and phoned at a leisurely pace from my hotel room near Green Park, the evening before the wedding.
In theory, the holding piece is disposable, used for one or two editions but then chucked away to make room for the main piece which is filed as close to deadline as possible with all the latest news. The reality, time after time, is that editors and sub-editors get twitchy as deadline approaches and stick with the holding piece, slotting the live story in whatever space is left.
And that’s what happened on that glorious July day in ‘81. Before I even entered St Paul’s I had filed a thousand-word backgrounder which back in Coventry they headlined: “Shared Day of Joy,” based on interviews among the vast crowds lining the streets, with added anecdotes, a hefty dash of colour and some lines nicked from great literature.
I am a believer in borrowing from the writings of the greats. It is a win-win option.
If the reader doesn’t recognise the quote, he assumes you’ve invented it, and what a brilliantly original turn of phrase it is. If he does recognise the quote, he feels a sense of kinship with the writer. See? We both know where that came from – aren’t we erudite?
This is how that piece ended: “This joyous tide in the affairs of men sweeps excited folk along in their hundreds of thousands... The wedding of a lifetime catches the eyes of the world and the goodwill here has to be seen to be believed. It is like Christmas going on forever. And those of us here, at the very heart of things, have a story for our children and grandchildren. For when Prince Charles pledged undying love to the blushing English rose of his heart, we were there – by golly, we were there!”
My live report from the cathedral was shorter and, being dictated against the clock after my heroic, sweaty run through the streets of London, was not as good as it might have been. Still, the subs put on the headline “Dazzled, We All blinked the Tears Away,” cut it to fit and fitted it on the top of the page with my colour piece below. Job done.
Sadly, there was no room for a little vignette from the media grandstand in St Paul’s where two American reporters behind me had some difficulty identifying the guests. Part of the problem is that easily recognised and important politicians are not so important at a royal wedding where the blood royal, no matter which royal house it is from, always outranks the people’s democratic choices.
An Arab prince in traditional gown and headgear entered and took his seat in the cathedral. “Who’s that?” hissed one of the Americans.
In a moment of mischief I told her it was Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and, at that time, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. She shared this information with a colleague. They discussed it in sharp whispers.
There was a thoughtful pause. Then she leaned across to ask me: “So why is Yasser Arafat sitting in front of Nancy Reagan?”
I couldn’t wait to get to a telly that evening and see the ceremony properly.
From our much-envied press seats, we had only a thin sliver of visibility into the cathedral.
I could hear Kiri Te Kanawa singing but all I could see of her was her feathered hat, bobbing and fluttering in the distance as though a parakeet had flown into St Paul’s.
Ceremony over, report filed, I retraced my steps from Fleet Street to the cathedral in time to see the last ranks of the vast crowd vanishing down the hill towards Buckingham Palace, shimmering in the heat haze. The approaches to the cathedral were fouled with horse muck from the many carriages. The place stank.
The uniforms, that wedding dress, the bands and guests in all their finery had departed, leaving ordure behind.
Years later, when Charles’s “undying love” proved not so immortal, I was reminded of that scene as a metaphor for the fairy tale. Glamour, glitter, pomp and privilege on the top, horse s*** underneath.
Extract from Peter Rhodes' new book, Bloody Adjectives (Brewin Books, £8.95).