With this wedding, the public's relationship with the royals has changed. Tim de Lisle explains why most of the coverage misses the point ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
For an event pronounced “boring” by one American network, the royal wedding is generating a monumental amount of coverage. In Washington, DC, a normally sophisticated bookshop declares itself “your first stop” for the wedding. In the papers, arguments rage about the meaning of the thing. People are indifferent, 20 columnists declare. No we’re not, another 20 retort. “Two cheers for the royal wedding,” says the New Yorker. They’re all missing the point.
Look around London and what you see is this: a little fervour, a fair amount of indifference, and plenty of people who find the wedding mildly interesting and gently amusing. The royal family isn’t really an issue: it’s a bit of a laugh.
This is Britain, where a whole way of life revolves around cups of tea. By their mugs and tea towels shall ye know them. For the royal weddings of the past, the celebratory crockery and linen in shops was starchy and deferential. This time the tea towels bear drily witty cartoon corgis. “It should have been me,” one pup sighs, neatly satirising both the public and the occasion. A mug from Philosophy Football, suppliers of T-shirts to more rarified sports fans, reads “My other mug supports the abolition of the monarchy”. If it's all too much, there’s also a Royal Wedding sickbag.
A video on YouTube, from the phone network T-Mobile, imagines the wedding as a dance routine, complete with Prince William leapfrogging Prince Harry in mid-aisle. Another video, from the singing quartet Barbershopera, shows some spoofy characters bemoaning Kate Middleton’s decision not to marry them. Once upon a time, its lese-majeste would have got them all bundled into the Tower of London, not least because one of them is a woman.
There is wedding betting: you can have a flutter on whether Harry will drop the ring during the service (24/1), or whether Prince Philip, who is nearly 90, will nod off during the service (8/1). If knitting is more your thing, you can Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, Queen and corgis included.
All this is a long way from the public mood when William’s parents got married, 30 years ago, and the land was awash in gush and drivel. The only flicker of satire to make much impression then was (inevitably) another mug—by Mark Boxer, the Times cartoonist Marc, who did a caricature of Prince Charles, looking characteristically fretful, with his ear as the handle. Yet the mug bore doggerel that erred on the side of credulousness:
Whatever beverage brims in this cup,
Thank God for Prince Charles when you pick it up,
And as you quaff it, bless that same grand Planner,
Who gave him for a bride the fair Diana.
So much for the wisdom of that grand planner. Diana was a brilliant princess in many ways, but she and Charles were a hopeless match—12 years apart, with no interests or friends in common. Never mind his mistress: he and his wife couldn’t even agree on where to go for a holiday.
Diana was also many things—icon, diva, charity worker, moderniser, lightning rod—but she wasn’t a joke. She generated drama, and ultimately tragedy, not comedy.
The match of William and Kate looks quite different and much more promising. They are the same age, they were educated to the same level, their friends intersect, their body language is in tune. They will face most of the challenges of ordinary couples—paying the mortgage not included—plus some mountainous ones of their own. But this isn’t just a royal wedding: it is, perhaps for the first time in royal history, a real wedding.
For the public, it is somewhere between a major sports fixture (The Big Match), a rock festival (camping out, forecast of rain, mass stoicism), a fashion show (Royal Ascot on steroids), and a romantic comedy (scripted, as Peter York argued here, by Richard Curtis). There is still room for straight adoration—a few starchy tea-towels have been printed in their honour, and someone has decked Regent Street with a nearly fascistic number of Union Jacks. But on the whole, the atmosphere is one of mild interest, spiced with gentle humour. It’s going to be fun.
What the wedding isn’t is a referendum on the monarchy. The royals are just there, part of the scenery. Few Britons imagine that having a president would be any better. And since Diana’s death, something else has come along that has altered the public’s relationship with the monarchy: intelligent films about the royals.
Last time round, there was just pap starring Catherine Oxenberg. That strand is still there, in the ludicrous TV movie that gives William a New Zealand accent and has Charles addressing Kate as Miss Middleton. But we have also had some thoughtful dramas which show life from the royals’ point of view: Helen Mirren as "The Queen", allowing herself to be dragged into the 20th century by Tony Blair; Colin Firth as her father, a reluctant king manfully overcoming his stammer. In both cases, we empathised. We saw that it can’t be much fun for them.
It can, however, be fun for us. The great edifice of royalty is now mostly a show, a soap, a family saga: "The Archers" with more believable characters, and better jokes. As long as tragedy is averted, there is ample scope for affectionate mockery. People who have met the Queen say she has a trait that doesn’t come across in public: a wry humour, which slips out more in her eyes and her tone of her voice than her words. “Almost subversive” is how Matthew Engel, in a perceptive piece in the Financial Times, recently put it. She is quite amused. And now we are too.