I have history with royal weddings–just a little, but history nonetheless.
As Princess Margaret, sister to Queen Elizabeth II, was tying the knot on May 6, 1960, with Antony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer who would become Lord Snowdon, I was out finding “color” for a London news agency.
My assignment was to ride back and forth on a ferry across the River Thames.
From a phone box on one side of the river to a phone box on the other, I scurried, breathlessly reporting on every Union Jack and every wide-eyed child. That was a day on which Britain lost its head.
It was maybe the last great royal ceremony in which the British public was still wholly innocent.
Although some newspapers had debated the suitability of a mere photographer marrying into the royal family, the public had still wanted the fairy-tale wedding.
Yet it was Margaret, and this ill-fated union, that first lifted the veil on royal goings-on and began to show them not as a perfect family, but as a dysfunctional one, not as perfect servants of the people but as greedy, immoral, selfish and sometimes heartless.
This was fed by the new ability of the British tabloids to spy electronically on the royal persons.
But on that beautiful day, it seemed that everyone in Britain wanted to believe in the princess and her commoner husband.
Of course, the queen and her children would have to disappear for Margaret to become queen.
But she was in line for the throne, and that made her worthy of the national hallucination: The Glass Coach, drawn by matched pairs of horses; the impeccably choreographed regimental bands; the glorious color of noblemen’s robes; and–oh my, yes–the ladies’ hats.
And the queen herself, young and radiant with her consort, Prince Philip, always at her side, neither quite participant nor spectator.
It was the Greatest Show on Earth. Even Cecil B. DeMille could not have produced that kind of spectacle, centuries in the making.
When Prince William marries Kate Middleton–another commoner but not exactly a flower girl–it will be the greatest show on earth again.
Fortunately for the royal family, they are back in favor after three decades, when things sometimes looked bleak for the future of the monarchy.
Despite national misgivings about Prince Charles, eldest son of the queen, and his quirky ways, to say nothing of the way he treated his first wife, Princess Diana, and the way she reciprocated, Britain is again comfortable with its monarchy, even enthusiastic about it.
The thanks for this go to the queen–her long reign, her hard work and her perseverance. And partly to Diana, who in death refurbished the magic.
Queen Elizabeth is not a brilliant woman. She does not have wide interests outside of, well, being queen, a job that has no published job description–and her family.
She has tried to be more modern and to be a little closer to her subjects.
But it was probably the year in which the family seemed to have imploded that reinforced the queen’s relationship with her subjects.
Her Christmas message in 1992, in which she described the travails brought on by Charles and Diana and her humiliation as “annus horribilis,” meaning horrible year, brought forth a wave of sympathy.
It said that this remote lady, who had been their queen since before most of them were born, was not superwoman but a mum who made mistakes and who had children who misbehaved and disgraced the family.
This was a very human queen, set in authority over them, but still one of them.
Suddenly she was not aloof and imperious, but very human.
Not everyone in Britain is elated that Will and Kate are marrying after living together on and off for nearly a decade.
One social critic told me, “It sets a terrible example: Commitment-phobic men living with women and then mostly moving on. At least, they are marrying. But the hypocrisy of it! She will wear white, I suppose.”
And one day, she will wear a crown as Queen Consort of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 15 other independent Commonwealth countries around the world.
Long live the Greatest Show on Earth: The British monarchy.