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30 Years Ago: A Very Different Britain, and a Very Different Wedding

Prince and Princess of Wales on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on their wedding day, July, 29 1981. (Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

I had been following the developments in the House of Windsor from faraway Rome, covering the young papacy of John Paul II and the pope’s open embrace of the Solidarity trade union movement. The colorful color tabloids in Italy were on fire with every detail of the coming wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, as Italy, a country in love with gossip and long since stripped of a royal family, might be.

My employers at Mutual News decided the rising clamor around the world meant a more serious look at the nuptials was required, and bought me a plane ticket back “home” to London, where I had until recently worked as a reporter. In the midst of real economic hardship, widespread unemployment, industrial decline, and union-management warfare, a weary Britain winked at itself and said, “We need a party.”

Grimy London sparkled under pretty blue skies. Trains from all over Britain disgorged day-trippers onto the suddenly spiffy streets. Shops decorated themselves from front door to roofline along the eventual wedding route through London, with multi-story greetings to the bride and groom. My old friends at London’s all-news radio station were talking about little else, and a look at the TV showed the same. Every shop window on the main shopping streets strained for some connection, however remote, to the impending vows.

Prince Charles, never a crowd-pleasing fan favorite, was humanized and softened by his association with the pretty young pre-school teacher. The July 29 wedding date allowed Diana Spencer to quietly pass from a slightly eyebrow-raising 19 to a more mature 20, as her groom would turn 33 just a few months later.

There was not a hotel room to be had just a few days before the wedding, so I crashed on a friend’s couch. The night before the wedding hundreds of thousands jammed Hyde Park in central London for what was billed as one of the most spectacular — and spectacularly expensive — fireworks displays in history. It seemed like a good idea. After a day of filing stories on ever-more-marginal royal wedding “angles,” it looked like it could be interesting.

The fireworks were eye-popping: not rockets shooting skyward over the packed crowd as much as displays and colorful explosions of palaces, coats of arms, and portraits in burning gunpowder of the bride and groom. The crowd was appropriately impressed, oohing, aahing, and hanging on every new exploding pinwheel and amazing display. When it was all over, it occurred to me I hadn’t thought the evening through very well, and neither had to Metropolitan Police.

Like the other big parks that run like an emerald belt through the city, Hyde Park is a daytime park, with gates pulled shut and little nighttime lighting. Several hundred thousand people were now standing in the dark, and unclear on how to proceed. There were very few police in the vast crowd, and now it started to get scary. I was swept along by a human wave that seemed to become a single being, pushing toward one of the main gates. It was locked, but the crowd continued to surge forward, and the front row of people, unable to leave, began to scream with pain and fear and shout toward to back of the crowd to change direction.

But the momentum could not simply turn on a dime…or a ten pence piece. The people behind me were still pushing me toward the gate even as the word started to filter through the dark there was no way out. Finally, screaming and shouting all the way, we found an open gate and streamed into the streets of a traffic-choked London. I had seen cool crowd control during IRA Christmas bombing campaigns, sports championships, and the public celebration of the Queen’s birthday, the Trooping of the Colour. That night, somebody had dropped the ball. One woman miscarried. A man had a heart attack.

Would the wedding the next day have similar problems?

I decided to walk into Central London the next morning, to see how the city was working on the way toward St. Paul’s. Before satellite phones, before Skype, portable uplinks, and the modern arsenal of live broadcasting, I was expected to commandeer a phone booth in Trafalgar Square for an appearance on Larry King’s radio show. Worked like a charm, in the primitive craft of the day: I got the mouthpiece of the phone open, connected my tape recorder to the phone receiver, and plugged my mike into the recorder to create a makeshift studio. Just as I went live, a group of mounted troops in full 19th century dress clattered into view and a marching band passed — an Anglophile’s dream.

I moved from Trafalgar Square up to the Strand, down the Strand to Fleet Street, past the Inns of Court, through what was then the heart of the British news business, and up Ludgate Hill and toward St. Paul’s. No, I didn’t have a ticket. But there was plenty to talk about, plenty of people to talk to, and enough pageantry to keep everyone happily occupied. Saw the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Saw Charles and Diana. Bought some souvenirs.

As if by request, there was a short break between the procession from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Buckingham Palace and the reappearance of the newly married couple. It gave me enough time (at a dead run with equipment hanging from both shoulders) to make it from Fleet Street back down The Mall to St. James Park and the Palace. I got there in time to see the tableau vivant that would run in newspapers around the world the next morning. The outpouring of joy from a hundred thousand people was enough to melt the heart of the sturdiest opponent of hereditary monarchy. No, these two hadn’t accomplished much in life. Granted, they hadn’t done much to earn their station in life. Chance and happenstance had mingled to create this moment…a happy family filling a balcony to wave to their happy people.

London emptied out in a matter of hours. After all the hoopla, all the expectation, all the ink spilled and the group hug of millions of Britons for their new princess, it was all over. The garbage was knee-high on some streets, and removed with efficiency and speed. The newly married pair had just arrived at the Palace, and already a rapid-fire knockoff of Diana’s dress was for sale, polyester swapped in for silk, in a London department store.

I was glad I had seen it all. A brief burst of joy and bright sparkling week for a people who had been through plenty in the past few years. It wasn’t an event to change history or even affect the daily lives of the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Reality would be back soon enough.

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