April 23, 2011 12:19 am

Fairy tales for straitened times

Royal Weddings and Britain’s native genius for theatre

To contemplate the royal wedding – rather than be constantly knocked over, like a demonstrator before a water cannon, by the gush about it – is doleful. Since the 1947 nuptials of the Queen with Prince Philip – which Britain’s Royal Weddings (BBC1 Sunday) saw as a great postwar show dedicated to Cheering Us All Up – the House of Windsor has had more than its share of failed marriages. Princess Margaret (m. 1960), sister to the Queen, and the Queen’s children Princess Anne (m. 1973), Prince Andrew (m. 1986) and, most spectacularly, Prince Charles (m. 1981), all had first marriages end badly. Only Prince Edward’s marriage (1999) to the public relations consultant Sophie Rhys Jones has, to date, survived the ravages of time and tabloid.

Prince William and Catherine Middleton may fare better, but you wouldn’t bet money. She will be subject to the intolerable strains of being rich, famous, feted and obliged to smile constantly, while lacking training for these tortures. He, the son of the most publicly rocky marriage in the world, will have an ambiguous view of wedlock; some 70 per cent of the children of divorcees, according to Professor Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia, see divorce as a good way out of marriage difficulties. Still, the magnificence of the ceremonies – Britain’s Royal Weddings showed great old footage of the 1923 marriage of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to Prince Albert (King George VI to be); Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten in 1947; and Princess Margaret to Antony Armstrong Jones (in colour) in 1960 – is a tribute to Britain’s native genius for theatre.

The programme gave pride of place to the dresses: the 1947 creation for Elizabeth by Norman Hartnell was magnificent, with Chinese silkworms supplementing the overstretched labour of their British comrades (Italian silkworms were deemed “unpatriotic”). But it also celebrated the demotic nature of the event, as when George V decreed a stately pleasure day for all London when his son married Bowes-Lyon. These were hard times: the working classes were restless, the fate of the king’s Russian cousins at the hands of the Bolsheviks was much in mind – but his calculation was that awe – and “aw, isn’t she lovely!” – would be greater than any desire to see the royal family shot in a cellar. Britain was still on rationing in 1947, but the same calculation applied – and worked once more for Elizabeth and Philip. When survivors of that day gave their testimony, the phrase “just like a fairy tale” was repeated. Betty Foster, one of the seamstresses of the gown, caught it best: “With all that austerity, it was spectacular.”

One aspect of the ceremony that was barely mentioned was that it is a religious rite, but this was, perhaps, televisual discretion, since “as long as you both shall live” has been so egregiously flouted by the Windsors. The former Conservative minister turned TV personality Ann Widdecombe set out, in her dogged way, to redress that lack later in the evening. In Does Christianity Have a Future? (BBC1) she scored a point or two for Jesus. Catholicism has been revived by an infusion of Poles; Pentecostalism by African and Caribbean immigrants. Even Anglicanism has a growth division round the Alpha Course, with its mixing of rock gospel singing and the fervent preaching of the Bible. The most anguished comment came from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Speaking to a theme that has become more dominant – and very clear – in his often complex public speech, he observed that “society, because of its consumerism, has shrunk its horizons: people think less of themselves as human beings”.

What he meant more was, I think, that people increasingly think of themselves only as human beings. In this connection, the two-part drama The Reckoning (ITV1 Monday and Tuesday) was an engrossing piece of work that showed a fine, straightforward ability to deal with the complexities of what constitutes a good action.

Sally, a former nurse and call-centre worker, forms a stable relationship with Mark, a former soldier, and with her daughter, who is being treated for cancer, they make an affectionate family. Sally is called to an office and learns she has been bequeathed £5m – on the condition she kills a man. Her angry rejection of the deal unravels. She learns that her daughter is incurable, unless she goes to the US for a hugely expensive operation; that the man she must kill is evil; and that her partner, Mark, will do it. Then they learn that they are in a chain – he who kills will next be killed by another pursuing the same deal.

It was exciting at the tension/action level; more, it engaged you morally. Sally and Mark both know that murder is wrong, but Mark, harder in the ways of violence, puts the equation at its starkest: a lovely young girl will die and a man who gets his kicks from killing prostitutes will live. Pointing to his face, partly disfigured by a random attack, Mark says: “The man who did this left prison before I left hospital. We have to make up our own rules now.”

As an expression of a morality that no longer – except vestigially – recognises God, since he is dead, and which sees in liberal society’s treatment of violent criminals a failure to protect the innocent, the treatment of the dilemmas underpinning this drama is hard to beat. An unpretentious gem.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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