What happens when that great British clich - the fairy-tale royal wedding - is transposed to Spain, the land that gave the world Hello! magazine? Next weekend, some 800 million television viewers will find out

IN A sleekly designed modern meeting-room in Barcelona, Julio Bou, the veteran editor of the gossip magazine Lecturas, is discussing the workings of Spain's "prensa rosa", or "press of the heart". Hola!, parent and prototype of Hello!, is the most famous of this genre. Lecturas is its oldest rival. Bou, a cheerful, professorial figure, has been editor since Lecturas was founded 38 years ago and exhibits an exact, cold-headed knowledge of how its market functions.

Just as he is explaining the complex relationship between Hola!, Lecturas, Semana and Diez Minutos, we are interrupted by his deputy, who slips into the office carrying a sheaf of faxed papers. There is, she explains, crouching urgently beside him, an offer of an exclusive interview with a dress designer, Pedro Valverde, whose "famous client" has finally given him permission to speak to the press about a certain dress.

Bou glances through the pages, while the deputy points out the dressmaker's non-committal answers to the crucial questions. What will the dress be like? Very, very beautiful. Lovely. What colour is it? The colour which his client has decided.

Bou laughs. "He really doesn't say much," admits the deputy, "and he's asking a lot of money." Common sense dictates that they turn down the interview - were it not for the unprecedented importance of the event to which it refers.

"We'll go mad if we see it in the competition," says Bou suddenly. "Keep it. We'll work out how to pay for it later."

A FEW high-minded daily newspapers may still be concentrating on Spain's political and economic troubles, but most Spaniards - and especially the hard core of 3 million who read the four leading weekly gossip magazines - have a more urgent obsession: the wedding between the king and queen's eldest child, the Infanta Elena de Borbn y Grcia, and a 31-year-old aristocratic banker, Jaime de Marichalar Sanz de Tejada, which takes place next Saturday in the Cathedral of Seville.

When the engagement was officially announced in November, the "prensa rosa" went into a paroxysm of activity, inserting colour supplements into the editions which were already on their way to the newsagents, and immediately bringing out special issues to include the official photos of the happy couple. The rest of the media have been scarcely less enthusiastic. For four months, there has been heavy and increasing demand for information on every detail of the occasion, and particularly, as the event draws closer, for an answer to the question that seems to preoccupy half the nation: what will the dress be like? Hence the importance of Pedro Valverde's words, however anodyne.

To the British, such mounting hysteria is all too familiar, but modern Spain is experiencing the joys of royal romance for the first time. This is the first royal wedding of Spain's 20-year-old democracy, and the first time that Spaniards have really allowed their enthusiasm for celebrity gossip to merge with their affection for their monarchy. They are making up for lost time. The combined circulation of the "prensa rosa" is expected to break all records and jump by a third, or 1 million copies, for the wedding issues; and broadcasters predict that the television audience for the event could exceed 800 million.

"The country is passing through a difficult time, with harsh news about corruption and the political crisis," says Marius Carl, recently appointed royal correspondent of La Vanguardia, Spain's leading daily newspaper. The wedding announcement, he adds, "came as a balm, as a kind of soothing ointment. It lowered the tension of national life."

So, 14 years ago, did the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer, but what followed for the House of Windsor was disaster and decline, provoked, some say, by a loss of mystique caused by over-familiar television cameras. Will the House of Bourbon face a similar aftermath? Will today's fairy-tale wedding lead to tomorrow's tabloid persecution?

At the moment, the House of Bourbon has what the House of Windsor once had: a reputation for respectability that verges on dullness. The 31- year-old Elena, even more than the rest of her family, is known for being discreet and for trying to keep out of the limelight. ("I don't think it's necessary to talk about marriage whenever I appear in a photograph with someone," she complained primly when she was officially interviewed for her 30th birthday.) Yet, like the Windsors before them, the Bourbons are also modernising. Elena is one of the first Bourbons to go to university. She has been known, up until now, principally for her dedication to regal sports such as riding and sailing; for her training as a teacher; and for the moment, during the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Barcelona, when she burst into tears at the sight of her brother Felipe leading the Spanish Olympic team into the stadium. In future, she will also be known as the first Bourbon to marry in full view of a giant television audience.

So far, discretion has had the upper hand. Elena and Jaime de Marichalar have been conducting their romance since 1987, out of the way of the Spanish press, in Paris, where Jaime works for Credit Suisse and Elena has studied French literature and riding. Not until January last year did the story break. Diez Minutos published a story about the couple and Hola! was quick to follow it up; but no one has yet been intrusive or disrespectful.

Nor has anyone had a bad word to say about Jaime de Marichalar, who, like Elena, is shy, reserved, not particularly glamorous - and entirely respectable. "The King and Queen especially liked his `biography'," says Marius Carl. "His father was a count, and his grandfather was Minister of Defence to King Alfonso XIII [the present King's grandfather]. The Spanish royal family has followed the events in the British royal family very closely and they are concerned, let us say, that the people who their children marry are discreet and prudent."

But so, of course, were the British royal family a decade and a half ago. Do the Spanish royals really know what they are getting into? Or are they unwittingly introducing a dangerous new element - public hysteria - into the otherwise perfectly symbiotic relationship between the royal family and the press?

AT THE moment, the Spanish royal family enjoys an enviable degree of respect from the media, largely because of the almost universal reverence in which King Juan Carlos I is held. The King himself is unstuffy, even slightly raffish: he is known, in quiet moments, to play cards with the royal photographers whose job it is to shadow him, and, when out of camera shot, he likes to joke, swear and generally behave like any other Spaniard. But ever since 23 February1981 - when a group of military commanders held parliament hostage until the King addressed the terrified nation on television to say he was firmly on the side of the three-year-old democratic constitution - he has been credited, more than any other individual, with ensuring Spain's successful transition to democracy. Fourteen years later, the monarchy still enjoys public affection bordering on idolatry.

This popularity has been maintained by careful marketing. The monarchy now presents a low-budget, progressive image. The Royal household is located in the modest Palacio de la Zarzuela and costs the taxpayer less than 1bn pesetas (£5m) a year. The King himself pays tax of around 50 per cent on his salary, and the royal family owns no properties: even the King's yacht is leased by the state. If all that this means is that the Spanish royal family costs two-thirds as much as the British one (almost exactly in proportion to the difference in population) the more important effect is that it is seen to fit in with the spirit of modern Spain.

Juan Carlos has no direct political power, but his role as a unifying figure, in a country where there are four official languages, is more than just a symbolic one. In the shifting demands of the powerful Catalan nationalists, for example, the one fixed point is the deference of Jordi Pujol, the Catalan president, to the King. Such deference will, it is hoped, be reinforced by Saturday's ceremony. The 1,300 guests at the wedding banquet will include not just some 300 members of Europe's royal families but also representatives of Spain's 17 regional governments, the diplomatic corps and even, to the surprise of some, trade union leaders. It is, in other words, not just a wedding, but a celebration of the role of the Head of State.

Will the attempt to use a family occasion as a way of reinforcing political consensus undermine respect for the monarchy? If past experience is anything to go by, not necessarily. There was a revealing incident in 1992, shortly after the Olympic Games, when French and Italian magazines picked up on allegations in Vanity Fair about a supposed liaison between the King and a Majorcan divorcee. In Spain, the weekly Epoca published a picture of the woman on its front cover, but apart from that the public reaction was almost entirely supportive. The prime minister, Felipe Gonzlez, met the King during his annual holiday in Mallorca before telling parliament that the whole thing was an anti-Spanish plot. The Spanish press responded with resounding silence. Allegations about people's private lives - especially unproven ones - simply are not news in Spain. "Personal scandals, however scandalous they may be, do not sell," explains Julio Bou. "Either people regard them as completely normal, or they find them repulsive." There have been several attempts to start a more aggressive style of popular press in Spain along British or German lines, but all of them, so far, have failed.

"I THINK the Spanish royal family has a very cosy relationship with the press," says Nigel Dempster, self-appointed doyen of British gossip columnists. "This couple is not going to suffer." Yet there are people in Spain who are prepared to criticise the monarchy: not among the media, but among the ultra-traditional monarchists, the so-called legitimists who disapprove strongly of the Bourbons marrying people who are not members of other royal families. Jaime de Marichalar's family may have titles dating back to the 17th century, but seen from this perspective his blood is not blue enough.

"The first step, for the prestige to begin to be lost, is to marry with the middle class," says Armand de Fluvi, an expert in royal genealogy whose Barcelona office is decorated with dozens of royal mementos dedicated to him by an older generation of Bourbons. "The second step is this," he continues, brandishing a copy of a gossip magazine. "Here you have the new generation of heirs to the throne. Denmark's with a top model, Norway's with one of those starlets, Italy's with a single woman who has a seven-year-old daughter... I mean, it's that clear."

Juan Balanso, author of the bestselling The Royal Family and the Unroyal Family, takes a similarly hard line over the Infanta's wedding. "There are certain rules to the game, and if we do not play by them, the monarchy does not have any meaning," he says.

For the majority of Spaniards, however, such controversies mean nothing. In Seville, the post office is swamped with cards to Dona Elena and Don Jaime. The Sevillian grandees are ecstatic at the prospect of the wedding, and the town council voted unanimously to name Elena an adoptive daughter of the city. An estimated 110,000 people will be able to see the cortge make its way from the magnificent cathedral through the city after the wedding to the church where Elena will lay her bouquet on the grave of her grandparents. Seventy-six cameras of Television Espanola, under the control of the film director Pilar Miro, will capture the event for television channels throughout the world, including the BBC.

"This is a country where there are not monarchists, but Juan Carlists," says Marius Carl. "There are very few people who would call themselves monarchists, but every one thinks the monarchy is a good thing. People don't support the monarchy like they do Barcelona or Madrid football teams, but at the same time they feel it is theirs. I think this is its secret. How is this achieved? It's very subtle, and, of course, and it could break at any moment."

At Lecturas, Senor Bou says that he has already begun to see some signs of change in his readers' tastes. After booming in the Seventies, the market for the "press of the heart" as a whole has not grown at all in the past five years, and the younger generation, he says, do not seem to feel the same awe or respect for celebrities that their parents did. Bou has responded by adding pages of household tips to the otherwise relentless diet of "famosos", but it is difficult to believe that this will be enough to satisfy younger readers indefinitely. Some day, surely, the lure of the royal scandal will become irresistible.

Bou reckons that it will take at least 20 years for the Spanish popular press to become as aggressive as its British equivalent, which may be optimistic but does at least suggest that the Infanta and her bridegroom may be allowed to build their marriage without too much media harassment. The Prince of Wales, the British royal family's representative at the wedding, will find it difficult to watch the proceedings without a twinge of envy !

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