At the end of her Christmas broadcast in 1973, the Queen wanted to say something about the experience that the nation was going through. The three-day week would begin in a matter of days, after a catastrophic year for Edward Heath's government. Some people were openly discussing the possibility of a military government to take charge of a situation which had got out of control. The Palace suggested that the Queen might say something, as a postscript, about her "deep concern" about the "special difficulties Britain is now facing". An understatement: Heath vetoed it.
The Palace came back with a much blander sentiment: "Christmas is so much a family occasion that you would not wish me to harp on these difficulties." Heath again refused. As Francis Wheen tells us in his history of the 1970s, Strange Days Indeed, the gap was finally filled with "Princess Anne's wedding photos instead".
Princess Anne married the first of her two husbands in 1973, an occasion I can vividly remember for its disappointing qualities. Even to an eight-year-old of romantic tendencies, the Princess's horrid hair-helmet, determined expression and Dalek-like skirt was hard to reconcile with the expression "fairytale romance" which was being used everywhere. Still, it was an interesting contrast to the other national events of the time, manifest in a child's life through exciting power cuts and an overwhelming general apprehension, filtering down from adults' conversations, of Stuff Going Wrong Everywhere.
Royal weddings have been regarded as everyone's business probably only since the First World War. In 1923 the Queen's parents, then the Duke and Duchess of York, may have been the first to have their nuptials paraded for public reasons. Before then, it did not seem at all obvious to Queen Victoria that the marriages of most of her children were occasions for public celebration. After a terrible war with Germany, it suited the government to celebrate the fact that one of the Windsors, as they now were, was marrying someone other than a German princess for a change. The marriage of the Duke and Duchess of York was a useful stately festivity in that post-war period when the British authorities were consumed with dread of revolution. Similarly, the birth of their daughter, Princess Elizabeth, took the nation's mind off the General Strike three years later.
Since then, the royal wedding has, by chance or design, often been exploited for this one purpose: to take your mind off your troubles. In 1947, Princess Elizabeth's wedding to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was a flourish of expense and glamour in a ruined London – the wedding breakfast had to be based on off-the-ration partridges from the royal estates. Sacrificial nylons arrived in their hundreds as gifts; much was made of the dusty state of the jewels that visiting royals wore. The nervous Queen of Sweden had a note in her bag in case she got lost or abducted, reading "I am the Queen of Sweden".
And then, after the three-day-week festivity of Princess Anne's first wedding, there was the Prince of Wales's in 1981. It came as the centrepiece of a summer of violence and disaffection. Caught in the painful throes of economic readjustment and rampant youth unemployment, Brixton rioted on 11 April. On 3 July, Toxteth in Liverpool followed; on the 10th Handsworth in Birmingham. On 29 July, Prince Charles married the 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in the most vulgar dress of the century, and our minds were successfully diverted – at any rate, there were no more riots for the moment. The royal wedding is, surely, an offer of amusement when things start to look really quite grim. "Well," as the unsuccessful prostitute said to a prospective punter. "It might not be much of a good time. But at least it'll take the weight off your feet."
Well, there was a riot the other day, with Molotov cocktails thrown in Piccadilly. And the country is bankrupt. And we are coming to the end of a not very successful war. So it seems about time to wheel out a prince and his girl and declare a bank holiday. Whether the country is in the mood for these things any more is not clear. Or perhaps England has become the sort of place where festivities are enjoined by the state, and simultaneously made far too difficult to undertake.
When Prince William marries Catherine Middleton on 29 April, there will certainly be an outbreak of enthusiasm in the streets of London. But it looks as if there will be no great number of traditional street parties.
A third of local authorities have had no applications at all. Does this reflect a general lack of interest? Do people think that Miss Middleton's enthusiasm for marrying in an upwards direction has been rather too apparent from the start? Or is it simply that since 1981, when the Prince's parents married, the local authorities that have to approve street parties have found such a lucrative source of income in handling health-and-safety applications and other opportunities for control that, nowadays, only the most dedicated could really be bothered?
Perhaps the Prince's own lack of enthusiasm for a public spectacle, barely disguised, is not very encouraging. He has done the brisk, unromantic thing that many people do nowadays, and ask for donations to charity in lieu of wedding gifts. He has said he would much prefer a wedding with 50 chums. And who can blame him? When you think of the people that have to be invited to an event of this sort – the President of Ghana, and Eric Pickles, and remote cousins called things like Foo-Foo von Hesse-Darmstadt-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, 946th in line to the throne – it doesn't sound like the best day of your life. Anyway, they've made a stand by not asking Auntie Fergie, which is something, I suppose.
That lack of enthusiasm from the lovely pair may have infected the public somewhat. Or possibly – just possibly – the country may be growing out of the whole lunacy altogether. Memories of what happened the last few times the BBC's commentators were permitted to descant over fairy-tale weddings of this sort are still relatively fresh, as are the details of each royal divorce.
And perhaps we have rather got to the point where deference and admiration are offered to people who have actually earned it. It may well be that people will want to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee next year in respect for a long task, undertaken with honour and dedication. Prince William seems a nice enough fellow. His fiancée has pleasant hair, the experts inform me, and I saw her holding a bouquet and smiling in quite a professional manner the other day. But have either of them achieved as much in their lives so far as, I don't know, Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley? It seems possible that quite a lot of the English are thinking: "I tell you what – come back in 20 years' time, and we'll tell you what we think."
There is still about enough magic paint left in the tin to coat the heir to the heir to the throne. On 29 April, the viewing figures will be immense; the turnout substantial. Whether public enthusiasm will stretch much beyond that – to Prince William's brother or his cousins – is unlikely. Put it like this: it's more than probable that we're never going to turn out again for the wedding of a Prince Andrew. It's perfectly incredible now that we ever did.
Philip Hensher's latest novel, 'King of the Badgers', has just been published by Fourth EstateReuse content