The 40th anniversary of the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer has, understandably, been a muted affair. But those too young to remember it may not be aware of just what a special day 29th July 1981 was. It was quite unlike any subsequent Royal Wedding.
It was a national holiday and the atmosphere was more akin to the Coronation. Many neighbourhoods had street parties and people invited their extended families round to watch together.
All this contrasted dramatically with a summer of rioting in many inner cities.
The national holiday was marked by BBC TV with an unprecedented full day of broadcasting on both channels. It was a little taste of the “perma-telly” which was still a few years away.
Tuesday 28th July was a normal BBC summer’s day. Anyone off school at home unlucky enough to be caught out by a showery day could have “enjoyed” hours of the test card on BBC One – interrupted by an hour or so of mid-morning children’s programmes, the Midday News and See Saw.
BBC Two at this time was completely shut for much of the day – even the test card or Ceefax often being something of an expensive luxury for the corporation’s second channel.
So the schedule on Royal Wedding Day was remarkable.
BBC One’s coverage of the build-up to the wedding began at 7.45am. This in itself was not exceptional for such a grand event. Occasional breakfast TV for big events was almost customary by 1981.
However what was exceptional was that the network opened at 7am to show Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny. For British children, this could almost seem like a taste of what television was supposed to be like in America – the land of “unrationed” viewing.
A child in 1981 might have seen this “unrationed” TV like a child in the 1940s given sweets from the land of plenty by an American GI.
On BBC Two, something even more remarkable happened. After the OU at 7.45am, it was time for an old film. Had a film ever been shown on British television in the early morning before?
The complete schedule on both BBC channels at a time when limited broadcasting hours were accepted by many as “just how things are” made a little contribution to making the day feel very special. The normal idents remained in use but early morning entertainment was anything but normal.
Of course, Thursday 30th July marked a return to normal.
It was a lovely little taste of what might be coming one day – and completely harmless in itself even if there are real worries about today’s children staring at computer screens when they could be out playing and exercising.
Today we can easily think of television itself as a simple commodity like running water. The screen will always be active – perhaps inadvertently diluting the impact of all the programmes which are genuinely special, exceptional or important for one reason or another.
But in 1981 the fact that for one day only a cartoon or a film could be seen in the early morning was something rather special.