Andrew Billen - A comic affair

Television - Gossip, gibes and nose-picking make for an entertaining day, writes Andrew Billen

As Prince Charles's bride walked down the aisle, the commentator purred poetically: "Any heart that hasn't been won over by her today, it can kindly surrender now." But this was 1981, the bride was Diana and the commentator Alastair Burnet. It is a sign of these diminished royal times - as well as of the bride in question - that Saturday's nuptials were presided over, as far as television was concerned, by its C teams. The least-watched royal wedding in British television history got the commentators it deserved.

Although Huw Edwards, the BBC's coming man, had originally been advertised, he was recovering on the day from papal duties in Rome. So, the corporation handed proceedings over to its breakfast magazine man, Dermot Murnaghan, and the less senior of its Six O'Clock News presenters, Sophie Raworth. Everything was scaled down to fit the majesty of its presenting duo. The main BBC set resembled a rather small sitting room, looking out on Windsor Castle, which perhaps it was. Its satellite studio was the top floor of a nearby branch of Hamptons estate agents, from the high-street window of which Raworth leaned out precariously.

Back at mission control, Murnaghan wrangled his sitting-room guests. This was not such an easy task, given that the most persistent of them was none other than Piers Morgan, the disgraced Mirror editor, bestselling diarist and sometime tormentor of the sometime royal mistress. Morgan was in expansive mood, willing to let bygones be bygones (and let's hope Camilla feels the same), but he was not about to tame his irreverence, and trouble started early. The royal biographer Penny Junor had tutted regretfully at his remark that journalists, now they had seen Camilla's family, the Shands, in the sexy flesh, would be determined to find out more, and piously hoped the tabloids would leave them be. Morgan shot back that he did not mean the tabloids: he meant that people like her would be "crawling all over them". "I don't crawl," whined Junor. Murnaghan, as he would subsequently do often, changed the subject, but Morgan just kept getting ruder.

Junor was "very disappointed" to hear boos outside the Guildhall when the couple arrived. Murnaghan said there were just "one or two - very muted", only for Morgan to observe that the jazz band had done "a valiant job" of drowning them out. Anyhow, he said, the prince must have had "less [sic] affairs than any prince of Wales in history". Murnaghan found an urgent need to cut to a shot of Charles Kennedy.

When, later, Morgan satirically observed of Cherie Blair "she looks radiant", Murnaghan had to tell him off. The camera spanned a line of celebs in the pews - Timothy West and Prunella Scales, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, and so on. Morgan suggested there was plenty of need for penitence in the church, even before Charles and Camilla arrived. "Now, now," warned Murnaghan. Thankfully, Sophie Raworth arrived back from Hamptons just as things looked as if they were going to get thoroughly out of hand. Not only quicker and more relaxed than her co-presenter, she had a sense of the absurd, a quality needed as Morgan pursued a series of jokes at the expense of Nick "That Awful Man" Witchell who, like a guilty thing surprised, was also lurking around the sofas.

It turned out to be a delightful day, Murnaghan's embarrassment being all part of the fun. This was not royal commentary in the Dimbleby-Fleming tradition, more like a tea party among gossiping neighbours. Even Murnaghan lightened up enough to be amused at seeing princes and princesses clambering into a hired coach. Morgan speculated that Camilla might need a bus for her rock-like wedding ring. They were having such fun, that everyone forgot that the Sun photographer Arthur Edwards had told Raworth hours earlier that the picture of the day would be of the Queen embracing her son and his new wife, and that we had settled in the end for a genuine-looking smile.

But beneath the scuffed veneer of informality, the BBC had prepared every detail, down to a pre-recorded interview with the royal harpist. ITV1, which only turned up for the blessing, in any case, had prepared nothing, exemplified by the opening shot of a mercifully unidentified woman in the pews of St George's busily picking her nose and swallowing what she had excavated. Providing the words for this picture was ITN's C-list presenter Katie Derham. For expertise, she relied on Junor (a high-earning day for her) and ITV News's own Tom Bradby, an "expert" who thought his rival's name was "Junior".

Deservedly unseen, Nicholas Owen and his scribbler sidekick Robert Lacey chattered on with undeserved confidence during the service, not knowing Charles's age, getting the name of one of Fergie's daughters wrong, and tripping over hard phrases such as "register office". Owen informed us that a royal car (unidentified, naturally) was coming "downhilla", a Camilla rhyme that even the poet laureate has not attempted. Since the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, ITV has had vox pops as its speciality on such occasions. This time, however, its tieless reporter Chris Choi proved incapable of finding a single person in the crowd with anything to say. Even in accessing the voice of the people, the BBC had trumped ITV; why, after all, talk to the rabble when you have hired the rabble-rouser?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times