I've always loved me a royal wedding. From the first flash of Fergie's fierce satin shoulder puffs in 1986 I was hooked on a serial psychodrama of trumpet fanfares and rolling news coverage. Edward and Sophie, William and Kate, and re-runs of Charles and Diana's big day...these weren't private expressions of love but half-day televisual feasts lifting the curtain on a very British brand of power. The Church of England x the House of Windsor, with the mad-hatted aristocracy and assorted rich and famous looking on, makes royal weddings a rich blend of ancient tradition spiked with bombastic celebrity culture. Chuck some eye-popping bling dredged from the Queen's personal collection in the mix and that's quite the cocktail.
These events have been, from the viewpoint of my sofa at least, undeniably white. Over the years it's become obvious how embarrassingly narrow our royal fairytale narrative is. Elderly white men officiate, younger white men give readings. Pomp? Plenty. Melanin? Not so much.
So when Meghan Markle married Prince Harry everything felt different. Ten thousand royalists lined the street of Windsor to wave their plastic Union Jacks for a princess of colour. The BBC's marathon live coverage – traditionally a bastion of male, pale and stale opinion – kicked off with a performance from George the Poet. Commentators waxed lyrical over the arrival of Serena Williams, Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Priyanka Chopra, Idris Elba, and the mother of the bride, Doria Ragland.
For once, sweeping shots of the church interior (watched by a global audience of 1.9 billion) didn't present a Where's Wally? hunt for people of colour. A joyful sermon from Reverend Michael Curry, the descendant of slaves from America's Deep South, was followed by a gospel choir, prayers led by Jamaican-born Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, and cello music from Sheku Kanneh-Mason. This jaw-dropping – and long-overdue – departure from the script seemed like a developmental leap for race relations in the UK. The bride, professionally successful, self-possessed and proudly black, was a dose of everything the British monarchy had been sorely lacking. It seemed as if the darkest corners of Britain's dustiest institution had been exposed to dazzling light. It felt like a clean moment of national pride, and it felt good.
Fast forward three years and Meghan and Harry's devastating allegations of racism at the heart of the British monarchy in Monday night's interview with Oprah throw that feel-good moment into doubt. Speaking compellingly and convincingly of the institution around the royal family, Meghan accused 'The Firm' of abetting a racist press looking for reasons to vilify her. She pointed out that the first member of the royal family of colour, her son Archie, isn't titled in the same way as Prince Charles' other grandchildren. He hasn't been granted security despite the racially-charged hate speech aimed at his mother. Incredibly, Meghan says conversations took place within the Windsor family about the colour of her son's skin. "If he were too brown that would be a problem?" asked an incredulous Winfrey. "If that's the assumption you're making I think that feels like a pretty safe one," replied Meghan wearily.
There's always been plenty to be queasy about when it comes to the Windsors, but the Queen continues to command much respect. How did the institution she oversees allow this chance for a more diverse royal family to slip away? How can such a golden opportunity to build race relations in the UK have been squandered? Despite Elizabeth II's dedication to people of the Commonwealth (60 or 70% of whom, Meghan points out, are of colour) it's a depressing development if a light-skinned woman of mixed heritage is seen as a threat within the British establishment.
I loved every second of Harry and Meghan's wedding day but in the light of their testimony it feels tainted; I feel complicit in a well-executed PR stunt. If the monarchy hasn't been willing or able to protect its own family from racism then what was that show of multicultural unity worth? "We were both aware this wasn't our day," Meghan said of the ceremony. "This day was planned for the world." We can't and won't ever know the truth about what happened to ostracise the Sussexes, but Meghan's take is a wake up call about what our most illustrious institution really stands for.
It's going to be some years until another British royal wedding hits our screen. I for one am not sorry.
Credit photos Getty Images
Written by Anna Blewett