Fresh out of graduate school, I took off for London in July of 1980, at least six months before anyone knew that the wedding of the century would be taking place there the following summer.
Armed with a duffel bag full of pathetically unsophisticated clothes plus a few hundred dollars in American Express traveler’s checks, I was determined to live my dream of becoming the next Martha Gelhorn–Ernest Hemingway’s journalist wife–or perhaps a female version of another one of my idols, famed World War II broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
Unbelievably, just as I was about to cash my last traveler’s check, I managed to land an entry-level job in the London bureau of ABC News.
To my astonishment, overnight I went from pounding the pavements−literally−to having so much work that days off soon became a distant memory.
Young and idealistic, I’d gone to London because I was convinced that, whether they wanted to or not, Americans needed to know more about what was going on in other parts of the world.
And while the royal family wasn’t exactly the kind of news that I thought Americans should be caring about, I have to admit that I was as excited as the rest of the world when in February, 1981, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Charles was to marry a shy, aristocratic nursery school teacher named Lady Diana Spencer.
If nothing else, for me the royal wedding translated into at least some measure of steady employment since obviously ABC was going to need all hands on deck to help with coverage of this unprecedented extravaganza.
Much to my dismay, the night before the wedding I was assigned to work the graveyard shift−alone−in the bureau’s temporary newsroom, which had been set up on the ground floor of a bunker-like hotel across the street from the permanent ABC bureau. Although by this time I’d been working at the network for more than a year, looking back I’m still amazed that the night before one of the most important events since the advent of television the entire ABC News operation had been left in the hands of a still-green twentysomething-year-old, even if only for a few hours.
Fortunately, save for a few requests from New York, the night was surprisingly quiet. The moment my replacement arrived at 6 a.m., I was out the door.
Since I’d just finished an overnight shift, I was probably the only person in the entire ABC news operation who was actually off on the day of the royal wedding. Still, this was one story I wasn’t about to miss!
I had arranged to catch a ride to the wedding with one of ABC’s British crews, a colorful pair named Jim Godfrey and Peter Morley. As soon as the crew had loaded up the gear, the three of us piled into Jim’s estate car−read station wagon−exactly like we would have done for any ordinary assignment.
It was a muggy, slightly overcast morning. Although there were surprisingly few people on the streets, I could sense the excitement in the air.
We drove to Green Park, where we parked on a narrow side street. (We must have had some sort of parking pass since it’s hard to believe we simply parked on the street to cover one of the biggest stories of the century!)
I remember savoring the stillness of that early July morning as the crew and I walked through the dew-covered grass on our way toward Canada Gate, where we’d been assigned positions atop a huge platform of scaffolding that had been erected for Good Morning America.
In a way, I wanted to hold onto that moment forever. Instead, the time passed all too quickly. Later, I was glad that the crew and I hadn’t been sent to St. Paul’s because from where we were I had a perfect view of Charles and Diana’s arrival at Buckingham Palace as well as the famous kiss on the balcony!
It was dark by the time the crew and I made our way back to the bureau. Peeking inside the makeshift control room, I saw what looked like the remnants of an epic battle. Producers, like spent warriors, lay slumped over consoles, clearly drained from the effort of the day. From the back of the room, I watched as countless images of fireworks filled the night sky. The party was over, at least as far as I was concerned. It was time for me, like Cinderella after the ball, to somehow make my way home.
Peggy Riley Thomson lived in London from 1980 to 1992. In addition to ABC News, she has also worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC and National Public Radio.