Image: Arthur Steel’s famous photograph of Charles and Diana on their wedding
day appeared on the front page of m any national newspapers ©The
Sun/Arthur Steel/NI Syndication
The apparently ‘fairy-tale’ wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981 was enthusiastically celebrated around the world. Approximately 600,000 people lined the wedding route on London’s streets, while an estimated worldwide audience of 750 million people watched events unfold on television. Thirty years on, it remains the most popular television programme ever broadcast.
On the day, hundreds of photographers from national and international newspapers, magazines and media organisations covered the event. Many photographers were positioned outside St Paul’s Cathedral, where the marriage took place.
However, at St Paul’s, Charles and Diana seemed too nervous and preoccupied for photographers to capture the spontaneous, joyful images that newspapers wanted. As the day progressed, attention was focused on Buckingham Palace, where the newlyweds were due to appear on the balcony in the afternoon.
Among the photographers positioned on the Queen Victoria Memorial, opposite Buckingham Palace, was Sun photographer Arthur Steel. As one of Fleet Street’s few representatives on Buckingham Palace’s select ‘royal rota’, he was supplying images for all the British daily newspapers.
Arthur was then in his mid-40s and a seasoned press photographer who had been on The Sun’s staff since 1969. He was an accomplished all-rounder, experienced in tackling a range of assignments, including hard news stories, celebrity pictures, sport, fashion and ‘Page Three’ shoots.
Arthur, now 74, has a clear memory of the day’s events. ‘The authorities had built an enclosure for press photographers on the Victoria Memorial, which consisted of three or four tiers of wooden boards on scaffolding,’ he says. ‘But when I went to choose my spot a couple of days prior to the event, I could see there was a problem.’
Image: Arthur Steel, who retired from newspaper photography in 1989 © Patrick Steel
Although the boards looked strong, as soon as Arthur walked on them he found that they were very springy. As the photographers would all be shooting with long lenses and resting their tripods on the boards, he realised that camera shake could potentially ruin many of the wedding pictures.
Arthur chose the steadiest available spot, right at the end of one of the higher tiers, surrounded by a corner section. To give better support, he asked a builder friend to lend him a couple of pieces of scaffolding with a ‘coupler’ to join them on to the main scaffolding poles. This scaffolding, topped with a cushion, gave Arthur a much more stable surface on which to rest his camera.
He was shooting with a Leicaflex, a fully manual SLR manufactured by Leitz, which was fitted with an 800mm lens. The lens weighed 7kg and at the time was worth £6,800. As a backup, Arthur also had a Nikon SLR with a 1,000mm lens attached, set up on a tripod. Both cameras were trained on the balcony and he fired them simultaneously using a double cable release.
Although Charles and Diana were not due to appear until after 1pm, the photographers had to be in place by 8am to avoid the crowds. They were stationed on the four-tier enclosure, on the ground and inside the palace forecourt. Arthur was standing next to David Bailey. All the photographers were feeling the pressure.
‘There wasn’t much conversation between us as there was a lot of double-checking of cameras, films and all that sort of thing,’ Arthur says. ‘We were all a bit strung out. I also found that even with the extra scaffolding support, if one of the other photographers coughed or sneezed or made any kind of movement, it could be observed down the lens.’
Around five hours later, Charles and Diana appeared on the balcony to wave to the crowds. They made several appearances on the balcony and every time they went back inside Arthur re-loaded his cameras so he could avoid missing any of the action. The films were collected on an hourly basis by police, who took them through the crowds to a point where despatch riders would collect them and take them to be processed immediately.
However, the photographers were still waiting to capture the one iconic moment that would symbolise the wedding. Then, during one of the balcony appearances, Charles and Diana leaned towards each other and momentarily kissed. It happened only once and was over so quickly that most of the photographers were caught off guard; of the 150 press photographers outside the Palace, only three are known to have captured the kiss.
Arthur knew this would be the picture of the day and when he returned to The Sun offices later in the evening he discovered that it was being used on the front pages of all the major UK newspapers, apart from the Daily Mirror. Arthur had actually shot a wider scene that included other royal family members, but on the front page it was cropped to simply show Charles and Diana’s seemingly passionate kiss. His wily approach and careful planning, combined with his razor-sharp reactions, resulted in him capturing the royal wedding photograph that everyone remembers.
Arthur retired from newspaper photography in 1989, although he still shoots images for his own pleasure. Given the opportunity, though, would he like to be photographing Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding on 29 April? ‘Yes, I’d love to do it, if somebody could arrange for me to arrive in front of the Palace about half an hour before they came out,’ he says. ‘I’d enjoy shooting on digital and with today’s lighter, faster lenses. It wouldn’t faze me at all.’
Website: To see more work by Arthur Steel, visit his website www.picturesbyarthursteel.co.uk. It includes a selection of work shot throughout his career, including news, features, sport, politics and glamour.
Events of 1981
- 20 January: Former actor Ronald Reagan becomes the 40th President of the United States, succeeding Jimmy Carter
- 13 February: Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch buys The Times and The Sunday Times newspapers for £12 million
- 29 March: Some 6,500 competitors take part in the inaugural London Marathon, which later develops to become one of the world’s major running events
- 30 March: Ronald Reagan survives an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr outside a hotel in Washington, DC
- 11 April: Racial tensions in London erupt in the Brixton riots. They involve up to 5,000 people and result in hundreds of injuries
- 13 May: Pope John Paul II is shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca in St Peter’s Square, Rome
- 22 May: Lorry driver Peter Sutcliffe, 34, is found guilty on 13 counts of murder and seven counts of attempted murder and sentenced to life imprisonment
- 5 June: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, reports the first five cases of an illness later recognised as AIDS
- 24 August: Mark Chapman is convicted of having murdered John Lennon in December 1980 and is sentenced to life imprisonment
- 6 October: Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is assassinated during an army parade by Islamic fundamentalist Egyptian soldiers
- 11 December: Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, 39, loses to 26-year-old Trevor Berbick. It is Ali’s final fight