London — It's like the engagement of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer all over again. He may be only fourth in line to the British throne, but Prince Andrew, regarded as the ``best looker'' among the Queen's three sons, and his freckle-faced, red-haired fianc'ee Sarah Ferguson have become the toast of Britain.
For a change, Prince Charles and Diana, the Princess of Wales, have been forced to take a back seat as saturation coverage accompanies the newest royal couple. Certainly the latest royal engagement is causing just as much excitement and attention as the engagement of Prince Charles and Diana.
``It's really like Christmas, 4th of July, and Armistice Day all rolled in one. The enthusiasm is unbelievable,'' says Howard Brooks-Baker of Burke's Peerage, a who's who and genealogical record of British titled people.
The euphoria over another royal wedding sometime this summer is put down to many things. The Buckingham Palace view is that royalty is ``a fairy story in a harsh world.''
The attractiveness of the young couple, and the kind of publicity that Prince Andrew has attracted as a lady's man, but which his elder brother ruefully admits he isn't, has also whetted public interest.
So consuming has the interest been in the couple that on the day of the engagement, the 10 o'clock ITN television evening news stayed with the story for a full 25 minutes before moving to other news of the day. Television crews spared no expense as they headed off to such far parts of the globe as Argentina to interview Sarah Ferguson's mother against a backdrop of polo ponies and Sarah's sister in Australia.
Newspapers have responded with multi-page engagement specials. Buckingham Palace, which from time to time chides press photographers for hounding royalty, has dropped several hints that the media is going overboard over Britain's newest celebrities.
When the occasionally abrasive Prince Philip, for instance, was asked by a reporter to make yet a further comment on his son's engagement he replied tetchily: ``You've had 64 pages of rubbish in the papers. You can't possible want anything more from me.''
Andrew Chancellor, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, says everyone in the media is laboring under the assumption there is nothing else in the world of such consuming interest to the British public.
``This is what everybody wants to read about, we have decided.'' The British royal family, he concludes, ``has become the most written-about family in the world -- more written about than the Ewings of Dallas or the Carringtons of Denver, but written about in the same fantastic way.
``Because their lives are reported as soap opera, they have ceased in some respects to be real.''
From now on, Miss Ferguson will have to learn like Diana before her what it's like to face the full scrutiny of the media. Perhaps because Ferguson is older than Diana and became engaged at an older age, she appears more relaxed and more self-possessed, and is taking all the publicity in her stride.
The public apparently approves of her. A poll taken soon after the engagement showed that as many as 79 percent of the public approved the match.
Meanwhile, genealogists are beavering through the pages of history to assess if her pedigree is impeccable.
The bloodlines of Ferguson, however, don't compare to her close friend, Diana. Diana was previously titled. As daughter of the Earl of Spencer and a member of one of Britain's most distinguished families, she already had the title of Lady. The Spencer and the Churchill families were connected and Winston Churchill's second name was Spencer.
Yet according to Burke's Peerage, even Miss Ferguson (never Ms. Ferguson in the British press) can hardly be described as a commoner. Mr. Brooks-Baker sees her instead as both an aristocrat and a commoner. A direct descendant of Charles II and his mistress Lucy Walters, she has more ties to the ancient and royal families of the country than does her future husband. She is related 17 times over to Diana and Miss Ferguson's cousin the Duke of Buccleuch is the richest and largest landowner in the country.
According to Brooks-Baker, the term commoner can be confusing. In Europe ``a commoner is not part of a royal family. In this country anyone who is not a peer of the realm is a commoner. Churchill was a commoner, but his father was Lord Randolph Churchill and his uncle was a duke. Yet Churchill always prided himself on being a commoner.''
But such is the glamor and popularity attached to the British royal family that it doesn't seem to matter too much whether a Princess or a Lady or plain Miss Ferguson marries into the world's most select family.