The following article is, essentially, the script for a podcast special of The British Broadcasting Century, Episode 67: A Brief History of Coronation Broadcasts. You can listen to it here if you like.
Prior to the 2023 coronation of King Charles III, Britain has had two broadcast coronations: George VI in 1937 and Elizabeth II in 1953. Both were on radio and TV, although George VI’s only had three cameras, while Elizabeth II’s was “the OB of all OBs”.
The previous four monarchs all have a role in this story too though…
Queen Victoria‘s was the last coronation of the nineteenth century – and, like broadcasting, a new innovation was used to have more people experience it than ever before: the railways. 400,000 people chugged their way into London to line the route.
Victoria was also the first British monarch to be photographed, but not till after she was queen.
Edward VII‘s was the next coronation. No broadcasting – Marconi was still working on developing radio telegraphy, and the human voice was still pretty much untransmittable. But a film was made in 1902: ‘The Coronation of Edward VII’.
…Except, all is not what it seems. Director Georges Méliès (he of A Trip to the Moon fame) and producer Charles Urban asked for permission to film the coronation – but they were refused. So they instead filmed a ‘simulation’, a 6min reconstruction in advance of the big day, to be released cinematically on coronation day itself. Here it is:
The film was a hit. Apparently even Edward VII himself liked it, calling it: “Splendid! What a marvellous apparatus cinema is. It’s found a way of recording even the parts of the ceremony that didn’t take place.”
The king may not have liked one idea George Méliès had for it – he originally planned to feature Queen Victoria as a ghost. Presumably a kindly ghost, looking on at her son now crowned. But he was talked out of it by his producer – they were after accuracy, not the fantastical visual effects that Méliès was trying to develop elsewhere for the screen.
Also crowned that day was Edward’s wife, Alexandra, as Queen. She had a few links with radio: In Dec 1911, she used wireless telegraphy to send messages to a wrecked ship with fellow royals on board. In 1920 she used wireless telephony at an experimental concert, introduced by Marconi himself, at Chelmsford’s New Street Works. Alexandra spoke to her native Denmark, before tenor Lauritz Melchior sang – this was soon after Nellie Melba helped launch the very idea of broadcasting. (You can hear about these early test broadcast concerts on this episode of The British Broadcasting Century Podcast, and in my new novel Aunties and Uncles, out summer 2023, probably).
And pre-queen, Princess Alexandra’s name had gone to a certain North London entertainment venue – Alexandra Palace, aka Ally Pally. After her death this would become home to the world’s first regular TV broadcasts when the BBC moved in.
Still no broadcasting for George V’s coronation – but this one was filmed, genuinely, no reconstruction, for a newsreel:
Just the parade was filmed – not the ceremony. That was deemed too significant and sacred to let cameras in.
Plans were a bit slapdash and chaotic, thanks to hereditary peer the Duke of Norfolk insisting that, as was his ancient right, he could plan the day. He was terrible at planning. Everything from seating position to errors in the orders of service were all over the place, and a lot had to be redrafted the night before.
Broadcasting entered the scene in 1922, including a broadcast from the Duke of York (future Edward VIII), live from his palace to an exhibition hall selling radio sets. This first princely broadcast helped sell radios to the masses.
In 1923, the BBC just a few months old, John Reith asked for permission to broadcast the Royal Wedding, of the future George VI to the future Queen Mother. The Chapter of Westminster refused, on the grounds that one couldn’t predict what state the listeners may be in. There was genuine concern that men may be listening in pubs with their hats on. The powers that be preferred to be able to see the entire audience – to see the hat status of everyone present.
In 1924, George V became the first British monarch to broadcast (the second monarch in the world, just beaten by the Dutch Queen). While the BBC had no recording kit at the time, on our ‘history of the BBC archives’ podcast special we talked about how the recording of this was rescued when a listener got in touch with the BBC, to say her husband had recorded it on home kit and stored it in their garden shed. Gladly then, this was preserved so we can hear it now. This is the earliest recording of any event broadcast by the BBC – even if this isn’t technically a BBC recording (and may have been recorded via a different microphone):
Edward VIII‘s coronation was due to take place on 12 May 1937, but it was planned than canned due to his abdication. Well actually the plans weren’t entirely canned – they were recycled. His brother George VI used the same date and many of the same details – just a change of name on the stationery, surely…
But for the broadcasters, this wouldn’t be so easy. TV had just launched, less than six months earlier, so both sound and visuals were to be transmitted from central London.
Thankfully both the palace and the abbey were more willing than a decade earlier. The main organiser of the coronation was media-savvy Archbishop of Canterbyry Cosmo Lang, regularly fielding questions from the media over what could be broadcast. Lang was on the BBC a lot in the run-up to the coronation, using this as a chance to launch his campaign to lure people back to churches, called ‘Recall to Religion’, launched by him on BBC radio in December 1936.
As the big day approached, the sound side of things was looked after by the BBC engineer heading up Outside Broadcasts: Robert Wood. His book A World in Your Ear tells of how he helped coach the new king to manage his stammer, in a tale now famous from Colin Firth’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. That film focuses on the speech therapist Lionel Logue, but Robert Wood regularly helped George VI over the next 15 years, to help find his microphone voice. Wood became a favourite of the King and Queen, and was invited as a guest of honour to George VI’s eventual state funeral – although he had to work, to set up the microphones its broadcast.
Back at the 1937 coronation, Wood actually slept in the Abbey the night before, in an old store room. BBC bosses were worried he might get run over or delayed getting there the next day – and they couldn’t do it without him. He got no sleep thanks to Big Ben’s quarter-hourly chimes – something he knew well, as he was the one who’d added microphones to it a decade and a bit earlier, to broadcast the bongs.
As well as coaching the king, Wood’s job included hiding microphones around the Abbey, “in chinks of masonry, under prayer stools, in chandeliers and lecterns. We even managed to tuck one into each arm of Edward the Confessor’s chair, used for the actual enthronement, and put a third on its carved back.”
There were 58 microphones, 28 of them inside the Abbey, 472 miles of cable, and 12 tons of kit. The newly crowned King George VI spoke to the Empire – and you can hear in his voice that this was the very start of his broadcast career:
This was not only the first coronation to be broadcast on radio, but also the first to be shown on television, a chance to show off the pageantry and grandeur. Not many people had TVs – perhaps 10,000 homes saw it broadcast live. Still, it was peacock-strutting time – and that meant visuals.
This was the BBC’s first major TV outside broadcast, the cameras for the first time leaving Alexandra Palace – that building named after this new king’s grandmother.
Half of all the BBC cameras were used, ie. 3, out of 6. They didn’t have many cameras then. There’s every chance that you have more cameras that could film in your house right now, than the BBC had in 1937. So they learned to be clever, positioning cameras on corners of the procession, to give two angles for the price of one.
TV only got the procession though – no cameras for the ceremony, at the Archbishop’s say so. Just as the king’s carriage appeared, the kit broke down… the engineer hit it as hard as he could, and it worked again.
There was commentary on the radio by John Snagge, and on television by Freddie Grisewood on Hyde Park Corner.
The Daily Mail wrote the next day: “When the King and Queen appeared the picture was so vivid that one felt that this magical television is going to be one of the greatest of all modern inventions.”
But it would take George VI’s daughter to truly launch the medium of television via her coronation…
…That said, some say that sport had just as much to do with the take-up of televisions. Still, Elizabeth II‘s coronation was referred to by BBC staff as “The OB of all OBs”, while another called it “C-Day”, likening it to the military operation on the beaches less than a decade earlier.
By 1953, television had stopped for the war and started again in peacetime. They’d filmed the 1948 London Olympics and the royal wedding of the future Queen to Prince Philip. Even if people might watch in pubs wearing hats. Two million households now had a TV licence.
But the filming of the ceremony itself was still proving a sticking point. The new quote was: “Might there be something unseemly in the chance that a viewer could watch this solemn and significant service with a cup of tea at his elbow?” That’s from The Year That Made The Day, a lovely old BBC book, with maps/pictures like this:
As for filming the ceremony, Churchill was dead against it, so someone at the Beeb leaked the thoughts of him and the cabinet to the press… and the front pages (crying privilege) helped make the government back down. The Queen too relented and let the cameras in, even though her advisors said no, they’d rather keep the service private.
Part of the deal though was no cameras closer than 30ft from the Queen. But the palace were naïve to the possibilities of zooming in. So Deputy OB boss Peter Dimmock shrewdly ensured a wide angle lens was on when showing officials, then swapped it out for a zoom lens on the day. The result? Close-ups of the Queen, unapproved beforehand, but later deemed the right call.
Richard Dimbleby was chief commentator, but others included Brian Johnston, Johnners – probably giggling about a rude cricketer’s name.
And forget 3 cameras, the BBC now used 20 cameras for Elizabeth II’s coronation, with 41 languages, 95 commentary locations. telerecordings, helicopters on standby to take the footage across the Atlantic… It was almost literally a military operation.
Twenty millions UK viewers watched it – for the first time outnumbering radio listeners. Far more watched across the world. Eighty-five million Americans watched the highlights.
Here’s a colour version of the day’s events:
Flash forward to the present day then, and in 2023, we have another, for Charles III. Not just radio and TV, but now online, on digital, you can probably ask your smart speaker to play it – you can certainly ask it to play the National Anthem.
There’s still be a private solemn section, where Charles is anointed with ointment, that the cameras don’t get to see. And in one interesting broadcasting quirk, there’s a multifaith element that won’t be audible, because it includes the Chief Rabbi, and it takes place on the Sabbath, when the Jewish law prohibits use of electricity, microphones included.
When you film a religious service, there are always limits. And quite right too – I don’t know that we should see everything, and it’s only in recent coronations that we could see anything at all.
The podcast version of this, with extra clips etc, can be heard here: https://pod.fo/e/17951b
For a deeper dive into a few tales surrounding the coronation, especially the engineer in charge of 1937’s, there’s a video on my Patreon page where we delve into a couple of key books and their stories: https://www.patreon.com/posts/coronation-bonus-82457462
For more info on my broadcasting history project – including book, live show and podcast – see paulkerensa.com/oldradio.