It’s Christmas Day! It’s lunchtime. Turkey sits heavy in our tums or on our plate. In Britain that means one thing – our monarch is about to speak to us and give an awkward smile.
While you wait, or realise you’ve missed it, here are some regal highlights of that very thing, since it started seventy years ago…
- 1932… Britain’s first royal Christmas message, by George V. He wasn’t the first monarch to broadcast one – the Dutch queen beat him by one year. But he’d been pressured by the BBC’s John Reith for a decade – and only relented after being given a tour of the BBC studios, a couple of free radios, and assurances that the new global British Broadcasting Corporation would reach parts of the British Empire that the previous, national, British Broadcasting Company couldn’t reach. In his first nervous broadcast, he sat in his favourite chair at Sandringham, and fell through the seat of it.
- 1935… George V’s fourth and final festive speech reassured a nation still suffering in the Great Depression, continuing to promote the nostalgic British Christmas.
- 1936… was speechless, because Edward VIII abdicated just before Christmas.
- 1937… Edward’s brother George VI had a legendary stammer, famously depicted by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. Completing his first Christmas message only increased the warmth of the public towards him. In it, he claimed to be unable to match his father’s broadcasting skill, but his message of hope against the “shadows of enmity and of fear” was well-received in a fragile world.
- 1939… After no speech in 1938 came a vital wartime broadcast. Princess Elizabeth suggested that her father quote from the poem “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins:
“And I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied,
‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’”
1952… Princess became Queen, and Elizabeth II became the third British monarch on the festive airwaves, broadcasting from the same chair and desk as her father and grandfather before her.
- 1957… saw the first televised message: “It’s inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you… but now at least for a few minutes, I welcome you to the peace of my own home.” Like the first radio broadcast, Elizabeth assured her audience that timeless values mattered more than new technology. There was an amusing crossed signal too; over the Queen’s words, an American police officer was heard to mutter, “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”
- 1959… had the first pre-recorded message, to be shipped abroad in advance. Wherever you were in the world, you could now hear the message at an appropriate time on Christmas Day.
- 1969… had no speech due to fears of oversaturation, a er a year of royal documentaries and ceremonies. It was reinstated in 1970; the public loved the royal broadcaster, as did the technicians, who nicknamed Her Majesty “One- Take Windsor”.
- 1992… The sixtieth anniversary of the royal message was Elizabeth’s self-professed “annus horribilis”: two of her sons’ marriages ended, Windsor Castle suffered a fire, and tabloid interest in the royal family reached new highs (or lows). As if to prove the point, The Sun newspaper published a leaked version of the speech two days early. For the previous five years, naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough had produced the speech; maybe he should have stayed on.
- 1997… was the first speech broadcast online.
- 2006… was the first royal Christmas podcast.
- 2012… was shot in 3D – without the customary reassurance that timeless values matter more than new technology. A version in Smell-O-Vision has yet to appear.
Amazon bestseller Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available now.