OOn a rainy June day in 1953, Elizabeth, the young princess who had become queen the year before, appeared on the television screens of the world. Her coronation was a milestone for small screen audiences – only the second world event to receive international broadcasting – and apocryphally led to a huge increase in the number of television sets in Britain. We became a nation of goggle-eyed obsessives almost overnight. And that was all thanks to Her late Majesty. Now, on a rainy May day in 2023, it fell to her son Charles III to shake his tail feather to a world with a more justifiable sense of access to splendour.
Whilst Elizabeth II’s journey to Westminster Abbey was broadcast exclusively on the BBC (ITV ultimately only emerged in 1955), tonight’s ceremony was broadcast on terrestrial channels (with only Channel 4 dissenting and showing Johnny English strikes again instead) and via international channels from CBS in the US to Das Erste in Germany. As with the Queen’s funeral last year, the pageantry was inevitable.
Leading up, the BBC handed the reins of commentary to Clare Balding, a seamless multi-register presenter who is just as comfortable talking about ladies-in-waiting as she is about synchronized swimmers (although the rain that pelted down the Mall may have temporarily erased that distinction ). . Julie Etchingham and Tom Bradby, who have been given extensive royal duties over the past year, led the ITV team, with channel three also dispatching Charlene White to reunite with Ant and Dec (esteemed guests of the new king), whom they last had seen on the set of i am a celebrity. This was about as close as any broadcaster came to a concession to youth. On the BBC morning shift, Kirsty Young sat down with an incongruous array of boomer celebrities, from Gyles Brandreth to Craig Revel Horwood, via Sanjeev Bhaskar and David Harewood.
Sky conceded first position to Kay Burley, who brought with him a wild-eyed intensity to rival the sleepless obsessives who lined the road to the Abbey. Talking heads like Anthony Seldon and Alastair Bruce gave Sky’s reporting a less somber, more journalistic tone, but on the more glamorous front they pulled in Joanna Lumley, who wore one of the most gorgeous hats in SW1, to convey her light-hearted views. Perhaps the greatest endurance of the broadcasters was GB News, which headed to the palace to cover the events throughout the night.
When the coronation began in earnest, the centrally broadcast feed took over. This was roughly divided into three sections: the arrival of the dignitaries, the procession of the king and queen, and the ceremony itself. In the first, Huw Edwards was in his pomp (and the BBC in their element), showing the audience heads of state, politicians and celebrities. Nick Cave, Katy Perry, Emma Thompson, Lionel Richie: The officers’ drab lines were occasionally sprinkled with stardust.
The camera avoided more suggestive shots of Prince Harry or his uncle Andrew, always returning to Prince George (now second in line to the throne). As the long ceremony progressed, the nine-year-old looked increasingly tired. So does poor Penny Mordaunt, whose valiant sword-wielding has captivated audiences and inspired some gym subscription renewals.
In the ceremony, the coverage became more reverent. The bespectacled Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, lacks the seriousness of his predecessor (or Huw Edwards). He’s not the presenter that global broadcasters would have chosen (Rylan’s name is all over the place on paper), but with superstars like Bryn Terfel, Roderick Williams, the Byzantine Chant Ensemble and the gospel singers of the Ascension Choir contributing to the proceedings, there have been enough televisual charisma to go around.
Edwards rarely intervened for the first hour, although explanatory subtitles sometimes distracted from the solemn mysteries of the service. Does the public really need a pop-up telling them that a song where the words “Zadok the Priest!” are immediately snapped out is called “Zadok the Priest”? But for all the wattage provided by supporting actors and a setlist of liturgical bangers, the eye was always drawn to the new king and queen. Charles, a figure of resolute sobriety, his face twisted in a characteristic grimace; Camilla, who channels the best impersonation of her mother-in-law but is inexorably drawn to messing with her hair.
At its core, a coronation is a religious ceremony; one of the few programs on British television (and possibly the only one to make Sky News). But it’s something the BBC actually does very well: from Carols at King’s to Songs of Praise, its offerings are well-aimed at the company’s dwindling Anglican audience. The need to leave the floor of Westminster Abbey open for worship meant that the king, archbishop and other protagonists were shot almost exclusively from above. Cameras mounted in the nave’s rafters peered down at the service like a bird’s-eye view of a soccer game. For all the ceremony’s new inclusivity (commentators didn’t draw attention to “people of all faiths,” although tabloid columnists no doubt would), the sight of a 74-year-old man kissing a Bible felt strikingly traditional.
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As with any coverage of events in the Commonwealth, there was a natural tension between celebrating countries recognizing Charles as king and acknowledging that the British Empire is no longer a mainstream subject of worship. For once, however, those fears have largely been put aside. For all the debates that have rocked the National Trust, the British Museum, the Tate, universities and almost every cultural institution in recent years, the coronation has been largely devoid of introspection. Perhaps the BBC, ITV and Sky felt relieved of their duty to advertise to a younger demographic. This was broadcasting that embraced its natural conservatism.
All of the channels covering the day’s events related to the years – nearly 70 in all – that Charles had to prepare for that day. It’s not just Charles who’s had decades to dream of procedures. The Church of England, the administrators of Westminster Abbey and above all the broadcasters had a lifetime to prepare for this. The stunning image of the king with glittering sword in hand and wearing a golden kimono while wearing the huge crown may not have the same historical weight as these 1953 images, but the broadcast tableau will long stay in public memory. For all the premature obituaries of the monarchy, this marathon telecast felt like an affirmation, not a rejection, of British tradition.