Why Elizabeth II's 1953 Coronation is the day that changed television
When the cameras entered Westminster Abbey Britain would never be the same again, says historian Joe Moran
In the early history of TV, there is a single day’s television that will always be imprinted on popular memory: the Queen’s coronation, televised 60 years ago this week. Most 60-somethings will have a dim memory of being plonked down with other children in front of a neighbour’s brand-new television set – with its tiny, bulbous screen – and hearing the cry “Vivat Regina” again and again.
But those millions of living-room television parties nearly didn’t happen at all. In 1952, a Coronation Commission, chaired by Prince Philip, had ruled that the Westminster Abbey ceremony would not be televised, the sole concession being to allow cameras west of the organ screen so that the processions could be seen.
This phrase, “west of the organ screen”, was repeated ad infinitum over the course of that year, and came to symbolise the anachronism of a prewar caste system that offered a privileged view to the favoured few. “Beyond the precincts of Westminster, from the shores of Cornwall to the grey waters of the Clyde, from the warm sunlight of the Weald of Kent to the green-blue loveliness of the Lakes,” wrote the Daily Mirror’s Cassandra, “at least fifteen million of Her Majesty’s subjects will be abruptly shuttered off by what appears to be a monumental piece of misjudgement.”
For others, the organ screen defended precious tradition from the pernicious instincts of mass voyeurism. In this camp was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who told reporters in 1952, “The world would have been a happier place if television had never been discovered.”
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The secret reason for the Commission’s decision was the Queen’s reluctance to be televised. There were no cameras in the Abbey at her wedding in 1947, she refused to let her Christmas broadcast be filmed and had asked the BBC not to let cameras settle on her face during Trooping the Colour. A number of grey eminences, notably Lord Swinton, a veteran in Winston Churchill’s cabinet, succeeded in changing her mind. In October, the Commission decided that cameras would be allowed beyond the screen, as long as there were “no close-ups”.
The news that the coronation would be fully televised increased the pressure to make television truly national, for at this time many on the country’s fringes and coastlines couldn’t receive it. In 1951, worried about a resurgent Germany and the onset of the Cold War, the government had diverted money into rearmament and postponed the building of more TV transmitters. In the North East, miners’ lodges passed resolutions against the region’s continuing televisual deprivation, and Whitley Bay council lobbied the government on behalf of the three million people cut off from the Holme Moss transmitter’s signal by the Pennines. But in October 1952, the same month that the Coronation Commission reversed its decision, the Postmaster General announced that transmitters at Pontop Pike, a moorland peak in County Durham, and Glencairn, in the Belfast hills overlooking that city, would be built after all, so that people in these areas could see the coronation.
Opening on the same day – 1 May, 1953 – these one-kilowatt masts were makeshift, austerity affairs housed in old prewar outside-broadcast vans. On each hilltop, a skeleton staff of eight engineers lived in a rudimentary wooden hut, with an Elsan chemical toilet. The Belfast signal had to be routed through the Kirk o’ Shotts transmitter in central Scotland, across 70 miles of Scottish hills and 30 miles of sea; by the time it was scattered over the rooftops of the province to about 900 TV aerials, the results were mixed. Belfast and the flat country surrounding the city got a passable reception, but beyond it there were only fading pictures and the sound arriving in whispers. In this poorest part of the kingdom there was little clamour for television anyway, but Ulster Unionists welcomed it as a sign that Northern Ireland was fully part of the UK; Irish Nationalists, on the other hand, were deeply suspicious of both the coronation and the anglicising influence of BBC television.
In the days leading up to the coronation, viewers adjusted their sets while picking up the build-up programmes. On About the Home, the television chef Marguerite Patten told them how to prepare melon cocktails and salmon mousse to eat in front of the television. Two Metropolitan Police officers gave advice to viewers on preventing house burglaries on the big day, and on how to behave along the coronation route.
On Tuesday 2 June, BBC television opened earlier than ever, at 9.15am, with the test card, to allow people to tweak their aerials. A million and a half people were gathering in places such as town-hall ballrooms, hospitals and churches, which had been granted a collective licence to watch television. In London’s Royal Festival Hall, 3,000 holders of tickets, which had sold out within 54 minutes of going on sale in April, arrived at 10am and collected a packed lunch. The same number filled the Odeon in Leicester Square. Butlin’s holiday campers in resorts like Filey, Skegness and Clacton watched on big screens.
Around 20.4 million people watched at least half an hour of the service, nearly double the radio audience, with almost as many watching the processions. Since there were only 2.7 million television sets, that meant an average of seven and a half people to a set, excluding children, who were not counted in the statistics.
Some, though, remained unimpressed. A student who tried to avoid the coronation by cycling through Sussex country lanes kept being reminded of it by bursts of noise coming from houses with television aerials and the curtains drawn. Joan Bakewell didn’t bother to watch with her fellow students on a TV set newly acquired by Newnham College, Cambridge, and she noted later that she had made no reference to the coronation in her diary for that day: “So much for all that fanciful talk about new Elizabethans.”
At 5.20pm, after the Queen’s last appearance on the Buckingham Palace balcony, 26 per cent of the adult population carried on watching the children’s programmes and about the same number watched for the rest of the evening. At 11.30pm, Richard Dimbleby delivered an unannounced, impromptu sermon, summing up the day from an empty, silent Westminster Abbey: “An epilogue sublime, touching and human as had been the great day itself,” according to The Television Annual for 1954.
In our national folk memory, the coronation is usually seen as the moment when television was instantly transformed from a primitive, minority activity into a sophisticated mass medium. Last year, I even heard Chris Evans on The One Show suggesting to an interviewee that “the Queen saved television” – that without her coronation, the medium would never have taken off. But this idea of the coronation as a watershed for TV is unconvincing. By 1953, television in Britain was nearly 30 years old, had accumulated thousands of broadcasting hours and been seen by millions. The number of new licences rose from 400,000 in 1950 to 700,000 in 1951 and 1952 and 1,100,000 in 1953, suggesting that the sales hike for the coronation was part of a steady, inexorable rise, not something sparked by one event. The coronation gave television a helpful nudge, that is all.
People who rented sets just for the coronation usually held on to them, and the normal summer slump in television sales failed to materialise. And this post-coronation television boom coincided happily with the end of rationing. The easing of restrictions on hire purchase in July 1954 was probably more important than the coronation in turning television into a mass medium, for people could now walk into a shop and buy a £60 TV for £6 down, or sometimes no deposit at all, with the repayments spread for as long as the shopkeeper would allow. For those who could still not afford a set on the “never never”, pubs now had them. A glossy new publication, TV Mirror, featured a 200-year-old inn in south London that advertised “Good Beer and Television Nightly” and photographed a woman wearing field glasses so that she could see the screen more clearly.
If it did not have as radical an effect on the nation’s viewing habits as is often supposed, the coronation does seem to have had a profound impact on the monarchy’s attitudes to television. The Queen, newly returned from a tour of the Commonwealth on 15 May 1954, even delayed appearing on the Buckingham Palace balcony until she had finished watching Gracie Fields in the BBC’s Welcome Home Ball. When ITV arrived in London in September 1955, she and Prince Philip made sure the Buckingham Palace sets would be converted by the time they returned from Balmoral. All the Queen’s residences were exempt from TV licensing laws; by 1960 there were 50 sets in Buckingham Palace alone.
By the late 1960s the Queen was reported to be a fan of Dad’s Army, Morecambe and Wise and the wrestling on World of Sport – as was Prince Philip, who especially admired Johnny Kwango’s signature move, the flying head butt. In Richard Cawston’s film Royal Family, broadcast by the BBC and ITV on two separate nights in one of the televisual events of 1969, viewers saw the Queen feeding carrots to her Trooping the Colour horse, announcing “the salad is ready” at a Balmoral barbecue, with Princess Anne on the sausages and Prince Philip on the steaks, and watching television with her family. The royals had inadvertently invented a new genre: the “fly-on-the-wall” documentary.
A week after Royal Family, all three channels showed the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle. The coronation had been an event filmed by television, with much agonising over what could be shown; the investiture was a televised event, conceived so that everything could be seen from all angles. Caernarfon residents were given free paint in architect-approved colours – pink, green or cream – to make their house fronts look good on screen.
Unlike the coronation, the investiture was watched by most viewers in their own homes, although the few who owned colour sets did invite neighbours to watch on BBC2. The estimate that Caernarfon would have its population swollen to 250,000 proved to be wildly optimistic. Police outnumbered spectators on the processional route and the “crowd-control” barriers restrained only scattered groups of people. Like a party host trying to convince guests that everything was going well, the BBC commentator, Richard Baker, pointed out that “everyone is inside, watching television, where they can get a more comprehensive view of what is going on”.
The events of 2 June 1953 may not have turned the nation instantly into a community of viewers, but within half a generation most people were doing what they would do for every major national event afterwards: sitting indoors, in front of the TV.
Joe Moran’s book, Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, is published by Profile in September