Making the Queen’s speech was a high-stakes drama

Her Majesty’s traditional Christmas message is like carols, fairy lights and sprouts – a festive custom we tend to take entirely for granted. But why does it happen, when did it start – and what’s it actually for?

My dress is most likely velvet and my shoes are definitely patent Mary Janes. At the dining room table there will be the rare annual treat of smoked salmon and, eventually, the chaos of countless pulled crackers.

We are at Gran Young’s house for Christmas Day, I am aged five, or eight or 11, and those cosy, spoiling mid-70s remniscences have mingled now into one single, tinsel-tinged memory. The big crystal sweetie jar full of foil-wrapped chocolate snowmen, the heady waft of my dad’s annual yuletide panatella, the endless strings of cards colonising mantels, walls and windowsills – the most glittery given pride of place.

The potency of Christmas is surely a combination of what we remember it to have been and the little treats from the selection box of our past we choose to include in our festive present. The stockings go there, the stuffing’s like that, the Queen’s on TV then…

Her Majesty’s traditional Christmas message is like carols, fairy lights and sprouts – a festive custom we tend to take entirely for granted. But why does it happen, when did it start – and what’s it actually for?

It was at Sandringham in Norfolk, on 25 December 1932, that the Queen’s grandfather King George V first broadcast a short Christmas message, live on the “wireless”. With those 251 words, George V set in motion a tradition for his family and ours that’s continued – virtually unbroken – every Christmas since, for 80 years.

In a world where live streaming and Skype is only ever a screen-tap away, it’s worth remembering that far less than a century ago, that Christmas Day message was the very moment millions of George V’s subjects throughout the empire might have heard their sovereign’s voice live and direct for the very first time.

Such was the fervour of speculation surrounding the tumultuous event, sections of the press reported that “a special golden microphone” had been fashioned for this most historic of occasions. It hadn’t.

Instead, George V’s approach was to do what any sensible broadcaster does when the weight of a looming event threatens to cripple their nerve – he resorted to a few familiar comforts to ease the tension. He chose to make both royal and broadcasting history not in the grand salon of a great palace, perched on a gilded throne, but instead from a cosy little room in Norfolk sitting comfortably in his favourite wicker armchair. How very British. How very Christmas.

Some listeners swore they could hear the Sandringham clock ticking in the background and there was undoubtedly a moment when the King could be heard clearing his throat. Indeed, The Spectator magazine concluded in an editorial: “A King who reads a message into a microphone from a manuscript may be a King” but “A King who coughs is a fellow human being”.

Exactly 25 years on from the day her grandfather made his ground-breaking broadcast, Queen Elizabeth II sat in the Long Library at Sandringham ready to do the same. But this time the stakes were even higher – on Christmas Day 1957 the young Queen wouldn’t simply be heard but seen, too, on the new-fangled technology of live TV.

Staring down the cold, dark and frankly unforgiving lens of a live television camera can be an unnerving experience. The first time I tried it, as a baby newsreader on STV, the big black blobs in my vision and thudding heartbeat in my ears threatened to scupper the entire event. But surely being Head of State, born to greatness and familiar with unrelenting scrutiny, would render it a breeze?

In fact, the Queen was somewhat apprehensive, so highly detailed preparations were put in place to lend a supportive hand. In October – a full two months before the monarch would appear on live television before her turkey-stuffed subjects – the very chair, desk and curtains that were to decorate the Long Library at Sandringham on Christmas Day itself were transported the 112 miles to Buckingham Palace. The BBC TV producers and palace bigwigs had decided that rehearsing in the exact environment would make the Queen feel more at ease when her moment came. They were right – the first-ever live Christmas afternoon royal TV broadcast went without a hitch.

Fifty-eight years on, the Queen’s message is, of course, no longer broadcast live. But it remains a curiously powerful part of our notion of what makes a proper British Christmas – as familiar and welcome as the carols from King’s College or the star on the top of the tree.

Cue the Queen is on Monday 21st December at 7pm on BBC1

The Queen’s Christmas Day speech airs at 3pm on BBC1 and ITV 

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