Vivid colour photograph of inside the Abbey during The Queen’s coronation service.
Shortly after 12.30pm in Westminster Abbey, on June 2, 1953, the Archbishop of Canterbury raised St Edward’s Crown high above the head of the young Queen Elizabeth II, seated in King Edward’s Chair.
The Archbishop held the crown aloft for a moment, then lowered it on to the Queen’s head, placing it first on her forehead, then pressing it down at the back.
Within the Abbey a great cry went up: ‘God Save the Queen!’ The Abbey resounded with fanfares and shouts of acclaim.
It was a memorable moment, the exact moment everyone had been waiting for.
And for the first time in history, it was shared with most of the world through the medium of television, establishing the Queen’s Coronation as a milestone in the history of television and a turning point for the Monarchy.
Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who believed television was ‘an extravagance and a supreme time-waster’ confessed that the Coronation coverage had been a triumph.
Yet the choice of televising the service was a divisive one, creating a drama that incorporated the most important figures in the land, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Duke of Norfolk, the Cabinet, the Coronation Joint Committee, and even the Queen herself.
From the view of the church and political figures, live coverage of the Coronation was seen as an unnecessary intrusion into the heart of majesty; this view stemmed from fear that things during the service could go embarrassingly wrong before the intrigued eyes of the world.
John Colville, Private Secretary to Churchill, explained to the Prime Minister that ‘live television would not only add considerably to the strain on The Queen (who does not herself want television) but would mean that any mistakes, unintentional incidents or undignified behavior by the spectators would be seen by millions of people without any possibility of cutting or censorship’.
Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook, warned, presciently, that it would “let the genie out of the bottle.”
‘If the Coronation ceremony is televised, what argument will remain for refusing television facilities of [for example] Royal funerals or weddings, religious services and even proceedings in the House of Commons?’
So the decision was made to film only the Queen’s departure from Westminster Abbey, with the intention of placing edited highlights into television broadcasts
Yet when this announcement was made public on October 20th, 1952, there was an instant uproar; with numerous BBC viewers protesting and MPs asking questions in Parliament, Prime Minister Churchill agreed to reopen discussions on televising the service.
The final decision to telecast the service rested with the Queen and her advisers. Although it is well known that she was not keen on the idea at first, she is credited with having the foresight to change her mind; Sir John Colville claimed that the Queen had told Churchill that ‘all her subjects should have an opportunity of seeing it’.
With the decision made, on December 8th the Earl Marshal announced that most of the Coronation would, after all, be televised
Covering the Coronation on radio and television took months of planning. There would be four cameras in the Abbey, one above the high altar, one by the south transept, one in the organ loft and one at the west end. Most of the 26 microphone points were near the Queen’s throne.
John Snagge, who was the voice of the Boat Race, was chosen to commentate for the BBC Home Service. He operated from a minute, unventilated box in the triforium (a gallery above the nave). On the day it was estimated that 83 per cent of the population listened to his commentary. Above him, in slightly more comfort, was television commentator Richard Dimbleby. Below Dimbleby and Snagge were the television cameramen, again in cramped surroundings.
Plans were made so that the ceremony could be seen on television in France West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and other European countries. BBC recordings were to be flown to Canada in Canberra bombers, and on to the United States so that it could be seen within hours of the event.
In the event, it could hardly have gone more smoothly. As the Queen left the chapel in the procession that would lead to the Great West Door, two verses of the National Anthem were sung.
Up until this point the official rules of the telecast had been obeyed, with no close-ups of the Queen being displayed on television. But as she emerged from St Edward’s Chapel, the cameras moved in closer and closer. BBC engineer Ben Shaw was watching service with a button that he would press to eliminate any images that broke the rules.
Shaw watched the closer images being broadcast but he just could not press the button. The resulting moving pictures of the Queen were stunning – exceptionally so for 1953.
The service was intensely moving for the Queen. After the long procession back through London and the balcony appearances, she could be sure she had the affirmation and support of the British people and those in the wider Commonwealth.
There are other consequences, too, from that Coronation day. The successful televising of the Coronation has irrevocably changed the relationship between monarch and people. The great moments of the Queen’s reign, and some of the unhappier ones too, have been relayed to us on screen. Even the humblest of the Queen’s subjects can feel a part of the great occasions of state – and utilize scrutiny that would once have been unthinkable.