Coronation cogitations

3rd June 2013

Yesterday, I thoroughly enjoyed the full seven hours of the BBC’s 1953 Coronation coverage which BBC Parliament re-ran in (almost) its entirety. You can read the blog that I wrote here as well as see the numerous screengrabs that I took along the way, and the coverage is on iPlayer (until Sunday 9 June) here, here, here and here. And if you only watch one fragment of it, do take a look at the delightful introduction with Sylvia Peters – who hosted the broadcast in 1953 and who, astonishingly, did the same for BBC Parliament yesterday.

Taken together, this material is a historical and televisual document of the highest order, and I very much hope that the fine new digitally restored print is soon made available on DVD. I was engaged by numerous aspects – by the brief ‘intimate’ images of Price Charles, for example, in the Abbey and framed in a window at Buckingham Palace; by the centrality of the endless military parade in the afternoon; by the realisation that the BBC did not have sufficient facilities to cover the whole of the Queen’s route either to or from the Palace; and by the fact that the engineers in 1953 seem to have saved a roll of 35mm film (on which the recording was being made) by missing out a section of the ‘break’ at 2pm when television was showing simply the front of Westminster Abbey and listening to the bells.

Most of all, the full broadcast showed how ‘light’ was television’s touch on this event. Throughout there was a strong sense that the BBC was ‘simply’ relaying all of this to the nation and the world (albeit in an operation of huge technical complexity). Apart from Sylvia Peters, there were no in-vision announcers, there were no interviews, no studio couches from which experts could pontificate, and only the most modest of graphics. Even Richard Dimbleby and the other commentators allowed lengthy sequences of images simply to unfold in front of us with few words. Television appeared to shrink back from making its own mark, withdrawing from any apparent mediation, even as it was constructing a media event with profound consequences for its own form and for the nation.

Thanks to the BFI, there is a fascinating comparison to line up against the BBC’s coverage in extracts from Long to Reign Over Us, 1953 (embedded below, and from which I have taken a framegrab above). The production is an amateur film of very high quality made by John de Vere Loder, 2nd Baron Wakehurst (he also provides the narration), and it is in sparkling colour. The picture of London in June sixty years ago is both familiar and deeply strange, just as the world appears in all the very best documentary footage.

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