Television’s big day

2nd June 2013

17:00 So that was great, and truly interesting in so many ways, some of which I’ll try to note down in a further post. A thousand thanks to the BBC for the restoration and to BBC Parliament for the re-run, although I think with just a little more care lavished on the presentation it could have been marvellous. The opening with Sylvia Peters was wonderful, but I wish they had stuck to the original timings and I would really have liked some on-screen credits to round things off. Were there no credits on the original? Could even a basic roll not have been assembled especially for today?

Here is a last quote from Kynaston:

The coverage…, in no small part due to Dimbleby, gave the medium an irreproachable respectability. a sense of it moving for the first time to the centre of national life. “The BBC has magnificently vindicated the noble idea of a public service,” declared the Sunday Times‘s television and radio critic, Maurice Wiggin. “It has behaved with impeccable tact and dignity and has undoubtedly made innumerable new friends… After last Tuesday there can be no looking back.”‘

And here are a couple of thoughts from Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) who has watched the re-run as well:

16:58 Chester Wilmott signs off, over a shot of the royal standard flying over Buckingham Palace, with a reminder of the speech that the Queen made on her 21st birthday in which she dedicated her life to the service of the nation. Then,

We pray for her to enjoy a long, glorious amd happy reign.

God save the Queen.

The past is a different country. They do things differently there.

16:57 The final scene.

16:56 The crowds.

16:54 … and in the skies.

16:50 On the balcony…

16:48 The police keep the crowds back until the Queen and family appear on the balcony – and then the people break through and rush the palace – or at least as far as the gates.

16:46 The broadcast comes to a close with the promise of a fly-past at 5.30 and the Queen on the balcony, but this re-run jumps straight to the start of that later broadcast.

16:42 As the Queen passes, commentator Wilmott doesn’t speak, allowing us to enjoy the image without any additional words. Is it inappropriate to think of  this as the ‘money shot’?

16:40 The state coach approaches… and Prince Charles watches from a window in Buckingham Palace. Now that would have been startling in 1953 – such a close-up, ‘intimate’ sense of their royal family would surely have been quite alien to the television audience.

16:34 Seeing the parade go past once again I have a good deal of sympathy with the account (quoted in Kynaston) sent to Mass Observation of half a dozen people watching at an unnamed farm: ‘Their only interest was to see the Queen – close-ups of her in the coach, getting out of the coach. walking up the Abbey. They didn’t stay to watch all the other parts.’

16:17 Kynaston: ‘There is little disputing the conventional wisdom that the Coronation ‘made’ television in Britain. Not only did anticipation of the event help stimulate licence holders to rise from 1.45 million in March 1952 to 2.32 million by the end of May 1953, but the coverage of the day itself prompted a further rise, upt o 3.25 million by March 1954.’

16:11 Passing soldiers create almost abstract patterns on the screen. Chester Wilmott refers to soldiers from Fiji as ‘ranks of coloured men’ – a different world.

15:55 With the procession past, although with still half of its journey to go (including Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus, albeit out of range of cameras) the broadcast jumps to The Mall, waiting for it all to arrive here. Chester Wilmott fills in over long views down the sweep of the road, and promising us that the coaches will pass the cameras on the ‘other’ side – so those of us watching at home ought to get a much better view of the Queen. Meanwhile, there are a lot more soldiers.

15:50 Finally, the state coach comes past.

15:47 more from Kynaston, this time about the ways in which people watched the television broadcast:

We had fully twenty in our workshop viewing it on our set [an Ecko],’ noted Barbara Algie. living in Helensburgh, Scotland. ‘The Marshalls brought me a coronation cake, and others gave me cakes and sweets.’ Improvisation was often the order of the day. ‘I sat down on my plastic commemorative cushion in pouring rain outside the DER showroom to watch the Coronation,’ recalled David Sutch. ‘The whole village clubbed together to rent one, which they put in my father’s barn,’ remembered Ned Sherrin about a pioneering television experience in rural Somerset. ‘I came down from Oxford. It was a sensation. The local squire even came down to watch, with binoculars and a shooting-stick.’

15:41 Bernard Braden is momentarily thrown by the fact that previously open carriages now have their tops up – but not the one in which sits resplendent the redoubtable Queen of Tonga.

15:33 It’s the Navy now going past the cameras. I guess audiences would have been more tolerant then of this seemingly endless parade.

15:24 Looking again into Kynaston’s book, I realise I had forgotten quite how brilliantly he uses letters and diaries to evoke the texture of the times. (He has a new volume, Modernity Britain, 1957-1959, forthcoming this summer.) In a terrific chapter about the Coronation he quotes – among many others – from the account of Marian Raynham, listening to events on the radio at home in Surbiton with her husband, son and daughter:

…listened to it all from 10.30 to 5.30. I took advantage of the religious part [in the service] to put the lunch on the table. They loved the lunch – tom soup, a big salad with nut meat brawn & strawberry blanc mange & jam & top of milk… I didn’t waster my time. At first part I pulled couch out & spring cleaned behind it & brushed couch well. Did room, later crocheted, later rested. They do this very well. I liked the bit about Justice in the ceremony, & the voice of the Queen & Philip. She never seems nervous.

Top of milk! That takes me back.

15:18 To my eyes, the extensive military procession, with rank after rank of service personnel, is surprising – I don’t think I had thought of the occasion as quite such a celebration of the nation’s fighting forces.

15:13 In his wonderful social history of the early 1950s, Family Britain, 1951-1957, David Kynaston quotes an anonymous woman who recorded her sense of the parade for Mass Observation:

The crowd is cheering in a tremendous roar, pushing this way and that to get the best view, standing on tip-toe, jumping up, pressing forward and forward. {When the state coach passes] the cheers are at least six times as loud as they have ever been before… But the most anyone gets is a brief view of a pale figure in a shining white dress smiling and waving her hand… It is all over so quickly that people seem taken aback. They look at each other and smile almost in a confidential sort of way, there is a kind of sign, and one or two weomen are wiping their eyes…

15:05 It’s over to Hyde Park now with commentator Brian Johnston, where the procession will take around 40 minutes to pass. Bernard Braden is there too, sharing the duties for the BBC. Braden points out soldiers from SAY-lon, which you and I would know today as Sri Lanka. Soon after them, the Mounties come by on their handsome horses.

 … and now the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are moving off, although inconveniently for the cameras the Queen is on the ‘wrong’ side of the coach. Still, as the commentator tells us, the rain has stopped and the sun is trying to come out.

14:58 Here at last is the empty state coach…

14:43 The interest has dissipated a bit with all of these departures from the Abbey of marginal figures. Next up is the coach for the Queen Mum and Princess Margaret. Queen Mum apparently has a gown with ‘a broad band of gold that runs from the shoulder right down to the hem’. TV picture spoilt a bit by a big bloke on a horse blocking the shot.

14:31 Coming in the midst of debates about whether or not there should be a commercial television rival to the BBC, the Coronation coverage was a major boost for the Corporation. ‘Does the fine feat of the BBC,’ the Daily Herald asked, ‘suggest that the BBC is in need of “competition” to improve its efficiency? Can anyone believe that a commercially-owned television system, operating on another wavelength, could have done better or nearly as well?’ ITV went on air some twenty-eight months later.

14:28 The crowd-pleasing Queen of Tonga, on the right. Famously, when asked who the man with her was, Noel Coward replied, ‘Her dinner’. After this, it’s the turn of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers who occupy 10 carriages in all. Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Churchill get into the last of these and flashes the crowd a smile and a V for Victory sign.

14:24 Various Imperial subjects, including various Sultans and Sultanas, getting into their open carriages at the door of Westminster Abbey.

14:19 Fascinating shot of the stands erected for dignitaries in Parliament Square.

14:18 Marching soldiers, lot of ’em.

14:11 ‘The time is now 2.25″ – that’s what the announcer in 1953 just said, but in fact it isn’t, it’s only 2.11 – shame that the BBC hasn’t stuck to the exact timings. I think there must have been a break in the recording where that reel change is that I indicated at 14:06. @feelinglistless suggests via Twitter that the BBC may have saved a roll of film sixty years ago.

14:06 Whoa, we had one of the changes from one 35mm film roll to another there – surprised that they left that in the restored recording.

14:00 Now there’s a pause until 14:25 when those in the Abbey will start the procession through London – television stays with the bells, the bells and a royal crest on screen, with occasional cuts to the roofline showing the royal standard and the west front of Westminster Abbey.

13:59 And this is London on Coronation Day 1953…

13:57 We’re outside now, with the bells of the Abbey pealing out.

13:54 Elgar now – whatever else you may think about the service, the playlist is pretty great. ‘History has been written and sung here today, in this beautiful church, where it has been written and sung for nigh on a thousand years… but never before have so many seen the crowning of the sovereign.’

13:50 The Queen processes through the Coronation theatre and down the nave to a great fanfare and the singing of the National Anthem.

13:45 A modest zoom shot into figures in the procession reminds us that the there are almost no zooms whatsoever in the coverage – pans yes, occasional tilts too, but almost no zooms; otherwise the shot changes are cuts from static image to static image.

13:41 The procession back into the nave begins.

13:32 ‘So ends the solemnity of Her Majesty’s Coronation.’ While a Te Deum is sung, the Queen retires to St Edward’s Chapel from which the cameras are excluded. Cue what seems to be a bit of milling about around the Coronation throne but which I’m sure has a deeper meaning – Richard Dimbleby, however, is keeping that from us.

13:26 One of the cameras tilts up for a climactic shot showing some of the additional lighting installed for the Service.

13:21 While the prayers are being said, let’s remember how the event was reported across the pond, again courtesy of Asa Briggs:

NBC’s Today, normally an early morning magazine-type show, billed for 2 June as Coronation Coverage, opened at 5.30am, New York time, two hours earlier than usual, using BBC sound commentary and photographic stills [no satellites then], the programme was broken into for spot announcements, news items, and an interview with H.V. Kaltenbourn, one of its star commentators, who asked brashly (while the Abbey Service was continuing), ‘Is this show put on by the British for a psychological boost to their somewhat shaky Empire?’ A one-minute commercial for a deodorant just before the network returned to the BBC broadcasting of the Anointing.

13:11 Another shot of the service…

13:08 Briggs: ‘Asked [about coverage of the Coronation by BBC researchers] whether they were “completely satisfied”, “moderately satisfied”, or “thoroughly dissatisfied”, 84 per cent of listeners and 98 per cent of viewers said that they were “completely satisfied”.’ 98 per cent “completely satisfied”!

13:00 Apparently the BBC’s Head of Religous Broadcasting, the Rev. F.H. House, recorded in a memo on the day after the broadcast, ‘the Service in the Abbey was so extraordinarily well done in itself that we should indeed have been idiots if we had not succeeded in producing a satisfactory television broadcast of it.’

12:56 Briggs: ‘The only regular television service in the Commonwealth at that time was in Canada, and [it was planned that] a telefilm recording would be flown across the Atlantic for showing on the evening of 2 June, with “every effort” being made (significantly) “to ensure that the films are available… in Canada before they are available in the USA”.’ (The internal quote is from a Memorandum for the BBC’s General Advisory Council.)

12:54 ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ resounds throughout the Abbey.

12:53 Radio Times sold nine million copies of its issue for Coronation week.

12:49 Courtesy of the YouTube channel of the Alexandra Palace Television Service, this is a film newsreel about BBC television covering George VI’s Coronation.

12:44 We should remember just how recent was the introduction of the technology which allowed the broadcast to be recorded – the first tele-recording of a full-length television play dates from only four months before this. Apart from a tiny fragment filmed from a screen back in 1937 nothing survives of the live (and far less extensive) television coverage of the Coronation of George VI.

12:40 Swearing of fealty – extraordinary in so many ways, and bizarre too that these customs have survived. Another thing to say, which is so obvious and yet so remarkable, is just how young both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are.

12:39 I continue to be impressed that the BBC achieved all this with just five cameras inside the Abbey.

12:32 One of those ‘very special shots’ (see 11:23 below) – the Duke of Cornwall (Prince Charles to you and I) sees his mother crowned.

 ‘The moment of the Queen’s crowning is come…’

12:27 Echoing several of those who have commented on Jonathan Wood’s post, I really do hope that the BBC releases this new restoration on a DVD – it’s a major historical document and, as we’ve already noted, surprisingly enjoyable.

12:23 … and here’s a great BBC photograph of the central control room, accessed here.

Coronation Day control room © BBC

12:19 Jonathan Wood has written an informative BBC TV blog post about the digital restoration of the tele-recording. He writes:

In 1953 TV technology was in its infancy and video recording had not been invented, so the only way the BBC could retain a copy of what was transmitted on that day was by filming the output – basically pointing a camera at a 405-line television monitor! The BBC did this using 35mm black and white film. Recording the broadcast onto film and storing it for 60 years brings its own problems, like dirt and scratches. These film faults were not part of what the public actually saw on the day, therefore our challenge was to restore the pictures as closely as possible to how people would have experienced them at the time.

The 35mm film rolls only lasted around 10 minutes, so an immense 45 film rolls were used in total. After cleaning the rolls I scanned them to make digital files, taking care to capture the full picture area available. This revealed more of the image than was seen on previous versions, bringing it in line with the live broadcast in 1953. I then painstakingly graded each shot, which involves adjusting the brightness and contrast levels to maintain a consistently good looking image, whilst removing film defects, including fine dust, dirt and occasional damage.

12:14 Richard Dimbleby wrote in his autobiography that as he half closed his eyes, he felt that he might have been watching ‘something that had happened a thousand years before’. He also recorded that the only thing that spoiled the day was the litter left behind in the Abbey by the Peers.

12:12 The actual anointing is hidden from those in the Abbey by a golden canopy, while television shows a discreet image of the altar cloth. The ceremony is, however, heard as audio.

12:06 Oh, Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ – thrillingly good. There’s no doubt that the audio has also been hugely improved during the restoration process. Dimbleby tells us that the anointing just after this anthem is the most sacred part of the service.

12:01 From the viewing breakdown in the previous entry it’s clear that for almost everyone watching the Coronation was a communal, social experience. And I think we forget that at this time there was still an active debate (which was to continue until the arrival of ITV) about whether cinemas might show live television broadcasts. Indeed in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham there is extensive documentation of the issue of whether cinemas could screen this day’s broadcasts, it eventually being decided that those with the technical capability could do so as long as they did not charge for admission.

11:59 Briggs: ‘Given the magnitude of the television figures, it was clear, of course, that most people were watching outside their homes. The audience for the Service included only 7,800,000 viewing in their own homes as against 10,400,000 viewing in the homes of friends and 1,500,000 in public places such as cinemas, public halls and public houses.’

11:56 Now that we are deep into the service itself Dimbleby as a commentator is restricting himself to minimal interventions and staying silent for much of the time.

11:48 Briggs records that 53 per cent of the adult population of Great Britain – over 19 million – viewed the procession to the Abbey, and 56 per cent – over 20 million – viewed the Coronation Service. Only 12 per cent of the adult population neither listened to nor viewed the Service.

11:43 Among the press reaction to the Coronation broadcast that Asa Briggs quotes is an extract from a review in The Scotsman; noting that viewers missed ‘the gorgeous colour’ it added that they saw ‘something which seemed, perhaps, even more in tune with the mystique of the Coronation Service – an enchanting succession of pictures in silver, grey and black, sometimes reminiscent of a Durer engraving’. The new restoration allows those silvers and blacks to come through as they never have before in the many extracts of this coverage that I have seen in other programmes.

11:37 Briggs: Richard Dimbleby was ‘enclosed in his little glass box from 5.30am until 2.30pm in the afternoon. “Your voice and the things you say in the Abbey on Coronation day,” [Director of Television Cecil] McGivern told him in a special order of the day, “are of great importance to us, I have full confidence in the fact that in no way you will let us down.” He did not… [yet] there were still far more listeners and viewers in 1953.’

11:32 This shot from high above the altar is remarkable.

11:29 The regalia – visible here in far, far more detail than I’ve ever seen it before. Weirdly, I filmed St Edward’s Crown, which is at the heart of the service (and in this picture), earlier this year at the Tower of London. There’s another sound patch here too.

11:27 ‘Vivat, vivat, vivat’. Richard Dimbleby falls silent and we watch…

11:23Apparently, OB producer Peter Dimmock went to the States to watch the inauguration of President Eisenhower. Briggs: ‘He had to keep out the ubiquitous ‘Peeping Tom’ cameras from the Abbey – such cameras had raised hackles even in the United States – while at the same time encouraging, with the help of zoom lenses, very special shots, like that of Prince Charles watching his mother being crowned.’

11:21 Entry of Prime Minister Churchill…

11:18 Just there, in Dimbleby’s listing of all these people coming in, there is a distinct change in the quality of the sound recording – my sense is that this is an audio patch done afterwards to cover perhaps a mistake or an audio glitch.

11:16 Impressive as this all is, there’s an awful lot of ceremonial guff with the Heralds, the representatives of the Commonwealth, the Queen’s Champion (this really does feel like medieval England) and all the others who process in before the Queen.

11:12 From Briggs: ‘…all five cameras inside the Abbey had to be carefully kept from view. Eventually it was decided… to have one of the cameras visible amongst the Orchestra (with the smallest possible cameraman, ‘Bud’ Flanagan, on duty) and outside the Abbey to employ twenty-one cameras at five sites.’

11:08 From Briggs: ‘Soon after the death of George VI the first meeting to plan the broadcasting of the Coronation, “the largest single-day event ever undertaken by the BBC”, took place in London; and to get the perspectives straight it is important to note that sound broadcasting, not television, took precedence then and thereafter.’

11:05 Richard Dimbleby points out the Queen of Tonga, ‘the sultans and the sheikhs’ and ‘the front rank of the peeresses, who sit, their tiaras a-glitter and a-shimmer’. Peerless, of course.

11:00 The arrival of the Queen at Westminster Abbey – the commentator, Mary Peters I think, falls silent and watches along with the rest of us. The Queen enters an annex built in front of the west door (I hadn’t realised that this was constructed for the service) which has the feel of the modern design of the Festival of Britain. ‘New Elizabethan’, indeed.

10:58 One of the best accounts of the Coronation broadcast – perhaps inevitably – is in the fourth volume of Asa Briggs’ The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, published in 1979. I’m going to quoite some chunks in a while, but for the moment I’m enjoying this far more than – as a committed republican – I might have thought.

10:54 So far the coverage has been more varied and more visually impressive than I think I imagined it might have been. There is a greater variety of shots – even if the procession is not covered in full.

10:46 Out of the Abbey again, to the Embankment, with a band going past crowds of school children waiting for the Queen’s coach. The detail of the digital restoration is particularly striking here, even as some of the horses in the parade start playing up.

10:45 ‘The splendid picture of the Abbey is set in all the loveliness of its beauty…’

10:41 Shots from inside the Abbey, including the waiting dignitaries and the arrival of Princess Margaret.

10:36 ‘Here, in the Abbey Church of St Peter Westminster…’ – the broadcast cuts inside the Abbey for the first time, which is the point at which Richard Dimbleby starts his commentary. Dimbleby takes us around the Abbey as the cameras give us a tour – there is a sense that we need to be introduced to the geography, to the spatial lay-out.

10:30 Interestingly, the cameras cannot offer full coverage of the procession, and so as the coach goes out of range down the Mall, the broadcast cuts ahead to Westminster Abbey for the arrival there of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.

10:29 Thankfully BBC Parliament is showing the coverage in the correct aspect ratio – bravo. And the digital restoration is truly impressive so far.

10:27 The coach emerges and you begin to sense of quite how thrilling this would have been in 1953.

10:24 The emphasis is all on the waiting pageantry and there is no sense of the people standing for the Queen – no attempt to give it a human dimension.

10:19 Shots include one from a camera on the roof  of Buckingham Palace – and this gives us an impressive panorama of the London skyline, including a tall smoking chimney. Now the shot  is from a camera on a boat on the Thames. Barclay too is setting the scene for the television coverage.

10:16 After Sylvia Peters’ intro, in which she uses a pointer and a very large aerial photograph to explain the events of the coming day, we have gone to Barclay Smith (although not in vision) with cameras on the Victoria Monument preparing for the Queen’s departure from Buckingham Palace.

10.10 Sylvia Peters – yes, Sylvia Peters herself! – is introducing BBC Parliament’s re-run of the Coronation. She intro’d the coverage sixty years ago. She is showing us her original script.

From 10.10 this morning BBC Parliament is broadcasting the full television coverage of the Coronation as seen across the nation on 2 June 1953. What’s more, we are promised a digitally-restored recording. The history books relate that this is the day that established television at the heart of the nation but mostly we get to see only snippets of the outside broadcast. So my intention is to watch the full seven-hour broadcast and to blog throughout the day – and needless to say I would welcome thoughts and comments from others who might be watching along with me.

And to get ready for the main event watch Jamie Muir’s 2012 BBC documentary The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.


  1. Amanda Wrigley says:

    I’m enjoying this far more than I thought I might, too. Really nice variety of shots so far (didn’t expect so many from on high) and it’s beautifully cleaned up (very sparkly tiaras!) Also enjoying your commentary, John – do keep it up!

    • John Wyver says:

      Absolutely, Amanda – remarkable isn’t it? And it does look terrific. There’s very little that can give you such a sense of what it was like really to watch television in 1953, even if this was a rather exceptional occasion.

  2. The return route taken to Buckingham Palace had been designed so that The Queen and her procession could be seen by as many people in London as possible. The 4.5 mile route took the 16,000 participants two hours to complete. The procession itself stretched for three kilometres. Those on foot marched 10 abreast while those on horseback were six abreast.

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