Sunday, June 2, 2013

This Day in British History (Elizabeth II Crowned, in Ancient Rite for Modern Age)

June 2, 1953—As daughter of the Prince of York, outside the direct line of descent to the British throne, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary spent her first 10 years with no expectation that she would ever wear the crown. But, 17 years after her uncle’s affair with an American divorcee prevented him from becoming King Edward VIII, the dutiful, decent child of King George VI was formally crowned Queen Elizabeth II—in, arguably, the watershed event in British television history.

As an American of Irish descent, I come from a dual tradition of fierce anti-royalism. That, combined with an aversion to the hype surrounding Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana Spencer, led me to write an all-stops-out attack on the British monarchy for my college newspaper. Without taking back my general feelings about the institution (in fact, my prediction of unhappiness for Charles and Diana was, sadly, all too prescient), I have come to soften my view of the queen herself. While I won’t bow before her, then, I will tip my hat to her.

Some of this crystallized for me this past January, when I toured the site of Elizabeth’s formal installation, Westminster Abbey. No matter how magnificent its statuary, I knew all too well that many of Elizabeth’s predecessors could not have survived today’s searching moral scrutiny, with all those Star Chamber proceedings, executions, robberies of the public purse, invasion of foreign lands, and the like. In comparison, with what seems like a genuine and becoming modesty, Elizabeth cannot help but look good.

Elizabeth also looks great by comparison with those around her now. Anyone with a cross to bear has my sympathy, and Elizabeth has had several, including during what she called, with an almost palpable shudder, the "annus horribilis" of 1992, when the domestic affairs of her offspring virtually guaranteed full employment to Fleet Street “journalists” and somewhat better behaved members of the “chattering classes.” And I don’t even want to think about what life must be like when you’re married for 66 years to Prince Phillip, he of the “What in thunder are you doing here? What am I doing here?” scowl.

Actually, Prince Phillip figured prominently in the event that made his wife a global superstar. Viewers noticed that he was the first person to render homage to the new queen. What many, if not most, didn’t realize was that behind the scenes, he assumed an even larger role. In essence, he was first among equals on the Buckingham Palace committee organizing the event.

To start with, there was the notion, based on tradition, that the new queen must be crowned in the sight of the people. The belief in those days was that this required the transformation of Westminster Abbey’s space to accommodate more than 8,000 guests in a “theater” of tiered seating for 8251 guests, staircases, and an annex. The church was shut down in January to give the 200-man labor force enough time to complete the work.

That wasn’t the end of it. Reading about the event’s preparations, it reminded me less of a coronation than of the kind of multimillion-dollar spectacle that continues to give Broadway producers agita:

*With travel less swift than today, foreign dignitaries required months in attendance to clear their calendar for the event.

* In Glasgow 31 blue-and-gold carpets for the nave and “theater,” totaling 2,964 square yards, were made.

* Four thousand yards of velvet, covering 2,000 chairs and 5,700 stools, were woven in Bradford.

* In Braintree, Essex, a 10-week operation was required to hand-weave 20 yards of purple velvet for the Queen's coronation robe, 1,500 yards of silk for the hangings that would adorn the Abbey, and material for the peers' robes.

* The nation’s finest musicians and composers—including Sir William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams—contributed their talents to the musical program.

All of this meant that, though Elizabeth had been notified immediately in February 1952 that her father was dead and she was the new monarch, it would be more than a year before the official ceremony would take place.

It sounds as if the young woman was more frightened by this event than by her wedding to the blunt, officious Phillip six years before. Many of her anxieties stemmed directly from what her father had told her about the mishaps that had occurred at his coronation in 1937. (Among the foul-ups: The Archbishop of Canterbury thought the Dean had given him St. Edward’s crown the wrong way round; one bishop stepped on the king’s train; another put his thumb over the words of the oath when George VI was about to read it.)

All of this made Elizabeth reluctant to stage the event live on the new medium of television. Newsreels were fine, she thought, as they afforded the opportunity to edit out the glitches, but not something happening in real time.

When word got out that television cameras would not be present, a hue and cry ensued. Elizabeth’s PR handlers huddled, then came up with a new strategy and story. Of course the event would be televised; in fact, it had been the queen’s intention all along, they said. As by-no-means-iconoclastic royal biographer Robert Lacey observed in a BBC News interactive forum a decade ago, “We didn't discover until about the 1980s what really went on behind the scenes. So it was lit and designed for the old-fashioned newsreel cameras, and then at a later stage, the TV was fitted in.”

With Elizabeth’s reluctant approval, then, preparations were launched for this 38th coronation in the legendary British church to be the first to air on television.

For us rudely plebeian Americans, the tipping point in the acceptance of television was probably Milton Berle’s show, which persuaded countless numbers to purchase TV sets. For the British, it was the coronation, which is believed to be the first time that a television audience outnumbered radio listeners in the nation. (In fact, according to the BBC, the number of TV licenses in Britain rose from 763,000 in 1951 to 3.2 million in 1954 thanks in part to the coronation.) An estimated 27 million people watched the 26-year-old Elizabeth in the centuries-old ceremonies, conducted by Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury.

I mentioned that the extensive preparations was one reason why the coronation date was pushed so far back from the date Elizabeth was notified she was the new monarch.  The particular date was chosen because that was believed to be the day least likely to rain. Of course, as millions of viewers soon saw, it was one of the soggiest days that year in the realm.

For a nation in the midst of angst over withdrawal from its empire, the coronation represented proof that some things in the realm endured. The event also highlighted how the monarchy would react under its latest representative: Perhaps not always sure-footed at first on how to deal with intrusive new media, but able to rebound and continue to hold onto her subjects’ affection.

No comments: