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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The British coronation: A TV spectacle, now for the digital age

On Monday in central London, posing for a photo in front of a portrait of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, ahead of the king’s coronation on Saturday.

By Alan Cowell

The mystique around the British royal family — so essential to the nation’s acceptance of its hereditary and privileged first monarchy — has always drawn its power from a blend of secrecy and symbolism that combine in impeccably choreographed spectacle.

On Saturday, the regal alchemy will be conjured anew at King Charles III’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in London. The spectacle has been years in the planning, not simply as an event in its own right, but also as a moment in history intimately entwined with its on-screen projection around Britain and across the globe.

The coronation will be the first since Charles’s mother, Elizabeth II, who died in September, was crowned in June 1953. Hers was the first coronation to be transmitted live and in full at a time when televisual broadcasting was still a novelty, and it initiated a long era of increasingly close coordination between Buckingham Palace and the BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster.

Anti-royalists have complained bitterly that, as Graham Smith, the head of a campaigning organization called Republic, said in a recent statement: “The BBC routinely misrepresents the monarchy and public opinion. They suggest the nation is celebrating major events when that simply isn’t the case.”

While the BBC rejects these claims of partiality, there is little doubt that as digital technology has advanced over many years, the broadcaster’s royal coverage has become ever more sophisticated and comprehensive. The medium, in other words, has facilitated a kind of blanket coverage of a message that would not have been possible in the 1950s.

In 1953, the queen’s coronation unfolded in a nation in thrall to a newfangled miracle called television. British baby boomers, many of them small children at the time, like to recall that television in those days meant a small black-and-white screen in a large wooden cabinet broadcasting a single channel. The British establishment — including its nobles and priests, as well as the BBC — wielded exclusive control of the monochrome footage that would mold a generation’s memory of the event.

Makeshift antennae were thrown up on hilltops to link the various parts of the British Isles to the central broadcast unit in London. In the pre-satellite, pre-digital era, British Royal Air Force bombers flew raw film of the coronation across the Atlantic for broadcast on American networks.

Some members of the British hierarchy wished to keep cameras out of the inner sanctum of Westminster Abbey, where the queen was crowned. “The world would have been a happier place if television had never been discovered,” the Most Rev. Geoffrey F. Fisher, then the archbishop of Canterbury, who presided over the queen’s coronation, was quoted as saying.

Even today, King Charles has resolved to follow his mother’s example by banning cameras from what is considered the most sacred part of the coronation service, in which he is anointed with what is called the oil of chrism.

But much else has changed. When Elizabeth was crowned, “Britain was marked by extreme deference,” Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert at King’s College, London, said in a recent interview. “The monarchy was thought to be magical and untouchable.”

Since then, the royal House of Windsor has changed radically from “a magical monarchy to a public service monarchy,” Bogdanor said, and “is judged by whether it contributes to society, and if it doesn’t, people won’t have it.” King Charles, he added, seems “well aware of that.”

For the king, a helter-skelter technological revolution has transformed every smartphone owner into a pocket cinematographer, hooked to a multiplex world of apps and platforms, uploads and downloads. Where his mother’s crowning bathed the monarchy in uncontested splendor, Charles’ challenge is to focus a much more diffuse spotlight.

While Elizabeth’s coronation required only around 20 cameras, Charles’ crowning is set to be broadcast on the BBC’s hi-definition iPlayer streaming service, alongside television coverage. In advance of the coronation, other television offerings — including a soap opera, a sewing program and a show usually devoted to rural life — will be broadcast with coronation-themed episodes “to mark history with an unparalleled breadth of programs,” said Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s chief content officer. Regional affiliates of the BBC, its many radio channels and rival commercial television broadcasters will also have programming on regal matters.

With her sparing television addresses and her tight adherence to the royal script, the queen seemed to generally balance the monarchy’s need for visibility with its enduring aversion to scrutiny. But the rest of her family has fared very differently on screen.

“The public eye is grown more unforgiving, its gaze, like its judgments, more relentless,” Catherine Mayer wrote in “Charles: The Heart of a King,” a biography updated last year after its initial publication in 2015. “Even so, if the Windsors wish to see the biggest dangers to the survival of the monarchy, they need only look in the mirror.”

Since the mid-1990s, when the estranged Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, gave television interviews to seek sympathy for their divergent versions of their marital woes, culminating in divorce in 1996, efforts by members of the royal family to advance their agendas on television have proved ambiguous at best.

In 2019, Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth’s second son after Charles, gave a lengthy television interview to try to rebut accusations related to his friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The interview set off a public relations disaster, leading to Prince Andrew’s withdrawal from public life.

Then, in March 2021, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry appeared in a joint interview with Oprah Winfrey, screened in the United States and then in Britain, after their decision to live in California and step back from their roles as senior royals. The interview touched on a range of topics including mental health issues, intimations of racism in the House of Windsor, and the couple’s sense of dislocation, betrayal and vulnerability.

But cumulatively, the airing of grievances, like Prince Andrew’s litany of self-exculpation before it, bolstered the sense of a dysfunctional and anachronistic institution held in place by a fickle mix of public tolerance, inherited privilege and fabled wealth. In the run-up to the coronation, one question eagerly pursued by British newspapers was whether Harry would attend the most important public event in his father’s life on May 6. The answer: he would, but without Meghan and their two children.

For Charles, the recent redrawing of the media landscape and the public mood offer perils that were barely dreamed of when his mother was crowned.

“Because the royals have ended up co-opted into the culture wars,” Mayer said in an interview, “one word out of place — and, let’s face it, that’s a family that specializes in words out of place — will have gone round the world and back in a way it never would have before.”

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