Television’s breakthrough moment

Published

Watching historical moments unfold on television is a routine part of modern life—but one royal celebration in particular cemented the TV set's place in our living rooms.

In 1953, millions of viewers gathered around newly-purchased television sets to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Homes, pubs and community centres were packed with people, all eyes fixed on the grainy, black-and-white images from the television set. For the first time, people across the country and even overseas were able to witness, in real time, the pomp and pageantry of the coronation of a British monarch. You could hear a pin drop as 20 million people watched the popular young Queen Elizabeth II swear the coronation oath.

Tele-Snap (a photograph taken directly from a television screen) of the television coverage of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953). More information

Tele-Snap (a photograph taken directly from a television screen) of the television coverage of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953). More information

The day of celebration signalled an end to the austerity Britain had endured since the start of the Second World War (1939-45). Now television gave them the chance to participate collectively in a solemn event of enormous cultural and constitutional significance. For the first time, more people in Britain were watching an event on the television than were listening to it on the radio.

Television broadcasting for the masses

Cup and saucer designed for the Coronation of Elizabeth II, made by Staffordshire Tea Set Company Limited, Stoke-on-Trent (1953)

Cup and saucer designed for the Coronation of Elizabeth II, made by Staffordshire Tea Set Company Limited, Stoke-on-Trent (1953)

The BBC rolled out television transmission across the country in the years after 1945, increasing the pace as the coronation loomed. Television manufacturers were quick to take advantage, seeing the grand event as a golden opportunity to promote their products. In the two months preceding the coronation, British viewers bought more sets than in any previous comparable period. Estimates put the total number installed by the time of the coronation broadcast at 2.5 million.

Members of Parliament debated whether this democratisation of a rarefied occasion was suitably respectful. “Might there, even, be something unseemly in the chance that a viewer could watch this solemn and significant Service with a cup of tea at his elbow?” asked one.

The Queen herself cut through the protocol and insisted that the broadcast go ahead.

The BBC rises to the challenge

We all got to our control room at about five in the morning ... I’ve never been so nervous in all my life.
— Peter Dimmock, the BBC’s Assistant Head of Outside Broadcasts, June 1953
Marconi Mark II television camera head, made by Marconi's Wireless Telegraphy Company Limited (1951)

Marconi Mark II television camera head, made by Marconi's Wireless Telegraphy Company Limited (1951)

The event would be the largest outside broadcast ever undertaken, and the logistical challenges were formidable. Fitting the large and cumbersome television cameras into Westminster Abbey, packed as it would be with the 8251 heads of state and other distinguished guests, was itself an achievement. Outside, the BBC had to solve the knotty problem of cabling all the cameras and microphones along the route of the procession that left the Abbey after the ceremony for a tour round London, and connecting them to the broadcasting control centres.

The broadcast was a triumphant success. It crystallised a national shift to a more optimistic mood, as large parties gathered to celebrate over a meal with friends and family, or joined public showings held in their towns and villages.

Subsequent surveys suggested that for each television showing the coronation, an average of 17 people were watching—jostling for a good view of the tiny screens of the day. Over the seven hours of transmission, the expert commentary from Richard Dimbleby, setting the scene and explaining the ceremony, meant that no one was left in the dark.

June 1953 Coronation Edition of the Radio Times, published by BBC Magazines (1953). No. 1542 Special Coronation number, North of England Edition.

June 1953 Coronation Edition of the Radio Times, published by BBC Magazines (1953). No. 1542 Special Coronation number, North of England Edition.

Experiencing the coronation across the pond

The BBC and its transatlantic partners achieved another technical feat by delivering the ceremony to American and Canadian audiences the same day. Engineers made a high-quality 35mm film recording of the broadcast as it aired. As soon as each film was ready, a helicopter took it from Alexandra Palace to London Airport. Technicians loaded the footage onto RAF Canberra bomber aircraft and processed it as the planes flew over the Atlantic. American and Canadian fans of Britain’s historic tradition of pomp and ceremony were able to see the coronation only a few hours after it happened.

On the commercial TV stations in the US, jaunty advertisements interrupted the transmission of the solemn ceremony. One particularly controversial advert featured a chimpanzee known as Fred J Muggs. The British press were outraged by the lack of respect.

The episode became a factor in the debate about television advertising already under way in the UK, as commercial interests questioned the BBC’s monopoly on television transmission. The commercial companies overcame the doubters, and the government licensed the first commercial channel, Independent Television (ITV), in 1955.

Television takes its place in the home

Home-made television receiver built from a Premier Radio kit (1945-1955)

Home-made television receiver built from a Premier Radio kit (1945-1955)

Radio transmission swelled the numbers of those able to experience the coronation live. Many later saw 'A Queen Is Crowned', a colour film that was a regular and popular feature in cinemas for several months after the service had taken place.

It was the TV coverage, however, that established the role of television in providing a cultural experience shared by millions, from news coverage to daytime soaps. From this moment, the shared experience of watching programmes on the TV—sporting events such as Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile, children’s programmes like 'Blue Peter', dramas such as 'Cathy Come Home', comedies from 'Hancock’s Half Hour' to 'Monty Python'—became central to family life in Britain.


 

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