It is no exaggeration to say that HM Queen Elizabeth II was the first monarch of the television age.
In 1952 television in Britain was already setting out on the path which would rapidly turn it from a scientific wonder or distraction for a minority to a vital part of everyday life.
When George VI died, only three transmitters were in service – covering London, the Midlands and much of northern England.
The transmitter covering central Scotland was weeks away from opening. Special arrangements were put in place so if could temporarily come into operation to broadcast the King’s funeral but it is unclear just how many around Glasgow and Edinburgh were actually able to watch.
However, it was the decision to broadcast the Coronation in 1953 which truly marked the start of the television age in Britain. More transmitters were brought into service rapidly to try to ensure as many people as possible were able to watch.
The prospect of watching the Coronation led to a huge jump in the sales of televisions – helped too by the gradual easing of postwar austerity and restrictions.
An episode of the much-loved ITV Schools series How We Used to Live broadcast in the early 80s – Your Undoubted Queen – interweaved the story of Coronation Day with the Hodgkins’ family getting their first television. (This edition of the programme can be found on YouTube.)
It is interesting to contemplate whether television in Britain would have taken off quite so rapidly without the boost of the Coronation.
It is easy to imagine a more gradual increase in penetration. Had this happened, would television have become quite such a part of Britain’s popular culture so early?
Without the rapid increase in sales would the new ITV companies – which did struggle to begin with in 1955 and 1956 – have become quite so lucrative so quickly?
Of course, there’s no doubt television would have gradually taken off in Britain as it did in every other comparable country.
With the BBC at the centre of the system it would always be a worthwhile endeavour – attempting to make a wide range of programmes including some of genuine distinction and importance.
But without the booster rocket of the Coronation the path may have been different.
Coronation Day itself provided the novelty of almost uninterrupted viewing from mid-morning until late evening.
Interestingly Radio Times even billed the tuning signal – broadcast much earlier than usual – which presumably was to help with last minute TV installations.
Later on it is interesting to note how many other Royal occasions over the years were pivotal to the story of television’s development.
The Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969 – shown while only BBC Two was in colour – was one of the events which highlighted that colour television here was true and natural.
The Mexico Olympics the previous year undoubtedly attracted interest to colour television but the converted NTSC picture quality may not have been quite so impressive as the high quality PAL images.
Four years later, the wedding of Princess Anne gave a big boost to the sale of colour sets which were, by then, becoming much more affordable.
It is also worth noting just how central the BBC has been to so many Royal events over the years, even when ITV provided equally good – or arguably better – coverage.
It highlights the importance of the BBC as one of the pillars of national life at the moments when we come together.
There’s been a reminder of that in recent days. In the immediate aftermath of The Queen’s death the BBC’s audience was much higher than normal. Others were similar to normal or even slightly smaller – this is no reflection of the work of individuals. Some tiny digital channels were completely irrelevant.
Many writers and commentators have observed that the passing of the Queen truly marks the end of an era in British history.
They have contrasted life in 1952 with the present day and looked at the huge cultural, social and economic changes in that time.
Let us hope high quality linear television and public service broadcasting are as important through the age of King Charles III.
PICTURED: old BBC TV mast. COPYRIGHT: BBC.
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