Coronation TV – the Breakthrough from Posh to Popular

By Roz Morris , Managing Director, TV News London Ltd

Yes I am just old enough to remember a little tiny coach pulled by lots of horses going past on a very small greenish screen inside a large dark brown cabinet.  Sitting cross-legged on the carpet,  I watched the Queen’s coronation on a TV at my grandma’s semi detached house in Wembley with a small group of relations and other grown-ups.  I wore my party dress – I only had one of course – and as was fitting for wearing my ‘best’ dress  - a big ribbon tied in my hair, plus my party shoes. 

This was the 1950’s so most people had very little money and, with my party shoes ,this meant I had three pairs of shoes: everyday solid uncomfortable brown lace-ups, black party shoes with a strap and button, and plimsolls  - black canvas with rubber sole gym shoes - for sport at school.  It was a different world.  24 hour TV, trainers and children being cheeky to grownups had not been invented.

Watching the Coronation really did mark something special.  Not just because it was a huge, exciting historic event and my parents bought me a little model of the  Queen’s coronation coach complete with little horses and outriders. Not because of the special commemorative mug we were given at school from Wembley Borough Council – later subsumed into the London  Borough of Brent  -  and not even the really new and exciting fact that my Nana actually had a TV. No it was exciting and different  because we always previously got all our news from the radio, or the wireless as people called it then.  I don’t remember ever watching a TV until Coronation Day.

And on the wireless it wasn’t just the Queen who had a strange upper class pronunciation.  The BBC in the fifties was ferociously posh.   I remember being very good at spelling. However when I told my mother proudly that I now knew where the Prime Minister lived,  because I had heard it on the radio, I was really surprised to find out it was spelt Downing Street.  The BBC announcers on the Home Service – later Radio Four – always intoned that the prime minister was at ‘Ten Darning Street’.

There was a lot of radio to listen to and most of it seemed to be aimed at being improving and moral.  Posh voices on the Home Service, posh music on the third programme – later Radio Three - and popular stuff on the Light Programme. This later became Radio Two and Radio One, which started in 1967. 

Before the Coronation was transmitted-  shock amazement - live all day – TV was very limited with programmes only in the afternoon and evening. No lunchtime or,perish the thought, breakfast TV.  Only one channel – the BBC. No ITV until 1955. The BBC was full of test cards and puppet shows like ‘Bill and Ben’ and ‘Muffin the Mule’ plus the incomparably titled 'Watch with Mother'. Children's programmes were only broadcast in the evening from 5pm followed by a break in transmission so children could go to bed.  

TV sets had to ‘warm up’ and took several minutes to come on fully.  Even then the picture was greenish and always pretty fuzzy. We lived in colour but the TV pictures were blurry and black and white.  Radio sets were much more instant and there was much more of it, complete with children’s programmes like ‘Toy Town’ with Larry the Lamb and Dennis the Dachshund,  and also ‘Uncle Mac’ saying ‘Good night children – long pause – Everywhere’.  He probably said this at 6.30 pm so we could all go to bed nice and early.

I used to think the modern broadcast popular culture era started in 1962, when millions of us teenagers were doing our homework listening to Radio Luxembourg, then the only source of pop music, and we heard the Beatles singing ‘Love Me Do’ .

That was definitely a breakthrough moment. An unmistakeable sign of a new world to come.  But now that we are all looking at the Coronation again on its 60th anniversary, I can see that the Coronation on TV was the real start of the new era when posh began to give way to popular culture. 

Despite opposition from traditionalists who said it was not appropriate for the people to view the service of coronation in Westminster Abbey, the Queen herself steadfastly argued for TV coverage.  She clearly wanted to be seen as part of the start of a new modern era. The Queen's Coronation in June 1953 was the first live television broadcast in the UK and more  than 20 million people watched the crowning of the 27 year old Queen. It was a real breakthrough in giving the commoners a front row seat to a thousand years of history. To some people this was really shocking. The power of secrecy was a very strong belief in the 1950's.

For this was an era when there were no broadcasts of Parliament. That didn't happen even experimentally  until the 1980's on a limited scale and was fiercely debated until 1990 when parliamentary broadcasts were finally accepted as a permanent fixture.

The Coronation was the first historic event in Britain where more people saw it on TV than listened to reports on the radio. Before and after the coronation millions more TV sets were bought than ever before. The royal family went on to have documentaries made about it and more and more media attention as popular celebrity culture grew and grew. 

The Queen and many others, including BBC announcers, began to talk less posh. The implicit classless nature of popular TV began to take over British culture. Deference to toffs began to decline and the era of TV programmes like ‘The Brains Trust’ gave way to popular culture like ‘Coronation Street’.

I’ve still got my coronation commemoration mug in a box somewhere and although the model coach lost all its bits over the years, I think the one inch long tiny coach is still around at the back of a drawer.   Earlier this year I stood next to the real Coronation Coach after my husband and I paid to visit the Royal  Mews at Buckingham Palace and look at the Queen’s collection of coaches and horses.  You couldn’t even dream of doing that in 1953.

Published 05 June 2013