Andrew Vine: True TV royalty... how monarchy mastered media

The Duke of Edinburgh is retiring from public life.
The Duke of Edinburgh is retiring from public life.
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THIS is a year of milestones for the Royal Family, some personal, some to do with public duty, but all of them unfolding under the relentless scrutiny of television and video streaming on social media.

The looming retirement of Prince Philip from public life, his and the Queen’s 70th wedding anniversary, the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana – each poignant in its own way, yet shared with the world because that is the nature of royalty.

Every nuance of expression caught by the cameras will be analysed when Prince Philip carries out his final engagement, or when Princes William and Harry are seen on August 31, the day their mother died in 1997.

It is not enough for the Royal Family just to be regal any more. They have to be performers of a sort, sensitive to how every word or gesture will come across, juggling the need to become involved with the events they are attending with the requirement to remain dignified.

This week marks the anniversary of the moment when the Royal Family had to start thinking in a whole new way about how the world viewed them – and, in doing so, laid the foundations for the way a modern monarchy goes about its duties.

On Friday, it will be 80 years since the Coronation of George VI – the first to be televised by the fledgling BBC. Television had begun only the previous November, and the pioneering outside broadcast of the procession to Westminster Abbey – involving three cameras and eight miles of cable – was a scientific wonder of the age.

Just as later the Moon landings or the arrival of the internet would cause whole populations to marvel at what was possible, so the idea of live pictures of one of the great occasions of state coming directly into living rooms was hardly to be believed.

In that moment, even though the TV audience was miniscule by today’s standards, a new and more intimate relationship was forged between monarchy and people that endures to this day.

Without that flickering black-and-white footage, and the step-change it represented in the access that the public had to the Royal Family, it is inconceivable that the bond between monarchy and subjects would be as close as it is today.

The royals have had to learn how to master television, for good or ill. Diana certainly learned how to use it to devastating effect in the explosive Panorama interview that exposed the unhappiness of her marriage to Charles and set the Royal Family on course for its worst crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936.

Her sons have learned a more benign lesson in harnessing television’s power. Their recent interviews about the trauma of losing their mother as children were a force for good, giving voice to the young struggling to cope with bereavement and raising the profile of the emotional difficulties that often result.

The immense public affection for the Queen stems in part from her canny use of television over the course of the longest reign in British history.

She was there on that day in 1937 when her father was crowned, an 11-year-old who was to grow into adulthood and the future destined for her just as television grew up and became part of every household’s life.

It’s not fanciful to suggest that that as sovereign and television grew to maturity in parallel, they benefited hugely from each other.

From the 1950s until today, programmes about the Royal Family have drawn huge audiences. They have helped to strengthen the bond with the monarchy and increased public understanding of its role in providing continuity and stability in often turbulent times.

In turn, the Queen’s understanding of television’s reach has played a vital role in shaping her reign to the requirements of changing times.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of her first televised Christmas broadcast. These have made her seem part of millions of families around the country and Commonwealth, as she speaks directly to them from the heart.

And if anybody doubts just how savvy she is at using television to bolster the monarchy’s popularity, then think back to Britain’s glorious Olympic summer of 2012, and her participation in the magnificent stunt that apparently saw her parachute into the stadium in London.

There is a danger that if the Royal Family gives too much away on television it risks undermining the mystique that the monarchy must retain if it is to survive and prosper.

But the sure-footedness with which Prince Charles and his sons have developed a relaxed manner in front of cameras bodes well.

It would have been unthinkable to George VI on that long-ago Coronation Day that his heirs would become such assured television performers. But he embraced the future by allowing television its first big moment, and they continue to follow his example.