SCrank up all the clocks,” WH Auden famously wrote of the enormity of mourning, “turn off the phone… Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.” If Auden wrote that poem about the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II , the clocks could be replaced by “traffic” and the telephone by “central London”. For a day Britain seems to have come to a standstill.
In a television landscape increasingly dominated by on-demand streaming, where live “event TV” has been limited to the EURO finals island of love, today we witnessed the passing of a landmark moment in our island’s history: all the major networks dedicated their planning to the Queen’s funeral, in a somber, haunting acknowledgment that an era is coming to an end. And in this wall-to-wall broadcast, the protagonists – the new King Charles, his wife Camilla, sons William and Harry and their wives Kate and Meghan – moved with the cast’s forced dispassion. This was grief that hit history, with the eyes of the world literally on her.
I think back to my own grandmother’s funeral and how my teenage sister and I were giggled by the Deacon’s extraordinarily sonorous baritone. On TV, the royals don’t have such luxuries. You cannot indulge in the confused feelings of grief, but must display a strange stoicism. As Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, stated in his homily, their grief is something we can all relate to. What we can’t really understand is the grief, as the archbishop puts it, “in the brightest spotlight.”
The most striking thing about the ceremony at times was its normality. A family dressed in black. Eyes wet with the eerie quality of a psalm sung. Stifled cough during prayer readings. These moments contrasted with the gilded spectacle of the occasion for viewers. Red-clad pallbearers moved like wind-up toy soldiers, a staccato pomp reminding you this isn’t a ‘normal’ funeral (where one pallbearer was hungover and another was struggling with a recent back injury).
At the BBC, the indefatigable Huw Edwards anchored reporting with his practiced solemnity. At times, disembodied commentary on the parade of royals, politicians and celebrities felt like the Olympic opening ceremony or even Eurovision. On ITV, Tom Bradby and Julie Etchingham tried to assert themselves against the reality that Edwards has become the voice of the moment. All presenters competed for the most reverential (possibly submissive) tone. At times it entered the realm of the bizarre: the prince and princess, George and Charlotte, were described by Edwards as “immaculate-looking.” “We expect nothing less from these two,” noted his co-host, royal biographer Katie Nicholl.
Live TV is a fickle beast. It doesn’t move with the mechanized precision of a pre-recording. The camera sometimes lingered uncomfortably on a fixed composition: waiting for the coffin to emerge from Westminster Hall, or hovering, God’s eye, over the assembled crowds in the abbey. The scale of the production – and let’s not forget this is a production run by brilliant directors – and the seamless execution was unprecedented. In years to come, this will be reduced to montages, those few key images burned into the retinas of memory. But right now there was a strange sharpness in its imperfection. When David Hoyle, Dean of Westminster, began his address, only to find a frog uncomfortably lodged in his throat, it became clear to an watching world that they were witnessing real people doing their real work under the enormous weight of our national made narration.
Perhaps the most extraordinary moment came when the choir sang Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of Psalm 34, composed for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Vaughan Williams died in 1958 and – alongside Elgar, Holst and Britten – rose into the small clubhouse of the great British composers of the 20th century to become part of the great historical firmament. This coronation 70 years ago was a milestone on British television. It was said that there were 17 viewers per TV in the UK and the tape was flown to the US and Canada for same day airing. And all the spectators who saw this coronation in 1953 heard the same piece of music, a reminder at once of the closeness and increasing distance of history.
After the coffin was removed from Westminster Abbey – followed by Charles, Anne, Edward and Andrew – the reins of the proceedings were handed back to the commentators. Edwards, Etchingham and company have become extremely successful at vamping over the past 10 days, filling the drawn-out procession from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch with colorless facts and tidbits. The stupidity of observations such as – by some horses – “a sight which would have greatly affected the late Queen” reinforced a dogma which today centered on the Queen and not the transmitters. As the procession moved to Windsor – with David Dimbleby and Kirsty Young moderating – the grandeur gave way to something more personal. After 96 years the time has come.
All voices in the BBC and ITV commentary have been tasked with explaining this moment in history. You shouldn’t have bothered about it. The blanket of nervous silence that fell over Britain for a few hours today – broken only by barking dogs, crying babies and teenagers on e-scooters – perfectly told the story of a nation gripped by a piece of television history.
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/queen-funeral-bbc-itv-huw-edwards-b2170470.html How the BBC and ITV have handled coverage of the Queen’s funeral – solemn, reverent and at times bizarre