Today in Tedium: We take for granted a lot in this world—the access to information we have, the access to people we have. Especially if they’re famous. Over the last 20 years or so, any day of the week, you likely had a pretty good idea of what Queen Elizabeth II was doing, because of the closeness in which she was followed by the media. In many ways, the queen and the media were made for one another, which makes her death last week something of a big blow for a certain contingent who appreciated the former Princess Elizabeth of York. She lived an extremely long life, one full of cameras and speculative news articles on the way she lived, her family, and how the way her family lived affected the way she lived. A lot of that was enabled by technology—and it’s likely the tech played a way in how we embraced the queen almost from the very start. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of Queen Elizabeth II’s first big decisions—her decision to let television cameras capture her first moments as queen, despite rules against it. — Louis Anslow @ Pessimists Archive
It’s not just nervousness about the queen. Subscribe to the Pessimists Archive newsletter to read more about the history of technophobia and moral panics. It goes a lot deeper than you might think.
The year Queen Elizabeth sent her first-ever email, something the did when she visited the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment research center, according to People. The queen didn’t have to technically do that much—the email address was already set up for her—but it was still impressive because of how early it was, at a point when the internet was still called ARPANET. In comparison, it took her until 2014 to send her first tweet.
The Queen’s coronation was almost banned from TV
On June 2nd 1953, Queen Elizabeth was sworn as Queen of Englan. She was only 25—prematurely turning from Princess to Queen after the untimely death of her father King George VI. His coronation 17 years prior was the first to be broadcast live over radio and the assumption was Queen Elizabeth’s coronation would be similarly broadcast live via the latest broadcast innovation of the times: television.
Just as Nikola Tesla had predicted in 1926 when he imagined “We shall be able to witness and hear events-the inauguration of a President … just as though they were present,” the coronation could now be experienced not just by royals and gentry, but by regular Britons just as though they were present in Westminster Abbey.
It was the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, who proposed the coronation be televised as one of his first recommendations as royal spouse. He believed it was an important step in modernising the monarchy and making it more accessible to its subjects. The suggestion was met with resistance, including from the Queen Mother and then Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill who believed:
“It would be unfitting that the whole ceremony, not only in its secular but also in its religious and spiritual aspects, should be presented as if it were a theatrical performance.“
Prince Philip’s proposal was ignored and on October 20th 1952 the royal ‘Coronation Committee’ made the decision to ban live television cameras from the coronation. The British public were not happy, and the ensuing controversy was referred to by one outlet as “one of the loudest controversies in years.”
The issue “boiled into a hot political stew” and outrage amongst the public meant “letters poured into newspaper editors energetically protesting the ban.” In Parliament, 79 Labour members introduced a motion on the subject. They criticized Sir Winston Churchill for not making the Conservatives party stance on the subject clear.
Proponents of allowing live televised broadcast of the coronation saw it as a democratizing force, extending the right to see the highest of public servants being anointed beyond high society and those lucky enough to be a royal by birth or marriage. Opponents of the ban said it would add undue pressure on the Queen and “detract from the dignity and religious character of the event.“
On October 28th Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a statement in Parliament regarding the subject:
“It is our hope that it will prove possible in practice to carry into effect the principle that the world should see and hear what the congregation in the abbey see and hear.”
Afterwards, it was reported that the atmosphere in Parliament was “unhappy” and “excitable” with Churchill tapping his knuckles on his knee with “an expression of surprise and indignation that such controversy should be imported into the Queen’s coronation” on his face. The Coronation Committee announced they would convene a meeting the following week to discuss the matter.
On the 6th of November, the coronation committee met to discuss the ban giving hope to millions of Britons who wanted to tune in live. A month later, on December 8th it announced the ban on televising the coronation was overturned—with the blessing of the not-yet-crowned Queen Elizabeth.
“Apparently, the Queen has two people who she speaks to the most on her phones and she also apparently has a mobile phone which is said to be Samsung packed with anti-hacker encryption by MI6 so nobody can hack into her phone.”
— Jonathan Sacerdoti, a British journalist who focuses on the Royal Family, discussing the mobile phone that the Queen used in the final years of her life. Apparently, the queen didn’t dial up her king-to-be son very much. “The two people she phones the most is said to be her daughter Princess Anne and her racing manager John Warren,” he told The Royally U.S. podcast last year.
The announcement led to a boom in television sales across the United Kingdom, and on the big day 27 million people watched the ceremony and millions more in other countries. The futuristic vision of Nikola Tesla had come true and a desire for a more accessible and modern Royal institution pushed by Prince Philip, delivered.
Television’s reputation would rapidly decline over the next half century, going from seen as a marvel of modern invention, to a un-classy commodity with an addictive allure. One prominent anti-television activist called on Prince Charles to ban television from his inauguration, whenever it would be, saying:
“The Queen’s coronation in 1953 had marked the start of widespread television viewing in the UK, a TV-free Charles coronation would, felt Burke, have a pleasing symmetry to it”
The inauguration of King Charles III is finally upon us, and like in 1953, the sacred ceremony won’t be limited to British high society within the confines of Westminster Abbey—it’ll be accessible to billions of people around the world. Ironically, television won’t be the primary medium with which it is received—the internet will, fitting for the heir to the throne of a monarch who was the first head of state to send an email.
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Thanks to Pessimists Archive for sharing this time around. Be sure to subscribe to their newsletter to see more stories of past tech skepticism in action.