The relationship between television and the royalty of the U.K. and other states has always been fraught, albeit generally mutually respectful, as the perceived dangers to both sides have always been immense. With television audiences of grand royal occasions and major documentaries running into many millions around the globe, the impact of a mishandled interview could have serious political repercussions for any monarchy, as well as huge public relations problems for television networks anxious not to outrage public opinion.

The idea that members of the British royal family might allow themselves to be seen on television in any other capacity than at the end of a long-range lenses in the course of a formal state occasion or fleetingly in newsreel footage was once considered unthinkable. In the early days, immediately after World War II, television was regarded by many in the Establishment as too trivial to be taken seriously, and it was argued that it was inappropriate for heads of nations to appear. In Britain, Sir Winston Churchill was in the vanguard of those who considered television a vulgar plaything and beneath the dignity of the crown.

The crunch came in 1953, when it was suggested that television cameras be allowed to film the coronation of Elizabeth II. Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Earl Marshal and various members of the British cabinet strongly opposed the idea, but to their surprise the 26-year-old Princess Elizabeth, in a decision subsequently hailed for its sagacity, insisted upon the rest of the nation being able to witness her enthronement via television--and the cameras were allowed in. The resulting broadcast, expertly narrated by the BBC's anchorman Richard Dimbleby, was a triumph, bringing the monarchy into the "television age" and cementing the image of Elizabeth II as a "people's monarch."

Following the 1953 coronation experiment, it became accepted that the television cameras would be permitted to film grand royal occasions, including weddings, the state opening of Parliament, and the trooping of the colour, as well as jubilee celebrations, visits by the royal family to local businesses, and so forth. Coverage of royal events, however, remained a sensitive area in broadcasting and many rows erupted when it was felt cameras had intruded too far, or conversely (and increasingly in recent years) that too much deference had been shown. Certain presenters, including ITV's Alistair Burnet and BBC's Raymond Baxter, specialized in coverage of royal stories or spectacles--but found they had to tread a very thin line between being accused of sycophancy or else of gross insensitivity.

The Queen is sheltered from more intrusive interrogation on television by necessity: the constitution imperative that the monarch should not comment personally on the policies of her government because of the implications this might have in terms of party politics means that Buckingham Palace, in concert with the government of the day, closely governs the style and content of all broadcasts in which she appears. In 1969 an attempt was made for the first time, in the joint BBC and ITV production Royal Family, to portray the Queen as a private person rather than as a constitutional figurehead. The programme attracted an audience of 40 million in the U.K. alone and similarly large audiences have watched her celebrated annual Christmas broadcasts, which have over the years become more relaxed in tone, inspiring further occasional documentaries inviting the cameras "behind the scenes" (though, again, only under strict direction from the Palace).

The Prince and Princess of Wales
Photo courtesy of Camera Press Ltd.

There is more leeway with other members of the royal family, however, this has been exploited with increasing vigor since the 1980s, in response to changing public attitudes toward royalty. Prince Philip's hectoring manner during rare appearances on chat shows did little to endear television audiences and he was henceforth discouraged from taking part in such programmes. Princess Anne, meanwhile, developed a similarly tempestuous relationship with the media as a whole, though she was better received after her good works for charity won public recognition. Prince Andrew came over as bluff and hearty and Prince Edward was considered affable enough--though there were adverse comments about loss of dignity in 1987 when the three youngest of the Queen's children attempted to sound a populist note by appearing in a special It's A Knockout programme for charity (royal guests stormed out of press meetings when the questioning became hostile and the experiment was not repeated).

After years of carefully treading the line between deference and public interest, television's relationship with the royals was stretched to breaking-point in the 1990s during the furor surrounding the break-up of several royal marriages, notably that of the heir-apparent, Prince Charles (whose wedding to Lady Diana Spencer had been seen by 700 million people worldwide in 1981). A notorious interview with Princess Diana that was broadcast on Panorama when it was becoming clear that the rift was irreparable (though many still hoped the marriage could be saved) provoked howls of protest from many quarters--not least from the Palace itself. Charles was given his own programme in which to give his side of the case but only succeeded in drawing more fire upon himself and his family. For many viewers both interviews were enthralling viewing, though to others they were distasteful and reflected badly both on the individuals themselves and on the institution of the monarchy.

Other monarchies have experienced not dissimilar difficulties in their relations with television and other organs of the media. For some years the Rainiers of Monaco, for instance, seemed to live their lives in the constant glare of the cameras. Some, however, have protected themselves by insisting that the cameras remain at a discreet distance (as in Japan, where the Emperor is only rarely filmed), despite the demands imposed by unflagging public interest.

Television's fascination with royalty has expressed itself in other forms beside coverage of contemporary royals, notably in the field of drama. The BBC in particular won worldwide acclaim in the late 1960s and 1970s for lavish costume series dealing with Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Edward VII and, rather more controversially, Edward VIII. More recently a documentary series in which Prince Edward delved into the lives of some of his royal ancestors was also well received.

-David Pickering


See also Parliament, Coverage by Television; Political Processes and Television