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.
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."
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Coverage by Television; Political
Processes and Television