Mesmerised by a slight girl on a flicking screen
At the time, the Coronation was the first great TV spectacular – and next weekend that magic will grip billions worldwide in sparkling colour
21:30 GMT, 25 May 2012
On 2 June 1953, at the Queen’s Coronation, 20 million of us sat mesmerised before our grey, flickering little TV screens, watching a slight, lonely girl receive the crown and sceptre, glittering beneath the brilliant lights in Westminster Abbey.
In June 2012, by contrast, the potential live global audience for the Diamond Jubilee pageant will be 3.5 billion.
Where the Coronation was almost a family affair for Britain and the Commonwealth, the Jubilee will represent a massive television spectacular, a marriage of show business and royal ritual.
Not impressed: Young Max (front centre) is distinctly unhappy as he watches the Coronation
Many people believe it will prove more popular with the Queen’s subjects than the London Olympics, and if the Royal Family were prone to complacency, they might reasonably indulge in a burst of it this year.
Lots of the young profess indifference towards the monarchy, but even in this 21st century, absolutely no entertainment, not the mightiest rock show, can grip the attention of billions worldwide in the same fashion as a Palace spectacular.
Nor does anybody else have a clue how to match us in mounting such an occasion. Somebody recently asked a senior soldier what the British Army can boast about these days. He replied without hesitation, ‘We’ve got the SAS and we’re the only nation in the world that does military ceremonial without looking ridiculous.’
If you want to see what he means, take a look at a parade of Americans: their soldiers can fight well enough, but in full dress they look as if they have escaped from a panto.
Today, alas, there are not many British troops left. Back in 1953, the Queen owned a million men in uniform. I was a small boy living in Kensington, only a few yards from all the excitements of Knightsbridge Barracks. I loved soldiers, and was ecstatic when most of Hyde Park was given over to tented encampments housing the military contingents participating in the Coronation procession.
In those days, patriotism and martial prowess were seen as inseparably entwined: we grew up to regard British history as a seamless pageant of wars and battles in which we triumphed over such lesser races as the French and Germans.
The Coronation, in my eyes, was a late celebration of victory in World War II. I spent hours assembling coloured cardboard cut-out models of the various Army, Navy and RAF contingents in the parade, and cherished a Matchbox replica of the Coronation coach. I lost mine 50 years ago, more’s the pity, for such relics are now worth a small fortune.
Golden day: Queen Elizabeth II arrives at Westminster Abbey in the Coronation Coach wearing her Coronation robes and Sovereign crown
The television set on which we witnessed the great event seemed to us pioneer gogglers to be an instrument of magic. I was born at the end of 1945, and my early childhood had been dominated by radio and comics – The Beano, The Dandy, Radio Fun and the great Eagle, to which my father Macdonald Hastings was a contributor. TV broke into our lives only months before the Coronation. It is hard to exaggerate the grip that children’s shows like Muffin The Mule with Annette Mills, and Whirligig with Humphrey Lestocq, exerted on our tiny imaginations.
We were true believers, my generation – in God, the police, the truthfulness of government ministers, virgin brides and the proposition that The People In Charge knew best. Above all, we held the monarchy and its living representatives in profound respect. On the morning of 2 June 1953, all over Britain we crowded around our screens for much more than a royal show, for something like an act of worship.
The BBC’s MC for the occasion was the great Richard Dimbleby, that most reverential and deferential of commentators. No state occasion could start without Bumblebee. He contributed a breathless awe and impeccably modulated voice that would make modern audiences fall about laughing. Dimbleby, like his Queen, understood the preciousness of dignity. He provided a magic carpet of words on which we saw the Queen wafted upwards to her supreme moment of receiving the crown.
As our family sat clustered around the TV at our cottage in West Berkshire, nanny, who had spent most of her career working for much grander families than ours, kept up a running commentary on some of the aristocratic congregation in the Abbey, whom she remembered as small boys wetting their beds: ‘Oh, there’s that Lord Snooks. Doesn’t he look peaky Nanny Snooks always said there was drink in that family. Poor Lady Marjorie – such a pretty little girl, and grown up so plain.’
Tribute: Millions will celebrate the Queen over the jubilee weekend to mark her 60 year reign
My parents usually thought themselves beyond getting excited about royalty, but on Coronation Day they succumbed as readily as the rest of the middle classes. I recall my father giving heartfelt thanks that Edward VIII had abdicated in 1936 – which, remember, was only 17 years earlier – and thus made Queen Elizabeth’s accession possible.
I am enough of an old fogey to thank the Lord that the Queen, like her mother, has always resisted every appeal to face a personal interview. The annual Christmas TV broadcast is as near as we get to her, which is not near at all. Thanks to the monarch having the sense to tick the box marked ‘no publicity’ we shall approach her Jubilee knowing no more about what she really thinks than that she loves horses and dogs.
I recently heard a senior member of Prince Charles’s entourage say, ‘I think the country is ready for a new kind of monarchy.’ I passionately disagree. The Queen has established the perfect template, founded upon self-discipline and discretion, for preserving a constitutional monarchy.
If Prince Charles would only emulate her, he would avoid many follies and misfortunes. She understands, as he does not, that modern monarchs will always be judged for what they are, not for what they do.
At the Jubilee we shall celebrate not the Queen as a human being, but her fulfilment of a role most of us cherish. Whatever the shortcomings of some of our monarchs, most of us shiver at the notion of Tony Blair or David Beckham becoming Britain’s president instead. Some critics suggest the big June bunfight will rouse little enthusiasm in sceptical, world-weary, ceremonial-fatigued 2012 Britain.
Of course, it is true that our 1953 sense of awe, our willingness to believe in the infallibility of monarchs, has long gone. But I am confident we shall cluster around our flatscreens in our tens of millions, because we know we shall be rewarded with a finer spectacle than any other nation on earth can stage.
I look back to the innocent young Queen we saw on our primitive tellies all those years ago, and compare her with the high-definition octogenarian in glittering colour whom we shall see in June. And I bet lots of you, like me, will nod and say, ‘Didn’t she do well for us, then’