Why the Queen had Richard Dimbleby rowing to the Abbey in top hat and tails
With a huge global audience, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee could eclipse
even her Coronation. And if that momentous day is anything to go by, there’ll be no shortage of unexpected drama…
Landmark occasion: The Queen will join her great-great grandmother Queen
Victoria in reaching her Diamond Jubilee – an astonishing 60 years on
the throne – on Monday
The Queen will join her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria in reaching her Diamond Jubilee – an astonishing 60 years on the throne – on Monday, the only sovereigns to achieve such a momentous reign. Victoria reigned for nearly 64 years, being 18 when she inherited the throne on 20 June 1837. Elizabeth acceded aged 25 on 6 February 1952, and both were crowned a year later in Westminster Abbey.
Exuberant crowds poured into London from all over the world for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and undoubtedly they will too for Elizabeth, whose celebrations include a river pageant with 1,000 craft and a carriage procession to St Paul’s for a thanksgiving service. Victoria’s were vastly more lavish and boasted the greatest display of sea power ever seen with a display of 136 warships off Portsmouth. The streets were lined with 40,000 troops when she rode in an open carriage in a colossal procession to her thanksgiving service at the cathedral.
But it wasn’t until Elizabeth’s coronation, the first great BBC television spectacular the world had seen, that the people got to enjoy all the pomp and ceremony. Over 27 million viewers huddled round 9in screens to watch the live black-and-white images. So confident was Elizabeth before the ceremony that when an aide asked if she was nervous she replied, ‘Oh no, Aureole will be fine.’ It was only later that the baffled aide realised she was referring to her colt that was racing in the Derby four days later (it came second).
The Queen's coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey was the first great BBC television spectacular the world had seen
Elizabeth had spent months rehearsing her role, but on Coronation Day there were a few hiccups. Gold metallic lace on her mantel caught on the abbey’s carpet, making it difficult to move forward. ‘Get me moving,’ she whispered to the Archbishop of Canterbury; she pretended to pen her signature, having discovered the inkwell was dry; the container holding the holy oil for the anointing had been destroyed during the Blitz, but the original recipe was tracked down and made up. Elizabeth’s father George VI had joked that he had been crowned backwards, the crown having been wrongly placed, so a gold star was fixed inside Elizabeth’s, identifying the front. Dr Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop, remained agitated he’d get it wrong, but an official declared it would not be difficult ‘because there’s a bloody great ruby at the front’. In fact, it was the aide who was wrong as the Queen was actually crowned with the St Edward’s Crown. The crown with the ruby, the Imperial State Crown, was worn later.
Coverage of the coronation was organised by Peter Dimmock, the BBC’s head of outside broadcasts, with big names like Richard Dimbleby commentating for television and John Snagge for radio. So cramped was the abbey, with 8,251 guests seated in specially built tiers, plus clergy, orchestra, choirs and film crews, that the BBC appealed for ‘small, inconspicuous’ cameramen to work from tiny wooden enclosures dubbed ‘dog kennels’. One, Dennis Montague, declared, ‘The low roof made it impossible to stand up, so I evolved various kneeling positions.
Finishing touches: A painter decorates cartouches in the artist's room of Edgington's flag factory at Sidcup, Kent – in preparation for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
Numerous rehearsals meant we were unable to leave our positions for hours and I will always remember Richard Dimbleby waiting with apprehension to catch the eye of a uniformed flunkey who would escort you to the toilet.’
One cameraman’s shirt was partly visible so Dimmock sent him out to buy a stone-coloured one. Another who was totally visible had to wear morning dress, medals and white gloves.
Cameraman Tony Flanagan screwed himself up into a tiny space under his equipment, a floorboard being removed to accommodate his feet. He was jammed up alongside the orchestra and the point of a cello came between his feet, the cellist having to pass his bow under the camera.
With months of preparation ahead and fearing traffic congestion on the day, Dimbleby moored a barge opposite the abbey, made it his base and on Coronation Day, in morning dress and topper, rowed a dinghy across. He later expressed horror at the rubbish left behind by some peers. ‘It seemed to me amazing that even on this occasion we could not break ourselves of one of our worst national habits. Tiers of stalls in which the peers had been sitting were covered with sandwich wrappings, newspapers, fruit peel, sweets and miniature liquor bottles,’ he lamented. When asked if it was true they were hiding sandwiches in their coronets for the seven-hour stretch in the abbey, the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, replied, ‘Probably. They’re capable of anything.’
A royal cypher was also cut out of a chair and when the vacuumed dust was filtered next day it revealed fallen gems – one valuable diamond necklace went unclaimed for six weeks.
Politician Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon described in his diary the nobility’s problems. ‘Coaches and robes, tiaras and decorations… Winnie Portarlington announced at luncheon that she has a harness but no coach, Circe [the Marchioness of Londonderry] has a coach but no horses, Mollie Buccleuch has no postilions – but five tiaras.’ The night before the event, 50,000 worth of jewellery was stolen from the Knightsbridge home of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, so that the duchess and several guests had to wear paste gems. The coach bearing the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Debo, got lost en route to the abbey.
Well prepared: David Dimbleby moored a barge opposite the Abbey and made it his base and on Coronation Day
‘The only way we could communicate with the coachman was by jerking on a string through the window attached to a button on his coat,’ recalls the duchess, who was wearing the 18th-century robes of her forebear Georgiana. Fortunately, they arrived in time.
Cecil Beaton, who took the official photographs later at Buckingham Palace, also made sketches from his ‘sparrow’s seat’ by the pipes of the organ while looking down on the nobility in their ermine. He recalled ‘the bald spots of the peeresses and their surreptitious nipping from a flask. They were a ravishing sight, like a bed of auricula-eyed Sweet William in their red velvet and foam-white, dew-spangled with diamonds.’
Back at the palace Beaton noted, ‘The Queen looked minute under her robes and crown, her hands and nose chilled and her eyes tired. “Yes,” she said, “the crown does get rather heavy.”’ But the Queen Mother was ‘dimpled and chuckling’ and Charles, aged four, who saw his mother crowned in the abbey, and Anne, two, tried to dive under her train.
Princess Margaret ‘looked like a chorus girl with pink and white make-up but neat and with a twinkle in her eye.’ Beaton said he hadn’t the ‘foggiest notion’ whether he was taking black-and-white or colour pictures, and when the Queen went on to the balcony to watch the flypast his stressed-out assistant drank her glass of champagne.
At least the Queen won’t experience the problem Victoria had at the thanksgiving service for her Diamond Jubilee.
Victoria’s event had to be held outside St Paul’s because she was too lame and too portly to manage the steps.
The Diamond Queen starts on BBC1 on Monday at 9pm.