The durability of Britain’s current monarch – Elizabeth II has reigned longer than any other – means that only those now nudging their 70s (or beyond) can recall her coronation. Yet many people too young to have any personal connection to the events of June 1953 share a kind of folk memory. We have all seen the grainy images of the young, female monarch, a symbol of modernity and postwar progress. There is a widespread feeling that, for all the pomp and ritual, her accession marked a definitive break with the past in the UK. In historical terms, 1953 seems like only yesterday. The 1950s was the decade in which much that is now familiar first entered the national consciousness: rock ’n’ roll was born and teenagers invented, austerity gave way to consumerism. In short, it was a time very much like our own.
Yet as a former BBC Timewatch film (Crowning a Queen) showed, that is deceptive. The coronation took place before many of the seismic shifts in British society had been felt. “The film gives us a snapshot of a country that is white, Christian and deferential,” says the then-Timewatch editor John Farren. “In many ways, it’s a completely different country from the one we live in now.”
Farren’s interest in the royal events of 1953 was sparked by an earlier Timewatch film. “When we did The Greatest Storm, about the floods that killed hundreds of people [in January 1953], we realised that a sea change had happened in that year. It seems that was why the storm had been more or less obliterated from our memories. People had had enough bad news, enough austerity. This was the beginning of the end of drab postwar life. A new, young queen offered a chance to have a celebration, for people to say ‘this is the dawn of a bright new era’.”
Farren and his team embarked on a search for eyewitness testimony. The idea, he says, was to “turn the usual programme-making approach on its head” by building a film around the stories told by those who remembered the day. Many people contacted the team with vividly remembered vignettes.
“A lot of people recall driving to London and camping out overnight,” says Farren. “The day itself was the wettest June day in living memory, which tends to stick in people’s minds. One family remember that after it was all over they couldn’t find their car. Another thing nearly everyone recalls is Hillary and Tenzing conquering Everest.” The news of that triumph appeared in the papers the same morning and became another cause for national celebration.
2 June 1953: Mrs Birch and her eight-year-old son John, who had been sitting in the Mall outside London’s Buckingham Palace since the previous day in order to be present for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Reg Birkett/Keystone/Getty Images)
Typical of those personal recollections, says James Hayes, the film’s producer, is that of the Langleys, a couple from near Watford who were born around the same time as the Queen and got married in the same year. “In 1953 they were ordinary working-class people who slept overnight in the rain and waited for 20 hours just to see the carriage passing. Mrs Langley had very much aligned her life with that of the Queen. They had both married sailors, though in the Queen’s case it was an officer. And they had both been in the Girl Guides.”
As well as focusing on stories from the crowd, the producers created an Upstairs, Downstairs picture of the event itself. “We try to give a sense of what was happening backstage, the minutiae of how all of this was planned down to the very last detail,” says Hayes. One recurring theme is evidence that, behind the display of splendour, the country was still broke. “Wellington Barracks [where Trooping the Colours begins] had had a paint job, but only on the facade – inside it was falling to pieces,” says Hayes. “Nobody had anything. It had been six years of war followed by eight years of deprivation, and this was everybody’s first opportunity to put colour back into their lives again.”
It was also an opportunity to demonstrate the centrality of the Commonwealth in everyday life. Empire may have been on the wane, but Britain had not yet been forced to confront the reality that it was no longer a world power (that painful realisation would come three years later with the Suez crisis). Writing in BBC History Magazine on the coronation’s 50th anniversary, historian Wendy Webster noted that “the Commonwealth was not only seen as youthful by comparison with Britain as ‘the old country’, but also provided an idea of Britain as a moral and mature nation, willing to make the transition from empire to a multi-racial community of equal nations”. Symbolic of that community was the larger-than-life Queen Salote of Tonga, who became something of a celebrity following her scene-stealing appearance at Westminster Abbey.
Perhaps the single biggest reason for the 1953 coronation’s lasting impact on the British psyche is that it marked the birth of television as a mass medium. In their book A Social History of the Media, Asa Briggs and Peter Burke record that, while just over two million TV licences had been issued by that time, more than 20 million people watched the broadcast. James Hayes: “People gathered around the first and only TV in their village, sets with tiny screens but huge aerials that flapped when aircraft went by. We found one story of a woman who’d polished all her furniture as if the Queen was actually coming into the room.”
Yet getting the event on air was not easy. Far from recognising the PR benefits of television, the palace was terrified that the ceremony would lose its magic and become vulgar. “It was a battle that lasted six months”, says Hayes. “Many newspapers took the BBC’s side and argued that it should be a people’s coronation. But the resistance was there. It’s easy to forget now, but this was still an age of deference and privilege.”
This article was first published in 2016, in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Queen Elizabeth: 90 Glorious Year’ bookazine