THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

FuneralOne of the main complaints from viewers who’ve followed one of those big sporting events that span two or three weeks like the World Cup or the Olympics during the wall-to-wall coverage usually comes the day after the tournament’s conclusion; suddenly it seems like there’s nothing to watch anymore. In a way, the ten or eleven days that began with schedules being suspiciously rearranged when Her Majesty’s health took a turn for the worse at Balmoral was the beginning of a similar domination of broadcasting hours that the nation became accustomed to very quickly. And now, having been witness to the climax of the event, it feels strange that all in telly-land is back to normal. Few would doubt the BBC’s inexhaustible anchor Huw Edwards deserves a holiday – he seems to have been on screen continuously ever since he announced the death of the Queen almost a fortnight ago; and it will be handy for those who still buy listings magazines to find what’s listed on the printed page once again accurately reflects what’s actually on TV. But the finality of the funeral sets the seal on so many different aspects of British life that seem to have been with us forever, not least what the nation watches.

Interestingly, the top ten most-watched broadcasts in British television history – a list so static for so many years – now contains three entries from this century; considering we’re supposed to be living through the century in which we abandoned the communal experience of sitting down to view the same programmes at the same time, that’s quite an achievement. For the record, the three 21st century broadcasts are the Euro 2020 England Vs Italy Final (which was held in 2021), Boris Johnson’s ‘stay at home’ lockdown speech from 2020, and the newest addition, which is (of course) the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In a way, none of those inclusions are a great surprise. Finals and semi-finals involving the England football team traditionally draw huge audiences, as do royal occasions – whether weddings or funerals. But the build-up to Monday’s event was exceptional and unique in many respects; and it climaxed with perhaps the most expertly-choreographed public spectacle ever staged in this country, the Hollywood blockbuster of live outdoor broadcasts.

But it didn’t merely begin and end on the day Brenda was laid to rest. From the moment the hearse drifted through the gates at Balmoral and set off on its long journey to Holyrood, the stage was set for an extraordinary sequence of images. Quite possibly the most moving early on was the impromptu assembling of tractors lining-up side-by-side beside the road – a spontaneous gesture that allowed Scottish farmers to pay their respects, evoking memories of the dockers lowering their cranes as Churchill’s floating hearse made its way along the Thames in 1965. Thanks to the helicopter following the funeral cortege from above, we were able to see such a sight in a manner that wouldn’t have been quite as effective from ground level. Even the fact Her Majesty passed away north of the border and therefore had to travel all the way down to London seemed a brilliant plot device; it meant that the Scots rather than the English had the first opportunity to bid her farewell, serving as a reminder that she was Queen of all the UK as opposed to just England. Not that this fact would necessarily persuade the most committed Nationalist to see the bigger picture, but maybe it helped paper over a few of the cracks in the Union and momentarily healed a divide that some of the Queen’s Ministers on both sides of the border have exacerbated in recent decades.

Of course, the Queen herself wrote the screenplay for this production, and it’s not unlikely she knew the end was nigh and deliberately chose to retire to Balmoral, aware that doing so would give Scotland a head start over the auld enemy. Indeed, had she passed away at Windsor, the Scots would’ve been watching from afar like the Welsh and the Irish. Instead, they had a personal investment in the whole process and got to line the streets of their own capital long before the queues began forming for Westminster Hall. Despite the departure from Scotland being by air, another lengthy car journey represented the next stage of the procession. The heavens had opened and night had fallen when the multitudes first descended upon Buckingham Palace the day she died, but the shock many of those gathered outside the gates felt, which had dissipated by the time the cortege touched down on English soil, seemed to be reactivated for the return to her most celebrated London home. The sedate evening approach along the Mall was gifted yet another inspired visual stroke as the lights were switched-on in the hearse so that the coffin itself was visible in the darkness, a luminous regal firefly gliding past the crowds en route to its solemn absorption into the private enclaves behind the Palace facade.

Brian himself, in his new role as sovereign, wasted little time in touring the rest of the Kingdom as his mother’s mortal remains progressed from one stage to the next, faulty fountain pens not withstanding; after 70 years’ training, he knew what he had to do. The ongoing debate as to whether the Third Charles will fare better than the Second – and most definitely the First – appears to centre on his appetite for promoting causes in a way that doesn’t necessarily equate with the political impartiality of the monarch. But it’s feasible that he might simply accept his new duties and quietly leave that kind of thing to the new Prince of Wales. After all, during his prolonged stint as the Prince Regent, the eldest son of George III was a perennial thorn in his father’s side, gathering an alternative court around him – usually consisting of MPs the King wouldn’t countenance as Ministers – and generally behaving in the most dissipated and debauched manner imaginable. But, as soon as he became George IV, he abandoned his old partners-in-crime and attempted to mend his least kingly ways; alas, for the man Byron referred to as ‘the fourth of the fools and oppressors called George’, the damage had been done. Charles has at least had more time to attend to his own repairs.

King Charles III has also had more luck than King George IV in that his first week as monarch saw him in synch with the majority of his subjects, carried along on a wave of uncritical sympathy. The first sighting of family participation in the storyline was when Brenda’s coffin relocated from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall and her children and grandchildren walked behind it, faultlessly in step with the beat of the drum; the fact neither the disgraced Andrew nor the exiled Harry were given sentimental permission to don their discarded uniforms was a clever move by Charles, keeping the public on his side. And once the remarkable precision of the soldiers who delicately removed the coffin from the gun carriage and carried it into the Hall was perfectly executed, what followed saw the public themselves join the cast as extras. In fact, more extras than Cecil B. DeMille could command. The queue that stretched for miles and stretched round the clock was the last defining image of the event before the funeral itself, not even soiled by celebrity queue-jumpers.

Come the final act, the poignant presence of the orb, the sceptre and the crown on the coffin – totems symbolising the contrasting mood of the Coronation 69 years before and thus bookending the two landmark occasions – was a moving opening. Yes, it was fascinating to see all those world leaders gathered under one roof and it’s always undoubtedly entertaining to see how old so many past Prime Ministers now look; but the timeless grandeur of Westminster Abbey instantly reduced the tabloid soap operas of certain hangers-on to the ultimate here today-gone tomorrow irrelevancies they are in the historical scheme of things. One more masterstroke by the scriptwriter. Yet, it was really the relatively intimate surroundings of Windsor that seemed to do the send-off justice. Small albeit affecting touches – Brenda’s pony observing the cortege passing by and two of her corgis awaiting its arrival – somehow said more than Biden or Macron or Trudeau turning up at the Abbey. And then the unforgettable ending before the credits rolled: the breaking of the wand, the coffin’s graceful descent into the vault, and the lone piper gradually fading from hearing – beautifully produced elements of human theatre that worked so well and couldn’t have been bettered. There was no finer way to say it’s over as we exited the darkened cinema and stepped back into the blinding glare of real life – insecure, uncertain real life.

© The Editor

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8 thoughts on “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

  1. I didn’t watch all the wall-to-wall coverage, although Mrs M was pretty much superglued to the TV for the day. What I did see was mighty impressive and a tribute to the project managers. OK, they’ve had 70 years to plan it but, when you’re dealing with a cast of thousands, a menagerie of animals, busloads of self-important politicos and the odd half-million public swirling round, the opportunities for cock-up are immense, yet none were evident. As far as state ceremonials go, nobody does it better, as the old Bond theme proclaimed.

    I’d love to see the project budget, although I suspect there isn’t a comprehensive one, there may not have been one at all, just do it whatever the cost – if you calculated all the wasted preparation efforts over 70 years, all the quiet rehearsals during that period too, add in the cast of thousands, plus all the travel and subsistence costs from across the globe etc., I’d be surprised if it came in at less than 9 figures with a £ in front.

    Does it matter? Not in the scheme of things. The ‘soft’ benefits could easily outweigh that cost, plus the bonus delight of seeing Sleepy Joe Biden consigned to the 14th row – if only they’d stayed loyal a couple of centuries ago, he’d have had a front row seat ahead of all the corrupt African despots and neer-do-wells. A dish best served cold, as they say.

    But it’s over, it was an amazing spectacle, we’ll certainly never see its like again. Brenda’s 70-year reign is over too and we’ll never see the like of that again either.

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    1. I think I allowed myself to be seduced and somewhat overwhelmed by the spectacle, probably knowing I’d never see the like again. That’s probably why it took me a couple of days before penning my reflections; I was a bit drained by the end of it. In a way, though, I think it transcended yer average royal event (which doesn’t ordinarily hold much interest for me) and said something on a far deeper level about who we were, where we are now, and where we go from here.

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      1. One ‘takeaway’ which the politicos would be smart to recognise is that the outpouring of interest, whether watching all day at home, crowding all the ceremonial routes or queuing for teens of hours just to walk past the coffin, reflected the silent majority of Joe Ordinary Brit, the quiet, unheard masses who are never represented by the chattering or shouting classes.

        They should have learned the lesson with Brexit but, if they’ve already forgotten, then this post-mortem display over that 10-day period should remind them who ‘the people’ really are and where their own free minds may lie – and it’s not in the pages of the Guardian nor in the pockets of the noisy lobbying activists for most irrelevant minority causes.

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      2. I should imagine there’s been a fair amount of sneering at the plebs from the usual suspects. But these are, after all, those who prioritise minority interests over majority concerns, so I guess they’ll never get it.

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  2. My only complaints concern the occasional commentator telling us what we could see rather than simply explaining what was going on and why, talking over a poignant moment.
    And then there was the dreaded Songs of Praise camera work. Slow zoom in on a pretty female, somebody who could sing the words with good mouth work, or anybody looking a bit emotional. The slow zoom out, sometimes with rotating frame, induced nausea in me.
    The word “incredible” should be banned, unless it really does mean that something is unbelievable.

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    1. I’ve noticed the creeping use of what I’d call ‘radio commentary’ on television in recent years, whereby (as you say) the viewer is being told what he or she can already see. It’s particularly prevalent at an event like Wimbledon these days. Watching any vintage match on YT, it seems surprising now how many gaps there are in the commentary when nothing is said for several minutes until an especially memorable shot provokes Dan Maskell into finally uttering a simple ‘Oh, I say!’ and leaving it at that.

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  3. I too, dipped in and out where the Mrs really binged, but what I saw I found affecting in a way that I thought my ambivalence to the institution would have prevented. Whether satiation of the coverage or just a desire for a bit a space we decided to go to Trentham gardens in Stoke (a fair drive) on the day of the funeral, and I half expected it to be full of screaming republicans bemoaning everything else being shut, but it wasn’t; just very quiet, people walking dogs, pottering around. We spoke to a couple and they said they wanted a bit of space, peace and quiet and would watch the funeral later and I realised one of the most affecting things of the last few days was the peace, the quiet, the steadiness, the contemplative nature of the coverage and of things in general, compared to the current general hysteria.

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    1. I think I wrote about having a similar feeling the day after the Queen’s death was announced, making a relatively short pilgrimage to the nearest church simply to hear the bells ringing. I can’t really explain why, other than that particular sound was the sound I really wanted to hear at that strange moment. It feels like we’ve received permission to breathe for the past week-and-a-bit, and now it’s back to the battlefield…

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