Affairs of State 

1 September 2001

The death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, last Empress of India, brought back memories of our last state funeral, on 30 January 1965 – that of Sir Winston Churchill.

Churchill was, of course, a commoner, and for him to receive a state funeral was a mark of the unique respect in which he was held by the British people as the prime minister who led the country to victory over Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

As with HM the Queen Mother, Churchill was of a generous age and his death had been planned for in advance by the media of the day. The basis of the state funeral was a lengthy procession through London to the service, a further procession from the church to Tower Bridge, and transportation of the coffin along the Thames to the Waterloo railhead for a train to the burial plot at Bladon.

The unusual and extended length of this itinerary, required for the television coverage, the largest number of television cameras ever assembled for one event up to that point. Although BBC and Independent Television provided separate coverage, there was some sharing of common facilities. However, the number of cameras required led to the regions being stripped of their outside broadcast equipment for several days and the shipping to London of kit from as far away as Scottish Television in Glasgow and other northern contractors.

Although the majority of viewers were, of course, destined to choose BBC coverage, this was an era when it was de rigeur for Independent Television to match the BBC camera-for-camera at great national events. The two UK television broadcasters would go so far as to share some camera positions, but provide two separate images taken 18 inches apart by two separate crews. The entire route, both before and after the service, was lined by hundreds of thousands of citizens in the largest civilian turnout since the World War Two Victory Parade in 1946.

Although the state funeral took place on a Saturday, the Independent Television coverage was co-ordinated by Rediffusion Television, the weekday London contractor on behalf of a consortium of ITV companies, who pooled their Outside Broadcast fleets.

Both the ABC Weekend fleet based at Didsbury in Manchester and the Granada Travelling Eye units based in Salford converged on London in convoy earlier in the week to take up their positions. Additional equipment was provided by Southern, Anglia and TWW. ATV in London and the midlands also contributed, although their available fleet was more geared to recording events that took place in theatres and other indoor venues.

The BBC followed the pattern developed for the Coronation, using Richard Dimbleby – the leading television authority of the day – for almost the entire proceedings. Independent Television deployed commentary positions at various locations along the route. Thus several voices were heard during the proceedings, with the tones of Brian Connell being most notable.

ITN provided film recording and reporters, but at that time were geared up to live studio reports and filmed items for later export to those countries not served by the Early Bird satellite and the Eurovision network. Their limited OB facilities were overshadowed by those of the contractors, although their contribution was integral to the event.

In common with the majority of the nation, my family chose the BBC coverage, as it was felt that the voice of Richard Dimbleby was, in effect, speaking for the British people in the observations he made.

The BBC was very much seen as the principal instrument of broadcasting in the United Kingdom at that time – less than two years earlier, some regions of ITV had temporarily closed down to allow the BBC alone to cover the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy.

Richard Dimbleby, BBC commentator

BBC coverage was, as always, a disciplined and integrated package. The lengthy event, from morning to evening, proceeded with a seamless efficiency, as if it had been organised exclusively for television and indeed, it may have been that this was the first national event planned primarily with TV coverage in mind.

Since this event, all state occasions have been planned for television and any that do not translate to the medium are described as ‘private’ or ‘personal’. In 1965, such a thing was unthinkable, events were arranged for the public to attend in person. The idea was already dying. Television was obviously the dominant medium and the media itself had not begun the process of generating its own stories to the extent it has today.

In our more sceptical climate, the funeral of HM the Queen Mother is a less ostentatious occasion to be covered more sparingly, and it will be interesting to see whether a similar sense of national occasion is generated.

Winston Churchill was the first televisual funeral; that of Diana, Princess of Wales, possibly the last. This funeral will be the first in the post-modern era, where the views of those who do not care – or do not care for the Royal Family – must be taken into account or even raised above the opinions of the great and the good.

It would seem that in 2002, an element of irony is regarded as an essential ingredient in the coverage of any momentous occasion. This would have been out of place in 1965, but the more balanced view we hold today may enable us to see the event in a better context. Whether we have lost or gained from this change is a matter of opinion – and of debate for historians half a century from now.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Joseph 3 January 2013 at 1:43 am

The Churchill funeral was partly televised live in the ‘States.

I say “partly” because there was no geostationary satellite as of yet, so much of the coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC was audio-only except for an 18-minute segment every hour-and-a-quarter where we would see live coverage.

My biggest memory of that event as a small child was one part when the satellite was able to feed live video to the ‘States: The boat carrying Churchill’s casket going down the Thames passed a waterfront construction site, and the cranes were lowered as the boat passed by. An American presenter (Walter Cronkite?) then commented that he thought that the “dipping” of the construction cranes was a wonderful tribute.

Had this occurred a few months later, the geostationary Early Bird satellite would have been in place, and the entire service and ceremony would have been shown live in the U.S.

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