Happy and Glorious 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1754

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The British constitution – unwritten and all in ‘the nuance’ – can still move very quickly when required says Barbara Woodford

Whilst an American president elected in November must wait until late January to assume office (and his predecessor must also wait as a lame duck), a defeated British Prime Minister is having his possessions hurriedly packed into boxes and taken away in a van whilst handing his resignation to the monarch. His successor enters a building devoid of any notion that it was occupied only that morning.

And so it is for the death of a king. When one dies, his eldest son (or daughter if he has no sons) becomes monarch without a pause. Whilst the new monarch grieves for the old, the constitution allows only for a brutal transition from one to the other.

The reluctant king, George VI, had passed away from lung cancer in the early hours of 6 February 1952. That he was unwell was generally know, but the gravity of the illness – and that it was terminal – was not known beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace and, from a guess by the Prime Minister, Downing Street.

When BBC radio came on air that Wednesday morning, something was evidently wrong. Both the Home Service and the Light Programme were subdued and slow. Yet nothing was being said. (It was later believed that the BBC was trying to track down John Snagge, the grave-sounding announcer, who was on holiday but was suddenly required back at Broadcasting House)

Eventually – as soon as the BBC had established the new queen, the former Princess Elizabeth, had been informed and was on her way home from her visit to the African colonies – John Snagge interrupted the output of the BBC’s domestic networks.

“This is London. It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement.” The sudden silence in the room I was in, and memory fails as to why I was not at school, was total. The lesson that my mother had learnt from World War II was a simple one: when the BBC spoke to you with that ‘voice of God’ tone, the world stopped and you listened.

“It was announced from Sandringham at 10:45 today, February 6th 1952, that the King, who retired to rest last night in his usual health, passed peacefully away…” A soft gasp from my mother, quickly suppressed “…in his sleep early this morning. The BBC offers profound sympathy to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal family”. In my mind, that final line was talking about the woman we would later come to know as the Queen Mother. In strictly correct terms, it would have meant Princess Elizabeth. In reality, the BBC must have known how difficult it would be to express regret to both the new Queen and the old one, both bereaved. Perhaps this way – leaving them and us to decide who they meant – was a mark of a truly diplomatic scriptwriter.

The announcer finished with the words “The BBC is now closing down for the rest of the day, except for the advertised news bulletins and summaries, shipping forecasts and gale warnings. Further announcements will be made at 11:45, 12 o’clock and 12:15pm.”

The sombre pall cast of my family for the rest of the day – indeed the rest of the week – is something difficult to describe and may sound faintly ridiculous to younger ears. Whilst the shock of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales may be attributable to her relative youth, that same feeling of hollowness and disbelief was visible in my mother and my older brother.

But time is a great healer. The coronation that followed 16 months later seemed to have no element of sorrow in it. For a child, the anticipation of a street party was akin to the feelings you have a week before Christmas. The ravages of rationing and austerity – something that may well have preoccupied adult minds – were unknown to children who had grown up without luxuries and with the idea that many items per force came from money and coupons. The street party – such as it must have been in a bomb-damaged city like Birmingham – for VE- and VJ-days, occurred when I was too young to take it in.

And this street party had something else, something that VE-day didn’t offer. For whilst the limited food, watered-down beer and pop, and bunting and flags were all in evidence in my mother’s photo album for that party (it may have been Victory Day the following year, of course – and it’s now too late to ask), some of my family were to be present at the coronation in London.

The family of the local factory foreman, sometime in the months between the death of the king and the coronation itself, had purchased a television set. Their chimney featured something that few in our area had – an aerial.

When it was announced that the coronation would be shown on television, the street party was arranged to take place after the adults had watched the spectacle on the BBC. Outside the house, a radio played the commentary by John Snagge for those unable to find space in front of the tiny screen in the small and darkened living room.

At this point, I would dearly love to say I watched the ceremony with Richard Dimbleby’s commentary live in that living room. Failing that, I would want to say that I sat outside and heard the commentary on the Home Service.

But I was a child who could never sit still, and was therefore unwelcome in the living room for obvious reasons. Once outside, whilst I remember the radio playing, I listened to not a word, enjoying the company of school friends who were all excited at the thought of a party “for no reason at all!” as one put it. History will always record the grand spectacle of the coronation and also the birth of television as a popular mass medium from the same day.

But for me, jelly, jam sandwiches and adults singing songs in the street will always be what my mind has recorded for the event. Perhaps this is better – it may not have a commentary by Richard Dimbleby, but my record of the coronation is, at least, in colour.

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