The Queen 

8 September 2022

Cover of Inside BBC Television

From ‘Inside BBC Television: A Year Behind the Camera’, published in 1983

The Queen’s theme for her broadcast in 1982 was the important role the sea has played in the life of Britain and the Commonwealth. But what the 50 million viewers around the world did not know was that while she was speaking of the sea, the sky was playing an important if totally unhelpful role in her own life.

For the first time the broadcast was recorded at Windsor Castle — in the Library. This meant that every minute or so, aircraft from nearby Heathrow Airport were heard overhead.

Usually The Queen’s Christmas message is between five and six minutes long and filmed in segments. This time there had to be more interruptions due to the noise but, ironically, it made the occasion even more relaxed.

‘We were all up against a common enemy,’ says producer Richard Cawston who made the memorable 1969 television film Royal Family and has subsequently produced every Christmas broadcast since 1970.

If pets grow to be like their owners, so some producers become like their productions. Cawston is a tall, distinguished man, silver-tongued and silver-haired, regal in style and commanding in presence.

Cawston emphasises that this is not a BBC programme but one which the corporation has traditionally produced for the monarch each year.

The Christmas message for television and a separate one for radio (in stereo) are recorded in a couple of hours one morning during the first half of December. The content of the text is The Queen’s and she works on this intensively throughout November. The broadcast has to be done in advance to make sure it arrives at some of the remoter parts of the Commonwealth in time for Christmas. One year it was done too late and did not get to the Christmas Islands in time!

It is a straightforward film-making operation made as relaxed as possible by Richard Cawston and his team of ten. The Queen appears to be very much at ease with them all, no doubt because the key members of the team worked on Royal Family and have been involved in every Christmas broadcast since. And obviously she has become very knowledgeable about the techniques of film-making over the years.


The Queen looks at a model ship

The Queen and producer Richard Cawston looking at some of the prints of old sailing ships used in her 1982 broadcast. This was filmed in the Library of Windsor Castle for the first time. The picture also shows production assistant Ann Hewitt and assistant cameraman Philip Sindall.


‘I usually do two takes of everything in case the film is damaged, which fortunately it never has been,’ says Cawston.

Things were very different before 1969 when the Christmas message was done as a full-scale outside broadcast with trucks in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, cables running through the corridors and sometimes eight times as many people as Cawston uses, turning up at the Palace.

Royal Family changed all that. It broke new ground because it used modern, intimate film techniques in the presence of Royalty, something which had not been done before. Without any loss of dignity, the Royal Family were heard speaking informally to each other just like any other family. The success of these techniques changed the face of Royalty forever and convinced The Queen that this was the way to do her Christmas broadcasts.

Nowadays, the number of BBC people in the same room as The Queen is kept to a minimum with never more than eight. Last year they included Richard Cawston, production assistant Ann Hewitt, cameraman Philip Bonham-Carter who uses one 16mm lightweight camera and his assistant Philip Sindall, sound man Terry Elms and his assistant Les Honess, and film lighting men David Gorringe and Derek Stockley.

When The Queen’s message was recorded in the Regency Room at Buckingham Palace, where it was done for a number of years, the two Autocue operators and three extra electricians were stationed in the bathroom next door to be out of sight and to keep the numbers down.

The Queen has her hair done by her own hairdresser and she does her own make-up but often discusses with Cawston the colour of the dress she will wear or whether a diamond brooch will be too bright for the camera. The final choice is hers, however.


The crew surround the Queen

The Queen, her Private Secretary Sir Philip Moore (back right) and the BBC production team which included Richard Cawston, cameraman Philip Bonham-Carter, his assistant Philip Sindall, sound recordist Terry Elms, his assistant Les Honess and film lighting men David Gorringe and Derek Stockley.


The entire broadcast, like the message itself, is of no fixed length and can be less than five minutes or over 20. During the last 13 years, the nature of the broadcast has changed, sometimes substantially. Apart from a filmed title sequence two have been from a helicopter of The Queen’s Flight – it includes footage specially filmed during the year and planning for this begins in January.

In 1971, for example, the two young Princes, Andrew and Edward, were seen sitting on a sofa with The Queen, discussing a family photograph album.

At Princess Anne’s wedding two years later, Cawston’s crew was the only one allowed to film behind the scenes in the Balcony Room of Buckingham Palace.

And, when appropriate, the crew travels abroad with the Royal party. In 1970 they were aboard the Royal yacht Britannia sailing into Botany Bay, Australia — a privilege no other film crew has enjoyed. Also that year, they filmed The Queen at Yellowknife in Canada.

Amid all the new people she meets, it must be a comfort for The Queen to see the same familiar faces turning up year after year all over the world.


Courtesy of The Royal Family


Text: Rosalie Horner
Editing: Ruth Rosenthal
Pictures: John Timbers


You Say

1 response to this article

Joseph Gallant 1 October 2022 at 10:40 pm

Since transoceanic TV broadcast satellites weren’t yet in existence, I would think Queen Elizabeth II filmed the 1957 Christmas message in advance so it could be televised in every country in the British Commonwealth that had TV on December 25th itself.

It probably was also televised in some non-Commonwealth countries as well. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if here in America, ABC, CBS, and NBC carried it, given that it was Her Majesty’s first televised Christmas message.

In her last years, the American cable news channels usually carried the Queen’s Christmas Day TV speech. This December (2022), when the new King, Charles III, makes his first Christmas TV address, I suspect ABC, CBS, and NBC will join the American cable news channels in carrying it.

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