As broadcasters kept their pledges to keep commentary during Queen Elizabeth’s funeral service to a minimum, it fell to the technical planners to shine. The high overhead shots of Westminster Abbey’s chequered floor were a fittingly dramatic capturing of the spectacle — a god’s-eye view of proceedings that will, to many, have felt unreal.
Yes, that was a spider racing along the card in the bouquet adorning the queen’s coffin. Every inch of the long-rehearsed pageant was to be televised, including the improvised scuttling of its uninvited arachnids.
The story of event broadcasting has always been equipment-led. For its filming of the queen’s coronation, the BBC used what was, by the standards of the day, an expensive array of 21 cameras, five of them within the abbey itself.
This marked a television revolution on its experimental coverage of the 1937 coronation procession for King George VI. The crowning of the late queen’s father had come just six months after BBC television’s opening night at Alexandra Palace in November 1936, with the now largely unavailable procession footage facilitated by just three newly delivered cameras, strictly positioned outside the abbey.
And yet the scale of the 1953 outside broadcasting operation, while enough to make the second Elizabethan age synonymous with television, pales in comparison to the 213 full HD cameras and 14 outside broadcasting trucks that the BBC deployed to 10 locations on Monday for the queen’s funeral.
This was by no means the full total. The BBC, ITV and Sky News pooled every resource they had to generate a single broadcast feed of the official proceedings, while the tally of cameras trained on central London and Windsor included networks of remote cameras, the international media set-ups for live satellite links with their reporters, the smartphones held aloft by the barricaded crowds and the CCTV units scanning the streets for suspicious behaviour.
Born three months after John Logie Baird’s first public demonstration of television and four years after the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company, as it was initially called, the future queen’s life spanned the television century. This makes it tempting to view her death, and the epic dimensions of her funeral, as its apex.
Certainly, there were explicit musings ahead of the occasion that as international attention to the reign and death of Charles III is unlikely to be a patch on that garnered by his mother, this was it. This was the big one, after which nothing — including British devotion to the crown — can ever be the same again.
Unsubstantiated talk of “billions” watching the funeral has duly been reported, though must be taken with an Olympic-sized grain of salt — the Olympic Games being one of the prime examples where similar estimates are offered. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee might well have taken notes on the advance hyping of levels of global interest in this funeral, with some British talking heads ironically parochial in their belief that the rest of the world is mourning to the same extent.
For sure, RTÉ dropped in on the church, but they didn’t exactly hang about for the sandwiches.
The state funeral will inevitably emerge as a huge and historic television event for the UK, though even there it would be a mistake to assume sombre reverence was the default mood state. Some will have watched purely out of curiosity and/or because they were given the day off work and everything was shut.
Helpfully, as not everybody owns a television, the funeral was shown on big screens in parks and cinemas and streamed on broadcasters’ players. The live feed wasn’t shared with newspapers’ websites, but it was duplicated across multiple channels within the same family, airing on BBC One, BBC Two (with sign language) and the BBC News Channel, for instance, while Sky transmitted the Sky News version on the likes of Sky Arts, Sky Witness and Sky Sci-Fi, in unfortunate news for anyone only tuning in for the 11am repeat of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Such blanket coverage creates the impression of a media establishment making a concerted attempt to turn back time to the days before the perspective-splintering fragmentation of their audiences, but, hey, it has probably worked.
Anecdotes about younger people not in possession of a television set searching for a communal watching spot bear the amusing suggestion of a culture having come full circle, given the 1953 coronation was famously a hunt-the-television event, with its estimated total audience vastly exceeding the number of households with sets. Television ownership and rentals had been surging anyway in the early 1950s, however, hinting that it was perhaps the medium that made the monarchy — the Elizabethan iteration of it — more than it was the monarchy that made the medium.
As much as the queen’s funeral reprised the perceived glories of the past, it was also a reminder of the broader, undiminished power of event television, for which degrees of pomp and splendour may vary.
In a “normal” year, live sport is the biggest draw of them all. It is usually the second-biggest draw and the third-biggest draw, too. In less normal years — the sort that feature emergency statements by taoisigh, prime ministers and presidents — humanity proves itself capable of stupidity great enough to prompt everyone to turn on their TVs at the same time. Alas, it would be optimistic to think that another such crisis isn’t lying in wait.
The potency of live media can strike in unpredictable ways — just ask those people who abruptly became obsessed with YouTube channel Big Jet TV during Storm Eunice earlier this year. As genuine as the emotions felt by many viewers of the queen’s funeral will have been, the fascination for others will have revolved around the potential for rogue elements to defy its choreography.
So they will monitor the slow burn of the William-and-Harry soap opera (very little eye contact, it seemed), see entire movies in the scene of a half-dozen ex-prime ministers and their spouses (ooh, look at Gordon Brown nattering away to Cherie Blair) and be thrilled by the cameo for the Royal Spider.
Was Prince Louis having a grand old time at home watching Bluey? How were all the bladders faring? Was that strain on the pallbearers’ faces? Would there be a streaker or a protester or a fainter? It only takes a half-second slip-up to make a meme — that and decades of code-named broadcast planning.