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Behind the TV scenes as history was made

It was without doubt, a “where-were-you?” moment. Where were you when you heard the Queen had died? In my case, waiting. Soon after the news broke that the Queen’s health had become a cause of concern and was being monitored by her doctors, I got a call from ITN to hot-foot it to their Gray’s Inn Road studio and prepare. Within an hour, extra desks were brought in and a special green room literally created around me, as I sat there. A TV was installed, along with coffee table, sofas, plants, upright lights: it was like Changing Rooms. Inexplicably, I had decided that morning to wear a black shirt and a black jacket, so before I even knew it, I was ready.

And then, just before 6.30pm, word came that the Palace would shortly be making an announcement. Everyone crowded into the newsroom as the statement was released and read out in a special broadcast. Despite having been warned of the inevitable, there was an audible gasp, and then some tears and hugs, partly acknowledgement of the Queen’s passing, but also anxiety about what was to come: ten days of rolling news, huge live broadcasts, record-breaking audiences, limitless expectations, and tight editorial controls. The Queen’s reign was to be book-ended by seminal TV moments – the coronation and now the funeral.

Mystique and mysticism
And so it began. That evening I began my news-commentator role, reflecting on the significance of the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The following day was hugely momentous – at least for me as a historian. For the first time, the Accession Council was to be televised. What had previously only been described in history books, was now being played out in technicolour before my eyes.

Echoes of the past reverberated through the week, both to explain the ceremony but also to reflect on why the Queen – in life and death – managed to capture and keep such public attention and affection, both in the UK and around the world.

Her charisma was difficult to pin down – at the same time tangible and elusive. In life the Queen had been revered, her body even sanctified – think of the 1992 outrage when Australian prime minister Paul Keating put his arm around the Queen, prompting the headlines such as “the Lizard of Oz” – or when Michelle Obama did the same on a state visit to Buckingham Palace. The Queen had a quasi-spiritual mystique, like a medieval monarch, and her body was almost holy; deference and respect had to be shown at all times. Reactions to her death, and particularly the need to view the coffin, evidenced by The Queue, demonstrated the continued power and potency of her body: an encounter with the Queen, in life or death, was both moving and affirming.

Pomp and circumstance
I arrived in Windsor the day before the funeral for a rehearsal, and to be ready for an early start the following day. Windsor had been the backdrop for some of my royal commentary gigs in previous years – including the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip on the occasion of her 90th birthday, and then for the marriage of Harry and Meghan in 2018. As before, barriers had been erected, Union Jacks hung, and security personnel enlisted. This time was different, though: there was no sense of excitement and expectation, but rather foreboding and apprehension.

As the day’s commentary got under way, I made some contributions to contextualise the funeral – its novelty, tradition and significance. Thereafter it was all about military precision, the interpretation of body language between world leaders and the appearance of the young Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Finally, the sight of the coffin being carried out of Westminster Hall and placed on the gun carriage, ready to be pulled by 142 Royal Navy sailors to the Abbey. It was as compelling as it was spectacular. The coffin had travelled from Balmoral to London, had been witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people, and was now, adorned with the crown, orb and sceptre, the symbol of sovereignty and spiritual and temporal power, on its final journey.

The arrival of the procession at Windsor Castle was heralded by the sound of muffled drums, the pipes and the slow rhythmical marching. It was relentless until gradually the sound became deafening: she had come home.

Succession
The committal service was, for me, always going to be the most profound, significant and symbolic moment: when the crown, orb and sceptre were lifted from the coffin and so from the late Queen, for the last time. Hers was no longer a sovereign body. The spell was broken. The revered body which had, over 70 years, embodied and sustained the mystique of monarchy, was laid to rest. Charles, looked on, knowing he’d be next to wear that crown, the grief and sense of enormous responsibility etched on his face.

Historical expertise somewhat deserted me as I watched the modern monarchy being recast before my eyes. In that moment, something seemed to break. Monarchy is all about succession and continuity – that’s the function of the ceremony and ritual – but the Queen’s passing signalled something more than a new reign. The irrational magic and mystique which the Queen had somehow managed to maintain in a multimedia, populist and democratic world, had shattered. What follows, remains to be seen.

Anna Whitelock is Professor of History of Modern Monarchy at City, University of London, and the author of “Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court and Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen” 

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