In its 100 year history the BBC has provided live radio coverage of twelve British royal family weddings. All but one of those has been held in either London (Westminster Abbey or St Pauls Cathedral) or Windsor (Castle or Guildhall). That exception was the marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Katherine Worsley, held in the summer of 1961 at York’s magnificent Minster.
There have been two royal weddings at York Minster, but you have to go back to ye olde medievale Englande and January 1328 for the first one when the new king Edward III married his young French bride Philippa of Hainault. There was more of a local connection for the 1961 ceremony as Katherine Worsley was born just 20 miles north in the picturesque North Yorkshire village of Hovingham.
The first radio royal wedding was in November 1934 this time for the previous Duke of Kent, Prince George, and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. That ceremony was described by Howard Marshall, one of the BBC’s main commentators on state occasions and sports events, principally cricket, who would go on to be one of the Corporation’s war correspondents. And that’s where there is an overlap with the broadcaster in this recording as Audrey Russell also served in that wartime team of correspondents.
So it’s back to the afternoon of Thursday 8 June 1961 on the BBC Light Programme. A home recording of the radio commentary of the wedding of Prince Edward and Katherine Worsley made by Eric Bartington surfaced last year and was donated to me by Gerad de Roo . Unfortunately it was too late for the 60th anniversary, but here’s an opportunity to hear it again as broadcast. Audrey Russell is on solo duty for this commentary. However, the old prejudices still persisted as a clergyman greeted her condescendingly with “Ah, Miss Russell, I suppose you’ve come to describe the hats.”
Audrey Russell – Queen of the Commentators
Audrey Russell was born in Dublin in 1906 but would attend a boarding school near Harrow on the Hill. After going to a French finishing school she re-joined her parents, now living in Mortimer Street in central London, by coincidence just a 5 minute walk from where the new Broadcasting House would be built. With ambitions to join the theatre she took a number of small roles but increasingly found her organisational skills better suited to stage management and eventually worked for the theatre club Group Theatre founded by dancer Rupert Doone.
In the months leading up to the Second World War Audrey joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, a decision that was to change her life. Following the declaration of war she was stationed at Chiltern Street. Its proximity to Broadcasting House meant that reporters often called in at the station to ask about the fire service’s response to the Blitz. The Station Superintendent was not averse to a little publicity and would welcome BBC staff with half pints of bitter from the nearby Wallace Head pub. On one occasion Audrey was on the beer run when news reporter Robin Duff and actor Terence de Marnay (at the time working on Radio Newsreel) were guests at the station. At Terence’s suggestion she was interviewed on her impressions as a woman in the fire service. She then in effect became the BBC’s “tame firewoman...often called upon for a story”. One of her recordings heard by Air Commodore Harold Peake so impressed him that he requested she be seconded to the Air Ministry. The upshot was a series of six five-minute talks for the BBC on the work of the WAAF. Though Audrey returned to the fire service after the series it was only a matter of weeks before she was offered a job as a news reporter in the Overseas Service but without the ordeal of facing an Appointments Board.
Working for the Overseas Service from June 1942 she was based at 200 Oxford Street and assigned to Radio Newsreel under its first editor Peter Pooley. In readiness for D-Day the War Reporting Unit was established and she would eventually join the team as the first woman to be accredited as a war correspondent. In late 1944 and early 1945 Audrey would send dispatches from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway.
After the war she accepted a post as a news reporter in the newly formed Home News Reporting Unit, again the only woman on the team (she was replaced by Sally Holloway in 1951). Somewhat frustrated by now just getting domestic stories to cover she made a number of unsuccessful attempts to join the Outside Broadcast department as a commentator. Even Richard Dimbleby saw little chance of this happening – though he was later a great supporter – saying that “there will never be a successful women commentator. Why? Because they haven’t got the stamina”.
Her break into commentating came about because of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in November 1947. The OB team thought it might be a good idea to have a woman commentator on the route, if only to describe the wedding dress, so she was loaned out by the News Division for the event.
For the next four years Audrey split her time between news reporting and occasional commentating gigs both at home and abroad. Eventually, encouraged by her fellow commentators, in particular Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, she left the BBC in April 1951 so go freelance and secured a contract with OB at almost double her old salary. Within a year she was covering King George VI’s funeral and a year later was on the team for the Coronation. From then on Audrey – whom colleagues affectionately nicknamed ‘Tawdry Bustle’ – was one of the first people that BBC radio would call on to cover royal and state events such as royal tours aboard (the first being the long Commonwealth Tour in 1953/54), visits by foreign royalty and leaders and royal weddings. She was also a regular contributor to Woman’s Hour appeared on In Town Tonight and the panel games Twenty Questions and Two in One.
Her last royal engagement was the coverage of Charles and Diana in 1981. In her 1984 autobiography A Certain Voice she wrote: “I hope I never know I have done my last broadcast. Inevitably remembrance will be poignant when such things are out of reach”. She died five years later in August 1989.
For more on Audrey Russell see the BBC 100 website.
For those readers familiar with Marylebone, the fire station on Chiltern Street is now the 3-star hotel Chiltern Firehouse whilst the Wallace Head is now The Flowerhouse Pub.
British Royal Wedding Radio Coverage
Some of the post-war ceremonies were also covered live on the BBC General Overseas Service, later the World Service.
29 November 1934 Prince George, Duke of Kent, and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark at Westminster Abbey. National Programme.
20 November 1947 Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey. Home Service.
6 May 1960 Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones at Westminster Abbey. Home Service.
8 June 1961 Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, and Katharine Worsley at York Minster. Light Programme.
24 April 1963 Princess Alexandra and Angus Ogilvy at Westminster Abbey. Home Service.
14 November 1973 Princess Anne and Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey. Radio 2 & Radio 4.
29 July 1981 Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral. Radio 2 & Radio 4.
23 July 1986 Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey. Radio 2 & Radio 4.
19 June 1999 Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones at Windsor Castle. Radio 2.
9 April 2005 Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles at Windsor Guildhall. Radio 4 FM.
29 April 2011 Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey. Radio 4 & Radio 5 live.
19 May 2018 Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle. Radio 4 & Radio 5 live.