Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Coronation Day Radio

It was the first major television event in Britain and changed our viewing habits forever but what of the radio coverage of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II back in the summer of 1953.

“The ceremonial pomp and pageantry of June 2 will furnish a theme for storytellers and balladmakers who are not yet born”, proclaimed the special edition of the Radio Times. “How lucky are we who will be able to tell our children’s children that we had a part in the events of the great day. Thanks to broadcasting, none of us need be denied the opportunity of sharing in them”.

The TV audience was almost double that for radio: of the adult population about 56%, or 20,400,000, peered at those small TV screens whilst 11,700,000 followed the events on the wireless.

In 1953 the BBC offered three radio services: the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme (though this only broadcast in the evenings). On Coronation Day the Home and Light joined forces from 5.30 a.m. to 5.20 p.m. Before the main event listeners were offered sequences of light music with Music While You Wait, the BBC Scottish Variety Orchestra, Victor Silvester, the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra and Commonwealth Melodies from Peter Yorke and his Orchestra.

Covering the procession and the ceremony were a group of commentators, many of whom would continue to work for the BBC over the next couple of decades or so. At Buckingham Palace was Jean Metcalfe of Family Favourites fame. At the Victoria Memorial were Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, from Australia Talbot Duckmanton and from Trinidad William Richardson. Stationed at Trafalgar Square was Raymond (Tomorrow’s World) Baxter and at Victoria Embankment Rex Alston, best known as a cricket commentator. At Middlesex Guildhall were former wartime reporter and future BBC manager Frank Gillard alongside Tom Fleming who would go on to describe numerous state events for BBC television.  BBC commentator Henry Riddell was positioned at St James’s Palace and Alun Williams at Stanhope Gate.  Announcer David Lloyd James was at Marble Arch and cricket commentator John Arlott at Piccadilly Circus. In the Annexe to Westminster Abbey were Audrey Russell and Canadian Ted Briggs. The service itself was described by Howard Marshall and John Snagge, both of whom had also covered the Coronation of King George VI in 1937.

Following the Coronation the Home Service offered Children’s Hour with David Davis, Henry Hall’s Guest Night, the guest being ‘Our Gracie’, Gillie Potter (with tales of Hogsnorton) and The Kingdom Dances. Over on the Light more music from the Majestic Orchestra, Rhythm is Our Business and the hit comedy Take It From Here.

The Home and Light combined again at 8 p.m. for Long live the Queen narrated by actor Robert Donat with music by William Alwyn. Just before 9 p.m. Sir Winston Churchill spoke to the nation and on the hour the BBC television service joined, in sound only, for the Queen’s message.

Events on the Home Service continued at 9.15 p.m. with Coronation Day Across the World narrated by Leo Genn, John Snagge and David Lloyd James. This programme is being repeated this weekend on BBC Radio 4 Extra.  A performance of resoundingly patriotic music followed in Land of Hope and Glory, Raymond Baxter described the firework display (yes, on the radio!), Rikki Fulton introduced the Show Band Show, a programme, incidentally, produced by Johnnie (Mr Top of the Pops) Stewart. Finally, in an extended day’s broadcasting through until 1 a.m. there was Let the People Dance featuring music from the likes of Geraldo and Jimmy Shand interspersed with commentary “on the street scenes of Coronation night”.

A programme described as “a living, instantaneous sound picture of rejoicings and
celebrations with song and dance, with ceremonial drums and loyal messages,
on a scale as great as anything attempted in the history of broadcasting”.
On the Light Programme there was a performance of the Basil Hood/Edward German comic opera Merrie England  before they re-joined the Home Service.   

Meanwhile over on the Third Programme from 6 p.m. there was music from Kirsten Flagstad, Solomon Cutner, a talk by Sir Llewellyn Woodward, concerts featuring works by Handel produced by the Canadian and Australian broadcasting services and rounding off with Esme Percy and Paul Scofield in Thomas Love Peacock’s Gryll Grange.

The Coronation issue of the Radio Times, with a circulation expected to exceed 9 million copies, made mention of its own special cover with its Eric Fraser illustration. “The coloured cover we have produced has been printed in a novel way: the yellow background was printed by a gravure process on 50-incg reels each of which had to be re-wound twice and cut into four 12 ¼-inch reels before being fed into our presses; the black design was printed over the background in the course of the run”. 

Thumbing through the rest of the RT programme highlights include a new production of The Tempest with John Gielgud as Prospero; on The Forces Show alongside Ted Ray, Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss was Betty Driver (aka Corrie’s Betty Turpin)and a gala performance titled Light Up Again in which Brian Reece (PC 49) and Noel Johnson (Dick Barton) introduce the stars of Hi, Gang!, Waterlogged Spa, Riders of the Range, Ignorance is Bliss, Much-Binding-in-the Marsh and Variety Bandbox.  And finally I wonder if As Millions Cheer ever made it to the archives? This hour-long programme was set in a newspaper office on Coronation eve and featured Eric Barker, Peter Ustinov, Alfred Marks, Roy Plomley, Pearl hackney, Maurice Denham, Stanley Unwin, Graham Startk and Herbert Mostyn (i.e. Frank Muir and Denis Norden).

This weekend there are a number of radio and TV programmes celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Coronation:

1953: Those Radio Times on Radio 4 Extra (Saturday 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.)

A Royal Gala Programme of Radio Variety on Radio 4 Extra (Sunday 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.)

Coronation Day Across the World on Radio 4 Extra (Sunday 8 p.m.)

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II a complete re-run of the TV coverage on BBC Parliament (Sunday from 10.10 a.m.)

Coronation Year in Colour on ITV1 (Sunday 5.30 p.m.)

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