Wednesday, 8 May 2013

State Opening of Parliament

Today’s State Opening of Parliament once again displays al the pomp and majesty in what is essentially a triumph of style over substance. The Queen’s Speech will, no doubt, have been well sign-posted in advance and is unlikely to contain any surprises.

Admittedly we can now be pretty blasé about the whole event but 55 years ago the State Opening was broadcast for the first time, on both radio and television.  The decision to cover the event was not taken lightly. During a Parliamentary debate in July of that year Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was adamant that it was not the start of regular coverage: “I should like to make it clear that the Government regard this ceremony as a State occasion, quite distinct from the day-to-day work of Parliament, and that they have no intention of proposing that facilities for the televising of those day-to-day proceedings should be allowed”.

The Government was also at pains to ensure that the public didn’t think that the Queen was sullying her hands with the dirty world of politics. The speech “is drafted by the cabinet and is a short, factual account of what the Government proposes to do during the coming session of Parliament”, wrote the BBC’s Parliamentary Correspondent Roland Fox. “The fear has often been expressed that this would not be realised by the viewing and listening millions if the speech were to be broadcast ‘live’. When the decision to allow the facilities for the first time was announced in the House of Commons, Mr Gaitskell said there was a possible danger that the sight of Her Majesty reading the speech might be misleading, and he emphasised how important it was that the Crown should not become involved in party politics”.  

That first broadcast of the Procession from Buckingham Palace and the State Opening was on Tuesday 28 October 1958. Explaining the proceedings to BBC viewers was, naturally enough for a Royal event, Richard Dimbleby. Meanwhile radio coverage on the Home Service was described by Audrey Russell from the Victoria Memorial, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas at Westminster Abbey, Raymond Baxter at the Entrance to the Palace of Westminster and David Lloyd James in the House of Lords.

That week’s Radio Times went into some detail not just about the ceremony itself but the engineering problems involved in bringing to the public, with the pictures also been fed to Independent Television.
As a broadcasting operation, the Opening of Parliament, for all its richness and splendour, does not compare with the Coronation in complexity and magnitude. It has its own problems, however. The engineers led by Alan Bray and his chief planner John Allport, have had to install and the test the equipment at odd moments when the Law lords were not sitting. Cameras have had to be conjured into positions where they don’t steal seating space for the distinguished gathering.
In the sound radio broadcast, the absence of music, except for fanfares, will thow a heavier load on the commentary.
Not to spoil the splendour and dignity of the Palace of Westminster, the three cameras covering the ceremony in the Upper House will be mounted inconspicuously on platforms built into doorways and galleries. Sound-proof cubicles have been set up for Richard Dimbleby and David Lloyd James, and for the Independent Television commentator.   (The ITA’s commentator was Robin Day).
Pictures are, of course, only half the story. The sound side, like television, will have its specially-built control panel in the Houses of Parliament. Charles Max-Muller, producing for sound, will have with him the veteran engineer R.H. Wood, for the past 22 years responsible for the Royal broadcasts from Sandringham on Christmas Day.
Microphones, though less eye-catching than television cameras, could still jar on the august Chamber. The engineers have tried their hands at camouflage. For instance, the tow microphones carrying the Queen’s Speech are hidden behind twin angels on either side of the Throne and gilded to match their wings.

The BBC TV coverage of the 1958 ceremony has cropped up on the BBC Parliament channel but here’s the Pathé Newsreel of the occasion.

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