Her performance dazzled the world. Even today, 65 years later, it remains a stunning moment. Not that the Queen herself sees it quite like that.
Praised for the way in which she and her entourage got everything right on one of the most dramatic days in British post-war history, the Monarch provides a more modest perspective: ‘Well, they jolly well should have done after the number of rehearsals we had!’
What makes tomorrow night’s BBC1 documentary on the Coronation so remarkable is the fact that the commentator is the Queen herself — and a very engaging one she is, too.
Viewers will see and hear her reflections on many things, from her father’s own Coronation to the occasion when the biggest diamond in history had to be broken into pieces. As she speaks, two of its most spectacular off-cuts are pinned to her royal blue dress.
What makes tomorrow night’s BBC1 documentary (pictured) on the Coronation so remarkable is the fact that the commentator is the Queen herself — and a very engaging one she is, too
This is an outstanding programme which is both poignant and, at times, very funny thanks to the Queen’s dry asides and some deft comic timing.
Unlike the fictional Queen cooked up by the makers of the glossy Netflix soap, The Crown, this programme shows us the genuine article. At its heart, however, is the timeless system whereby ancient ceremonial and symbolism still underpin our modern constitutional freedoms.
It also answers a question that has intrigued historians for years: what happened to the Crown Jewels during World War II?
But perhaps the most interesting discovery is that the events of June 2, 1953, are, to this day, as captivating for the Queen as they are for the rest of us. At several points, she is spellbound.
We observe her relief that she was spared the sort of glitches which her father, George VI, endured at his Coronation 16 years earlier. On that occasion, there was a comedy of errors in placing St Edward’s Crown on his head. As the Queen acknowledges, her father was extremely unamused.
If her own Coronation made TV history — triggering record sales of television sets and viewing figures — then tomorrow’s programme has an historic quality about it, too.
Viewers will see and hear her reflections on many things, from her father’s own Coronation to the occasion when the biggest diamond in history had to be broken into pieces
It is not only a timely reminder of a ceremony which goes back 1,000 years, underpinning all that binds us as a nation: this documentary is also the first time any monarch has ever discussed what the Queen describes as the ‘beginning of one’s life as the Sovereign’.
It is the first time that all the Crown Jewels have been removed from their bomb-proof display cabinets for the benefit of the cameras. It is also the first time the Queen has observed her Coronation through the eyes of an ordinary viewer.
In these selfie-obsessed times, many will be surprised to learn that the Queen has not been glued to grainy footage of herself in all her crowning glory. Indeed, she hasn’t even watched some of her own home movies of the great day, let alone discussed them in public. Until now.
But this is a reminder of a generation for whom life was simply about getting on with the job; for whom dwelling on one’s celebrity was anathema. At the same time, we reflect on the vast span of the longest reign in British history.
The 91-year-old Queen is watching her 27-year-old self. Only her eldest child, Prince Charles, was in the Abbey that day.
As she speaks, two of its most spectacular off-cuts are pinned to her royal blue dress
Princess Anne was left at home and the Queen’s younger children would not be born for years. She was only 25 when her father died and she acceded to the Throne.
Britain has had just two Coronations during the past 100 years. There is now only one person alive who was at the centre of both.
The Queen was 11 when she sat in Westminster Abbey to watch her father, George VI, being crowned King. He had asked her to produce her own account of the ceremony.
‘I remember my father making me write down what I remembered about his Coronation,’ says the Queen. ‘Have you never seen it?’
Viewers are duly offered a glimpse of one of the most enchanting documents in the Royal Archives, an exercise book inscribed: ‘To Mummy and Papa, In Memory of Their Coronation, From Lilibet. By Herself.’
She also makes an endearing confession: she has a better recollection of her father’s Coronation than of her own. ‘Much better,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t doing anything. Just sitting there.’
The Princess clearly took it all in, judging by her detailed account from the moment she ‘leapt out of bed’ to the ethereal climax in the Abbey.
‘I thought that it was all very, very wonderful and I expect the Abbey did, too,’ she wrote. ‘The arches and beams at the top were covered with a sort of haze of wonder as Papa was crowned, at least I thought so.’
Down at ground level, things were not quite so wonderful. During rehearsals, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, had been worried about presenting the regalia in the correct order.
This is an outstanding programme which is both poignant and, at times, very funny thanks to the Queen’s dry asides and some deft comic timing
It was all supposed to be passed to him by the elderly Dean of Westminster, a somewhat confused figure who would be united with his maker a few months later.
To ensure the most important piece, St Edward’s Crown, was the right way round, the Archbishop had attached two threads of cloth to the front. Shortly before the ceremony, however, an over-zealous cleaner had removed them.
At the critical moment, the Dean handed over the Crown back-to-front. The flustered Archbishop was left frantically searching for his threads and could only hope for the best.
For the King, who had endured one bumbling bishop treading on his train and another covering a key section of the Oath with his thumb, this must have been the last straw.
‘I don’t suppose he was best-pleased,’ says the programme’s presenter, Alastair Bruce.
Quick as a flash, the Queen shoots back: ‘No he wasn’t!’
As the King wrote in his diary: ‘I never did know whether it was right or not.’
This is very much a conversation rather than an interview. The Queen has never given an interview, mindful of Walter Bagehot’s old dictum about not letting in ‘daylight upon magic’.
Throughout her reign, she has sought to make the Monarchy as modern as it needs to be without jeopardising the dignity and mystique of a position she has occupied longer than anyone.
In her tenth decade, she remains very much in charge. Though she may now delegate some of the more onerous tasks to the Prince of Wales, following the Duke of Edinburgh’s retirement from public duties, she remains at the top of her game.
That will be perfectly clear a few months hence when representatives of the Commonwealth descend on London for the largest gathering of heads of government in British history.
Unlike the fictional Queen cooked up by the makers of the glossy Netflix soap, The Crown, this programme shows us the genuine article
In May, her grandson’s wedding will be watched all over the world.
The Monarchy is as secure and popular today as it was on that day in 1953. This programme shows a chatty, sometimes impish Queen who seems entirely relaxed and happy with life.
A vintage moment occurs when the production team needs to re-arrange the Imperial State Crown. There is much fretting about the correct way to handle such a priceless object. The Queen cuts straight through all the fuss and grabs it, saying with a broad smile: ‘This is what I do when I wear it.’
It helps that her interlocutor knows his stuff. Alastair Bruce is one of Britain’s foremost ceremonial experts and commentators as well as being a Herald at the College of Arms (not to mention historical adviser to Downton Abbey).
The former Scots Guards officer and Falklands veteran takes the Monarch through every stage of Coronation day, from the journey to the Palace in the notoriously uncomfortable Gold State Coach — ‘Horrible,’ she says, ‘it’s not meant for travelling in at all’ — to the central moments of a ritual which goes back to the ancients.
It is a delightful scene as the Queen is reunited with St Edward’s Crown, which has been removed from the Tower for the film.
‘Is it still heavy?’ the Queen wonders. ‘Oh yes.’ Weighing 5lb, it is. At least this whopper is only worn at coronations.
Also present is the Imperial State Crown, which the Queen has worn year after year at the State Opening of Parliament. It was actually reduced from its original size to suit her, but is still akin to wearing a bag of sugar on one’s head.
‘You have to keep your head very still,’ supposes Bruce. The Queen agrees, explaining that if she ever looked down while reading the Queen’s speech in Parliament, there would be two problems. ‘Your neck would break,’ she says, and the Crown ‘would fall off.’
It is the first time that all the Crown Jewels have been removed from their bomb-proof display cabinets for the benefit of the cameras. It is also the first time the Queen has observed her Coronation through the eyes of an ordinary viewer
The Imperial State Crown contains one of the largest diamonds in the world, the Second Star of Africa, a 317-carat cushion-shaped stone. It is surpassed only by the First Star of Africa, which sits in the Sceptre.
Both emerged from a 3,106-carat monster called the Cullinan Diamond, named after the manager of the South African mine where it was discovered in 1905.
Back then, South Africa was a royal dominion and the Cullinan ended up with King Edward VII. It was far too big to wear, so an Amsterdam diamond expert cut it into usable pieces. The Queen wistfully pictures the scene: ‘I always wish I had been there when they smashed it into pieces.’
What happened next has passed down through family folklore. As the Queen reveals, the original Cullinan had one imperfection that the jeweller was keen to remove, a brown-coloured flaw in one of the facets. ‘He hit it and all the bits fell out and the brown bit disappeared,’ she says happily.
The Cullinan might have been smashed to pieces, but it would create the greatest collection of diamonds ever seen.
These were numbered according to size. Numbers one and two have been renamed the ‘Stars of Africa’. The rest are known in the family as ‘Granny’s Chips’, after the Queen’s grandmother, Queen Mary.
In tomorrow’s programme, the Queen wears numbers three and four, both of which are brooches.
‘The Crown Jewels are not and have never been about her,’ explains Bruce. ‘I don’t think the Queen has ever been terribly excited about what jewels she is wearing. It’s the symbolism that counts.
We observe her relief that she was spared the sort of glitches which her father, George VI, endured at his Coronation 16 years earlier. On that occasion, there was a comedy of errors in placing St Edward’s Crown on his head. As the Queen acknowledges, her father was extremely unamused
‘Some of the stones go back as far as Edward the Confessor but, together, they represent the powers vested in the Monarch through the Crown. It’s our best-known, least-understood symbol.’ It is hardly surprising that, when Britain was digging in against the threat of Nazi invasion in 1940, George VI gave much thought to protecting the sacred instruments of kingship.
Alastair Bruce has unearthed his cunning plan. The King asked the Royal Librarian, Owen Morshead, to remove the jewels from all the crowns and sceptres.
Morshead set to work with his pliers and the stones were then buried in a biscuit tin beneath Windsor Castle.
Such was the secrecy surrounding the project even the Queen was unaware of the precise details until now. ‘We were told nothing,’ she tells Bruce. ‘We were just children.’
Practical as ever, she ponders what would have happened if the man who knew where the jewels were buried had gone to an early grave.
Tomorrow’s film kicks off a BBC season on the treasures of the Royal Collection, many of which are serialised in the Mail’s Weekend magazine. The Prince of Wales will appear later in the series to discuss portraits ancient and modern, including some which he has commissioned himself to capture the last heroes of the Battle of Britain and D-Day.
But at the very apex of the world’s greatest art collection are the world’s most famous jewels. And tomorrow night, they are reunited with the world’s most famous woman.
As the executive producer, Anthony Geffen of Atlantic Productions, points out, this project has been 22 years in the making.
So why has the Queen not watched it all before? ‘I think it was a very difficult experience,’ says Geffen. ‘She pulled it off brilliantly and then, I suppose, she just wanted to put it behind her.’
As she explained to Alastair Bruce during a break in filming: ‘You’ve studied this all your life, Alastair. I just lived through it.’
Back in 1953, Churchill was Prime Minister and almost everyone went to church on Sunday. The idea of a man on the Moon was as remote as the idea of tieless members of the Royal Family openly discussing their inner feelings — or, indeed, a Monarch on TV talking about her diamonds.
But the Queen has always understood that Monarchy represents continuity and that continuity is maintained only by judiciously and gradually moving with the times.
This is why the institution she leads, like some of those jewels, has endured for a thousand years.
The Coronation is on BBC1 tomorrow at 8pm. Weekend magazine has exclusive extracts from Art, Passion & Power: The Story Of The Royal Collection.
It will be aired in the US on the Smithsonian Channel on Sunday at 8pm (ET).