The mise-en-scène seemed oddly familiar. It took me a moment to work out why. Then I realised: it was from the theatre, from endless RSC and National Theatre productions of Shakespeare history plays. The kinds that have a knowing mixture of costumes from different periods: a touch of Tudor, a soupçon of Hanoverian, a dash of modern high fashion, a studied contemporary ordinariness for the proletariat hangers-on who gather outside.
But no costume department, no props store, could ever rival the accoutrements seen at the late Queen’s funeral and her lying in state. Oh, the glint of the cuirasses, the snowiness of the swans’ plumes! The pikes and swords, the halberds and bows, the epaulettes and aiguillettes! The bearskins, the ruffs, the bonnets, the croziers, the chasubles, the mitres, the cockades. The lines of men with “something like the old family coal-scuttle” on their heads, as Virginia Woolf once put it. Impossible not to speculate on details of these arcane outfits from the most lavish dressing-up boxes in the world. Take the Royal Company of Archers – a body largely elaborated by Walter Scott for George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. How on earth do they find the eagle feathers that decorate their hats? Do they stand on the eagle-rich island of Mull, until one happens to fall out of the sky?
Oddly enough I was at the last state funeral – that is, I was present at the filming of a scene set during the state funeral of Winston Churchill, for the television series The Crown. Was that any less real than what unfolded in Westminster Abbey today? It is true that on that occasion, in 2019, the director of photography got to dictate the numinous light that hazed through the windows of what was actually Winchester Cathedral. Ritual and religion, pageantry and power, magnificence and make-believe – all are first cousins to theatre. In ancient Athens, where theatre was born, plays were mounted in honour of the god Dionysus and preceded by a state procession – the pompe, from which we get our word pomp.
All plays want to draw us into their fictional universe; they want us to suspend our disbelief. The point of the giant immersive drama into which the UK has been drawn since 8 September is to persuade us to collude in the collective fantasy that the royals are more than human. That the monarchy itself, and the transference of the crown from mother to son, is legitimate. To renovate the notion that in the royal family is encapsulated some ineffable and inalienable “Britishness” that binds the people of the UK together, despite our present woes.
There is jeopardy at many points in this drama, of course: will it all go off without a hitch? Will people deliver their lines well, and without incident? (In fact the prime minister, Liz Truss, read “In my father’s house are many mansions” – that great passage from the gospel of St John – with all the sensitivity of a bored surveyor describing a condemned block of council flats.) Will those stricken-faced young men who bear the coffin do so without letting fall the crown, the orb, the sceptre, the wreath? The diamond globe and cross from the top of the imperial crown tumbled from the coffin during George V’s funeral procession; the horses dragging the gun carriage bolted at Victoria’s. But yes, this lot have it down. Pina Bausch had nothing on the delicious crabwise steps they dance to move their delicate cargo from aeroplane to hearse, from catafalque to gun carriage.
What we have watched is, of course, a script, written long ago, planned for, rehearsed exhaustively. Unlike most plays, though, this particular show is accompanied by a commentary telling its audience what to think and how to feel. The death of George VI was also brought to you by the BBC, albeit to nearly everyone only on the wireless. Richard Dimbleby’s atmospheric, ringingly poetic words at the time did something to cement the popularity of the monarchy. The coverage in 1952 admittedly had its problems – on the day of the King’s death, the BBC simply stopped broadcasting, with the result that “in many remote rural districts, householders … sent for the local repair man,” according to Mollie Panter-Downes’s contemporary report in the New Yorker. This time silence has not been the problem. Nor has any BBC journalist reached Dimbleby’s rhetorical heights. The tone is fulsome and mawkish. Huw Edwards would make Uriah Heep blush.
Planned for, yes; scripted, yes – but the historian David Cannadine, in a classic essay on the invention of tradition, debunked the notion of the antiquity of royal ceremonial occasions. “The majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the 19th century oscillated between farce and fiasco,” he wrote. At George IV’s funeral, William IV talked constantly and walked out early. “We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons,” wrote the Times of the mourners.
It was from the late 19th century, as democracy gained purchase, that the arcane-seeming royal ceremonials piled up, ever more elaborate and persuasive. In 1910, it was Edward VII who was the first to lie in state as the public filed by. George V in 1936 and George VI were the first to have their coffins pulled on gun carriages by naval ratings. The British somehow convinced themselves they had always been better at royal pageantry than other nations, though since so many others had dispensed with their monarchs, the field lay relatively open.
From the perspective of 2022, it feels that the more wretched, bitter and badly governed the country becomes, the more splendid and gilded the royal ceremonies, and the more outrageous the national self-delusion. Nevertheless, the past 11 days’ rituals, with their small tweaks and innovations, cannot help but point to where the national anxieties lie. That the King should dash from Scotland to Northern Ireland and Wales between his mother’s death and funeral tells you all you need to know about the fragility of the union; that the Commonwealth was so lavishly invoked during the funeral rites was a reminder that the angry ghosts of empire are massing outside the palace and cathedral doors.
For now, that’s it: the curtain has gone down and the audience are emerging, blinking, into the harsh light of real life. But this is only the interval. Brace yourself for act two: the coronation.
Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer
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