BBC platinum jubilee review: Queen’s partial absence poses tricky challenges

Finding the right tone was not always easy, but the TV marathon was a triumphant return for Kirsty Young

Short of royal correspondent Jonny Dymond changing his surname to Platinum for the bank holiday weekend, the BBC could not have made much more effort in its coverage of Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne. There were 15 and a half hours of live coverage across four days on BBC One, punctuated by documentaries and specials.

The corporation, in covering royal matters, has two modes – courtier and reporter. These are generally separate – head bowed for weddings and funerals, fingers pointing for programmes about Prince Andrew or royal finances and divorces – but were merged by the circumstances of these ceremonies.

Thursday’s trooping the colour and Friday’s service of thanksgiving were the sort of events that would naturally find the BBC at its most reverential, tone little changed from when the Queen replaced her father. But, unusually for such pomp programmes, there were properly newsworthy presences – the Sussexes of California briefly back on parade, Boris Johnson in potentially one of his final duties as PM – and absences: the Archbishop of Canterbury with Covid and pneumonia, Prince Andrew with Covid and disgrace. Most extraordinarily, there was doubt over whether and when the Queen might appear.

This tense context placed the BBC’s curtseying and journalistic instincts in conflict. When the news broke on Thursday night that the Queen would not be in St Paul’s Cathedral the following morning, main presenter Kirsty Young suggested that “everyone would understand” this strength-preserving no-show, leaving it to Nicholas Witchell on the 10pm news to point out that, as the palace had been briefing the service as the key event for the Queen, the pullout was a significant, and possibly ominous, blow.

And, for all the clear expense and expertise of the coverage, the BBC visibly struggled with the weirdness of throwing a party for a person who had not turned up. During the trooping, Huw Edwards was the first commentator on this occasion to be required to murmur into his mic that it wasn’t certain the troops’ commander-in-chief would take part.

Edwards was also adjusting to not being the main in-vision presenter for a big monarchical moment, having been first choice since the semi-retirement of David Dimbleby. But the platinum jubilee honour went to Young, a brave choice for a broadcast surrounded by uncertainties as she was returning to work after four years’ absence with debilitating fibromyalgia.

Although it shamefully still feels striking for a big state event to be fronted by a woman, the coronation in 1953 was hosted by Sylvia Peters. So there was both freshness and symmetry in picking Young.

As she anchored five long live transmissions from a union flag-floored pagoda by a lake in St James’s Park – water-bordered isolation perhaps a visual pun on her former role as host of Desert Island Discs – even viewers dubious about the monarchy must have been extending goodwill to the presenter.

When winds rippled the water, you worried for her comfort. Might it have been wiser to have come back with a shorter broadcast? As the coverage followed the TV football model of starting hours before each main event, Young could have almost flown to Australia in the time she spent filler-chatting to guests, of whom the best were Dame Maureen Lipman, delivering an a cappella a song about the Queen she learned as a child in Hull, and her colleague Dimbleby, who brought along his father’s coronation service book, sections of commentary typed in; he revealed that his dad had asked the archbishop to count to two before lowering the crown so that the commentator could get in the line he had prepared.

By Sunday afternoon, and the River of Hope march down the Mall, a fake (presumably) corgi had appeared by Young’s side, but she seemed more puppyish than dog tired. The gamble of giving her this marathon proved justified. She was fluent, informed and, in her tone if not her bones, warm throughout. TV’s honours system – the Bafta awards – will surely have something for her next year, and probably the state honours as well.

During the trooping, Edwards had to deal with another pressure: how to cover a very old-fashioned event without breaching editorial guidelines very attuned to new-fashioned sensitivities.

These were threatened by Edwards’ co-commentator, former army officer and ex-royal aide, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton. The central regiment this year, he explained, was the Irish Guards, “affectionately known as the Micks”. He commended their performance for its “Mick swagger” and “great Mick cocktail”. BBC managers, you suspected, were choking on their jubilee cocktails, and Edwards soon attempted some emergency sweeping behind the horse. JLP, he complained, had described the M-word as “affectionate”, but some might feel it was “not very nice”. The haughty reply was that this was the Guards’ own nickname “and any connotations there may or may not be are long gone”. Edwards rapidly moved on before Lowther-Pinkerton could start affectionately calling him Taff.

The uneasiness of trooping the colour without the commander-in-chief to whom the troops show their colours was eventually appeased by two brief appearances of the Queen on the balcony. On Friday morning in St Paul’s, though, it became apparent that the producers had not fully thought through the dynamics of monarchical events without the monarch. There is only one template for a church service held in the absence of its honoree, and the Queen’s withdrawal inevitably shadowed the thanksgiving with the iconography of a memorial. That may be why the Prince of Wales, taking the seat intended for his mother, looked notably emotional.

This was where the choice of David Dimbleby as the disembodied voice from the belfry paid off. Always a tempting selection as a genetic link to the 1953 coronation, on which his father, Richard, commented, Dimbleby seemed to realise the risk of a quasi-funeral tone settling over ecclesiastical tributes to someone not present.

Whereas Edwards can confuse respect with stolid solemnity, Dimbleby has always had an impish, twinkly aspect to his broadcasting persona and usefully brought this to St Paul’s, teasing co-commentator Roya Nikkhah, royal editor of the Sunday Times, with questions about how well she knew the royals and whether the Queen had met Harry and Meghan since their return. (Nikkhah “understood” that she had.)

The lack of comment on women’s fashions felt like progress, although many viewers may have been speculating on why Carrie Johnson had chosen a hat with a big angled brim that effectively formed a barrier between her and the current prime minister.

Even Dimbleby sometimes felt constrained by the courtier-reporter divide, not mentioning that the prime minister was booed as he arrived, while Jane Hill, on the BBC News channel, did.

“I’ve just heard the Queen is already watching at Windsor Castle,” Dimbleby reported early in his stint. If so, Her Majesty may have commended the wit of whoever at Buckingham or Lambeth Palace landed Johnson a reading from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians that urges the importance of honourable behaviour.

Then the Archbishop of York, last-minute substitute for the unwell Canterbury, preached about Elizabeth II as a model of leaders “who lead for others, not themselves”. Who could York be talking about? “People whose heart’s desire is to serve the common good.” He was really rubbing it in.

Relations between the government and the Church of England were already poor after the Archbishop of Canterbury described Johnson’s scheme to process asylum seekers in Rwanda as “ungodly”, but must be even lower after the double sting during the service. Don’t rule out an Anglican Church (Disestablishment) Act from whatever is left of the Johnson administration.

Saturday night’s three-hour pop concert, the Platinum Party at the Palace, had never expected the monarch’s presence, but after her absence from St Paul’s, it suddenly seemed unwise to open the show with a band called Queen whose irreplaceable front person is missing.

Watching from the front row of the royal box, the Prince of Wales may have reflected that replacing his mother may be as daunting as Adam Lambert filling in for Freddie Mercury. Sweet Caroline, though, was presumably included due to its recent popularity as a sports arena knees-up rather than because the second Elizabethan age is scheduled to be followed by the third Caroline reign.

After Young and Dimbleby, Paddington Bear became the third stand-out star of the weekend, appearing with the Queen in a CGI animation sketch repeating the appeal of her participation in the James Bond spoof still fondly remembered 10 years on from the London Olympics opening ceremony.

When the shy, slight 24-year-old woman became Queen, it would have seemed unlikely that one of the things for which her reign would be remembered is her comic timing. Perhaps at some conscious or unconscious level, she wishes to distinguish herself from her notoriously unamused ancestors, Victoria and the unsmiling Elizabeth I, her only rivals as historical figures in the line of English queens. Among her legacies will surely be a future quiz question about which two stars from the James Bond franchise Elizabeth II co-starred with on screen – Ben Whishaw, who plays Q as well as voicing the Peruvian bear, now joins Daniel Craig.

Having covered the coronation on the BBC Television Service, which then had the medium to itself, the UK’s oldest broadcaster has always seen itself, despite calamities like the Diana Panorama interview, as By Royal Appointment, and still employs a royal liaison officer. This heritage was reflected in the boastful logo on all platinum jubilee programmes: “Official Broadcaster”.

You don’t need to be a fierce republican to find the long television hours of marching soldiers and nervous reassurances about the leader’s health somewhat Soviet or North Korean. But, if there has to be this kind of TV, it could not be better done than by the BBC this weekend.

Ten years ago, the corporation’s coverage of the diamond jubilee attracted 5,000 complaints, mainly about youth-audience-courting gimmicks and inappropriate or inexpert language, such as as calling the Queen Her Royal Highness rather than Her Majesty. This time, the worst that happened was an overpromotion. Handing over from Breakfast, Naga Munchetty dubbed the impending presenter “Sir David Dimbleby”, a title that, if ever offered by the monarch, has not been accepted.

Royal historical pedants may object that the programming sometimes blurred the succession with the coronation, the 70th anniversary of which does not fall until June 2023. But in what the Archbishop of York tactfully called “uncertain times”, it perhaps made sense to get that coverage in early. And if the BBC is required to do much the same again next summer, it looks in good shape to do so, as well as having banked vital preparation for the final televised event of the Queen’s reign, that inevitable eventuality that deepened and darkened these theoretically feelgood events.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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