How did television cover the Queen’s funeral? The death of the first television monarch

Television has always been fascinated by the symbolism of Elizabeth Windsor, and her funeral today was no different

The state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was attended by over 2,000 people. A congregation of presidents and prime ministers, dignitaries and celebrities, world leaders and royalty gathered to pay their respects and say their goodbyes to the United Kingdom’s longest-serving monarch. It was broadcast live across the world, with some anticipating it will be viewed by billions.

Television has always been fascinated by the symbolism of Elizabeth Windsor, and you could write a compelling history of the form by looking solely at how she was filtered through its lens. The controversial 1969 documentary Royal Family, a fly-on-the-wall piece about life inside Buckingham Palace, since banned from UK television at the personal request of the Queen, speaks volumes about the interaction between the sovereign and the state broadcaster.

The Crown is a way to understand modern prestige television and the rise of online streaming services; Harry Enfield’s The Windsors encompasses how comedy has changed and how it hasn’t; even the swiftly cancelled Family Guy-esque rendition The Prince reveals much about how monarchy is packaged and sold overseas. That’s to say nothing, of course, of the more peripheral interactions between Queen and television, like Martin Bashir’s interview with Diana or Oprah’s conversation with Harry and Meghan.

Her coronation, broadcast live from Westminster Abbey in 1953, is widely credited with inspiring the first wave of mass purchase of television sets across the UK; narrated by Richard Dimbleby, the four cameras stationed around the Abbey were the first ever allowed to film inside the church.

Today, 213 Ultra High Definition cameras, hidden around the Abbey in hollowed out bricks, captured the state funeral from every angle; Richard’s son David Dimbleby is one of a number of BBC journalists providing commentary. Much has been made of the Queen as a symbol of history, and that’s as true of television as it is of anything else.

The television coverage of the Queen’s funeral was in many ways a culmination of all of that. BBC journalists opened by describing an effort to celebrate a life while mourning a death, but over the course of the day found themselves offering inane anecdotes about the Queen having “nice skin”.

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It made departures from that all the more striking: Channel 5 offered a genuine public service by playing The Emoji Movie, and in a way demonstrated the abdication of duty from channels with a Public Service Broadcasting remit.

Arguably, it’s not only needless but actively inappropriate to so wholeheartedly commit to coverage of the death and funeral of a monarch – not just on 19 September, but in all the days leading up to it too. Other issues have been crowded off the news agenda, seeming to affirm that the Cost of Living crisis was “insignificant” in light of the Queen’s death.

There’s been no widespread effort to platform Republican views, or to investigate why the forces that mobilised to accommodate queuers couldn’t be made for the homeless – an editorial decision about how to cover a political figure, to be clear, with today’s austere pomp and circumstance making it apparent that this was and only was the funeral for a head of state.

How exactly the new King will be viewed by television remains to be seen. For now, at least, it’ll be a relief for the lens to finally look elsewhere for a while.

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