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Television reigns: Broadcasting Queen Elizabeth’s coronation

Published: 29 October 2018

Watching historical moments unfold on television is a routine part of modern life—but one royal celebration cemented the television’s place in our living rooms.

In 1953, millions of viewers gathered around newly-purchased television sets to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Homes, pubs and community centres were packed with people, all eyes fixed on the grainy, black-and-white images from the television set.

What was it like to witness both the pomp and splendour of the coronation, and the take-off in popularity of television—which has dominated our social landscape ever since?

When was television introduced in Britain?

 Home-made television receiver built from a Premier Radio kit (1945-1955) Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Home-made television receiver built from a Premier Radio kit (1945-1955)

In the late 1920s John Logie Baird had demonstrated the viability of a range of types of television. In 1929 the BBC used Baird’s 30-line system when experimenting with broadcasting, and this was used for the television service launched in 1932.

The BBC rolled out television transmission across the country in the years after 1945, increasing the pace as the coronation loomed.

Television manufacturers were quick to take advantage, seeing the grand event as a golden opportunity to promote their products.

In the two months preceding the coronation, British viewers bought more sets than in any previous comparable period. 

Estimates put the total number installed by the time of the coronation broadcast at 2.5 million.

What were the technical challenges of the coronation broadcast?

The event would be the largest outside broadcast ever undertaken, and the logistical challenges were formidable. 

Fitting the large and cumbersome television cameras into Westminster Abbey, packed as it would be with the 8,251 heads of state and other distinguished guests, was itself an achievement.

Outside, the BBC had to solve the knotty problem of cabling all the cameras and microphones along the route of the procession that left the Abbey after the ceremony for a tour round London, and connecting them to the broadcasting control centres.

We all got to our control room at about five in the morning ... I’ve never been so nervous in all my life.

Peter Dimmock, BBC Assistant Head of Outside Broadcasts (June 1953)

A photograph of Alexandra Palace, taken in August 1936, showing the BBC's mast and transmitting aerials Science Museum Group Collection
Alexandra Palace photographed in August 1936, showing the BBC's mast and transmitting aerials

The BBC and its transatlantic partners achieved another technical feat by delivering the ceremony to American and Canadian audiences the same day. 

Engineers made a high-quality 35mm film recording of the broadcast as it aired. As soon as each film was ready, a helicopter took it from Alexandra Palace to London Airport.

Technicians loaded the footage onto RAF Canberra bomber aircraft and processed it as the planes flew over the Atlantic. 

American and Canadian fans of Britain’s historic tradition of pomp and ceremony were able to see the coronation only a few hours after it happened.

Science Museum Group Collection More information
Science Museum Group Collection More information

How many people watched the coronation on TV?

When the broadcast got underway, you could hear a pin drop as over 20 million people watched the popular young Queen Elizabeth II swear the coronation oath, almost twice the radio audience.

Subsequent surveys suggested that for each television showing the coronation, an average of 17 people were watching—jostling for a good view of the tiny screens of the day. 

Over the seven hours of transmission, the expert commentary from Richard Dimbleby, setting the scene and explaining the ceremony, meant that no one was left in the dark.

Radio transmission swelled the numbers of those able to experience the coronation live. Many also later saw A Queen Is Crowned, a colour film that was a regular and popular feature in cinemas for several months after the service had taken place—but television was the big success.

Did the broadcast represent a cultural shift?

Before the transmission was agreed, Members of Parliament debated whether this democratisation of a rarefied occasion was suitably respectful. One even asked:

Might there, even, be something unseemly in the chance that a viewer could watch this solemn and significant Service with a cup of tea at his elbow?

But the Queen herself cut through the protocol and insisted that the broadcast go ahead.

On the commercial TV stations in the US, jaunty advertisements interrupted the transmission of the solemn ceremony. One particularly controversial advert featured a chimpanzee known as Fred J Muggs. The British press were outraged by the lack of respect.

The episode became a factor in the debate about television advertising already under way in the UK, as commercial interests questioned the BBC’s monopoly on television transmission. 

The commercial companies overcame the doubters, and the government licensed the first commercial channel, Independent Television (ITV), in 1955.

What was the legacy of the transmission?

Although radio and film played their part, the TV coverage established the role of television in providing a cultural experience shared by millions, from news to daytime soaps.

For the first time, people across the country and even overseas were able to witness, in real time, the pomp and pageantry of the coronation of a British monarch.

From this moment, the shared experience of watching programmes on the TV—sporting events such as Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile, children’s programmes like Blue Peter, dramas such as Cathy Come Home, comedies from Hancock’s Half Hour to Monty Python—became central to family life in Britain.