TELEVISION: A crowning glory, even now

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The Independent Culture
NIGHTINGALES really did sing in Berkeley Square. Somebody had seen to that. They hung the speakers high in the trees so that the recorded sweetness held its own with the endless rain. Sir Edward Ford, a courtier, climbed into his borrowed costume: red collar, gold wire, white stockings. His wife put on her tiara, and they took the Tube to Westminster: 'I don't think anybody thought anything of it.' In Westminster Abbey, Richard Dimbleby scrolled out his script: 'There is a hussshh, the music stops and pauses.' Three ways of saying silence, and not one wasted, like the repetitions in a liturgy. 'And we wait for the procession that will bring Her Majesty to us.' Pursuivant Extraordinary was stuck in front of Unicorn Pursuivant, a vulnerable spot to be sure. And then we saw Her. Just the folds of her robe at first, creamy and stiff like a poppadum curtseying. The choir came out of thin air with a cry that was half song, half shout: 'Vi-vat Re-gina]' This was television, the first time most people had seen it, yet the scene could have been 500 years old as the stones resounded to a raw, medieval noise: Vivat] Vivat] Vivat]

The highlights of Coronation Day (BBC2) and memories of it, recalled As If it Were Yesterday (BBC1), proved that the enthronement of Elizabeth the Second can still grapple the heart of her most reluctant subject. We saw the monochrome version, which is as it should be: things seemed more black and white then. And it does better for mystery, too: there was a stunning shot right at the start where the camera looked down the length of the Abbey which was shrouded in grey like a limp fog hanging, the architraves pencilled in by a ghostly hand.

It was a time of high innocence, before Princess Margaret went on the sauce, before we knew better about our betters. There was no Judith Chalmers to speculate breathily about the frock, and the cameras were still behaving like well-mannered virgins: lie back and film for England. You sense their sense of impertinence at being there: arrivistes at the pageant of ages, trying not to draw attention to themselves.

Commentator Max Robertson was warming his liqueur vowels down on the Embankment with 30,000 jubilant schoolchildren. The Queen passed them in her coach, a smudge of smile and jewel. Young Britons now have a reflex to deal with ceremonial absurdity; we can hoot at the Lifeguards with their Mae West ponytails. But it was disturbing how little irony could shield you from the ceremony itself. You think you can handle it, and then they play Handel: the tremulous beginning of 'Zadok the Priest' making its way to all available nerve endings.

Television has trouble being wholly holy. A sociable creature, it always wants to wave at its friends in the back. But not here. The camera gazed steadily down on the Queen as they undressed her: first the jewels, then the robe, finally the train coming off like a great theatre curtain leaving her in a white shift ready for her anointing. Afterwards, they gave her the symbols of power: the sceptre, the orb, like a cartoon bomb ready to blow up in her face. As she walked down the aisle, gravely balancing her new crown, a vast diamond played havoc with the camera, sending glittering shards into the dazzled eyes of 20 million Britons.

If this was the heady essence of England distilled, you had only to drink deep and drain the glass to find the stain of snobbery. The Coronation's organiser, the Duke of Norfolk, asked how he would set about his task, said: 'If we can sort out what Those People call the toilets, we'll have made a good start.' The Duke opposed televising the Coronation, but the Queen insisted. She was right: nothing could better have soldered her people to her. But, as you watched, you saw what a mistake she had made for her heir. If the monarchy has lost its innocence, so has television: if there is ever a Coronation for Charles III Those People will rig up their lights to roast the ermined peers beneath and we will sit waiting for the sly cut, the knowing close-up. We shall not see that deference again.

The Duke of Norfolk saw it coming. Talking of cameras in the Abbey, he said: 'It's an extraordinary advance and I tremble to think where it may lead in the years ahead.' Forty years on, the Queen is in bed wearing a pink sateen housecoat, tiara jammed tight over curlers. She has swotty specs, a platypus jaw, and is complaining to Prince Philip who is deep in a book called What Tax Dodge?: 'I mean, what have I ever done?' He frowns: 'Eh, you've, er, opened supermarkets, and there's the Trooping the Colour.' 'Who cares if a colour's trooped?' 'Well, you've brought happiness to millions.' 'No, that was Eric Morecambe, Philip. Let's face it, I'm a failure. I haven't done a single worthwhile thing.' The Duke smiles slowly: 'Yes you have . . . You've kept Charles off the throne]' Collapse of monarch in right unroyal giggles. Sic transit gloria.

This was one of six feeble Spitting Image (ITV) sketches featuring the Royals. The satirical show has become as flaccid as the jowls of its Hattersley puppet, the brilliance of the models no longer disguising a witless script. We saw the Queen's 'reshuffle' in which Prince Philip agreed to become the Duchess of York, Harry and Wills joyriding, the Princess of Wales learning to talk improper from Gazza. But these were all the same joke: posh people caught being common.

Still on ITV, but in more reverential vein, Days of Majesty examined the ceremonies that surround the monarchy. Given its starry-eyed approach, Daze of Majesty might have been a better title. The music - soft flutes and triumphal brass - was by Barrington Pheloung, who composed the Inspector Morse theme, and that set the tone - cosy, bland, well-just-fancy-that. Everything that is suffocating and deadening about Britain was here: preposterous rituals long bankrupt of meaning, and some, like the distribution of Maundy money, plain embarrassing. David Suchet's narration suggested he had been sucking barley sugars: the Maundy ceremony was described as 'a public show of humility' by the Queen, although what we were watching seemed to be a public humiliation for the ever-so- 'umble participants. In the 12th century, Suchet explained, the monarch used to kiss the feet of the poor. And in the 20th, the Duchess of York kisses the feet of the rich.

The Monarchy Debate (BBC2) could have been expected to provide an intelligent backbone to the week's events, but something had gone badly wrong in the casting. Michael Mansfield QC and his team were proposing the motion that fundamental changes were needed in the monarchy, so it was a surprise to find Eve Pollard, editor of the Sunday Express, among them. 'Like most of my readers,' she announced, fluttering tarantula eyelashes, 'I am an ardent monarchist.' Surely some mistake? It was a mistake that the combined forces of Anthony Holden, Bryan Gould and a republican academic could do little to overcome. For the defence, Lord St John of Fawsley succeeded in painting a charming picture of the Queen as an old dear rubbing along on a few bob. The best going-for- a-gong turn came from Labour MP Keith Vaz: 'The Royal Family are tremendous assets to this country, there is tremendous excitement when they come to my constituency. A tremendous amount of goodwill is generated, they have a tremendous effect on people . . . the Queen is a tremendous asset in terms of her international reputation and a tremendous statesman in terms of the Commonwealth.' A clear case of delirium tremendous.

Roy Hattersley once again failed to turn up as a guest on Have I Got News for You (BBC2). It was third time unlucky: the lads cheerily replaced him with the Rt Hon Tub of Lard MP, a vat of fat that sat on the counter keeping its own counsel for the most part but occasionally conferring with its partner, Paul Merton. This was an inspired pairing, as Merton doesn't really want a partner. He tends to keep his distance from them, sometimes nodding when they think they have made a witticism: the kind of nod people give when reassuring a confused relative.

This was the last show in the series and the best, reaching the surreal heights of last year's Jeffrey Archer special. The jokes really take off when fuelled by anger. In the odd-one-out round, we saw Saddam Hussein, Deng Xiaoping, Pol Pot and the President of Bosnia. Ian Hislop, now a sharp TV presence after an anxious start, chose the Bosnian president. 'Yes,' said Angus Deayton, 'He is the only one Britain feels it is morally reprehensible to supply arms to.' Angus began to sing quietly: 'Rule Britannia, Britain never never never shall own up to anything if she can help it.' Tremendously impertinent, tremendously unfair, tremendously cheering in these grey days. Absolutely tremendous, Keith.

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