The Visual Grammar of Big Royal Events

There has been much discussion over the past few days about the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Weekend. There were a lot of spectacles and public events to cover, and not everyone thinks Auntie Beeb got the coverage right.

Its now a fact that our observations of any big public event such as the #RoyalWedding or the Diamond Jubilee largely mediated by TV. This is also largely true even if you were there. Jumbo TV screens show you what’s happening a few hundred yards away.

@Cllr_MikeHarris: I’m one of hundreds of 1000s of Londoners witnessing the historic sight of the back of a slightly taller person’s head #Jubilee

In eras past, one assumes that very few people actually witnessed the big events they had come to watch. I expect that a large proportion of the people who claim to have lined the streets for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 saw very little, and their memories of being there are mingled with memories of watching subsequent footage of the coronation on all those newly purchased TVs.

The way events are covered therefore matters a great deal to the message that event carries.

Instead of criticizing the BBC, its worth simply comparing their coverage of the different Jubilee events on offer. The truly unique event was the water pageant. There has been nothing like this for centuries. What was unsurprising about the BBC’s coverage was that they chose to cover it like a sporting event where one doesn’t quite know what will happen, and therefore all angles had to be covered. (The irony is, of course, that sporting events are remarkably similar to one another, and most sporting coverage is actually false hyperbole, emphasizing a uniqueness that is often missing. This Mitchell & Webb sketch perfectly satirizes this tendency amongst the broadcasters).

Contrast with religious and State ceremonies, which are all about ritual. Their value lies precisely in their repetition. All you need here is a presenter telling us, “this is the bit where…”

The Queen is the only monarch to have reigned during the TV age, so we cannot compare here performance to that of other British monarchs. But my feeling is that the monarchy in general, and this Royal Family in particular, always seem to come across better in moments of ritual, when they stand outside the contemporary. If they have any value, then it lies in this. So I always find that images of the Royals (especially Heir-to-The-Throne Prince William) in photographs with celebrities to be particularly discordant. And it was positively ridiculous to see the Queen standing next to Cheryl Cole on the night of the Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace: The permanent icon of Britain, whose hairstyle has not changed in 60 years, alongside the perfect representative of intransigence and fleeting fame.

I think it is this clash which accounts for some of the dissatisfaction with the BBC’s Jubilee Coverage. It wasn’t that the broadcaster covered it particularly badly, it was just that some events lend themselves to dignified, ritualistic coverage, and some do not.

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2 thoughts on “The Visual Grammar of Big Royal Events

  1. Interesting piece. Didn’t watch much of it to be honest though it was difficult to avoid the coverage of the coverage.
    I note your comment about the royals being at their best when they stand above the crowd. But maybe the royals need to be seen to be down with the celebs to have meaning to a younger generation. ( I am a Republican, but a realistic one….)
    I think that the Pageant was an opportunity missed. The actual procession down the river could have been a backdrop to some mini documentaries on the life of the bargies, the Dunkerque landings. And some of the composers weren’t too happy about the coverage their specially written music received. Even I might have watched the event if it had been treated in this way.
    Perhaps the problem was one of narrative: Was the Pageant about Britain (a maritime nation), London or the royal family? The coverage chose to concentrate on the family, even though the Pageant was about more.

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