Some history from Peter Ward
as you can see, from his 1985
contribution to the GTC magazine. Peter sent this to match with the transmission on
Friday 9th Jan 2004 of "Days That Shook The World", with a recreation of the BBC 1953 Coronation
broadcast complete with period gallery and Marconi Mk 2 camera, done by Dicky Howett of Golden Age TV. I'm sorry to say
that I was actually filming and editing for once, and didn't get to this till 27th Jan.
THE 1953 CORONATION OB
GUILD OF TV CAMERAMANS MAGAZINE
The 50th anniversary of the opening of the world's first high definition television service
will be celebrated next year. One of the most significant broadcasts during those years
occurred on June 2nd. The Outside Broadcast of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the
Second was the first television transmission in the UK to achieve a larger audience
than radio. It was also the biggest single boost to television sales with one million new
sets being purchased or rented in order to watch the OB. Over twenty million viewers
watched the ceremony compared to eleven million who listened to it on radio. It was a
unique transmission in the history of broadcasting in many ways. Not only for the effect
it had on creating a mass TV audience, but in the worldwide praise and compliments it
received as a piece of skilful television.
When the Earl Marshall announced on the 22nd October 1952 the arrangements for the
Coronation. live TV was restricted to the procession with an evening showing of a
film of the Coronation Service. There was considerable protest at the ban and after
a discussion with the Palace and the Archbishop of Canterbury it was the BBC who
was blamed for not explaining how inconspicuous the TV cameras (and cameramen)
would be if they were allowed inside Westminster Abbey.
Small is beautiful
The ban was lifted and the search was on amongst BBC OB Crews for small 'inconspicuous'
cameramen. The space inside the Abbey was severely restricted. Not only were there TV
cameras but also newsreel cameramen, a feature colour unit, sound commentators and
still photographers. The TV cameramen in many ways had the worst of it. They were
to be shut up in boxed cubicles which were quickly dubbed the 'dog kennelsą.
D. R. G. Montagu, Senior Cameraman of the Midlands and North Unit, MCR 10, was operating
Camera 3 high up behind the triforium:
"Behind the triforium. the Ministry of Works had set up a network of hastily constructed
rooms or cubicles for operational requirements. I was in one of those - rather like a
wooden cell. with the roof too low for me to stand up straight, but equipped with a box
seat and an electric fan."
"I used to enter with a sort of Groucho Marx straddle and make for the box seat where
I could straighten up sitting down a paradox this.,but comfortably true. From this
seat I evolved numerous permutations of kneeling and sitting positions from which to
make necessary adjustments and operational manoeuvres to the camera."
"In the cubicle over mine was Richard Dimbleby He seemed to have more room than I, for I
could often hear him striding his floor above my head. I envied him his head room. We
knew each other very well by this time through many previous programmes. He always
used to call me Monty' and this name has stuck ever since."
"With the numerous rehearsals and tests which had to be carried out during the week
prior to the Coronation, we were often unable to leave our positions for hours at
a time. The cubicles opened out on to a main corridor which was virtually a gallery
around that section of the Abbey, part of which led to an enclosure with seats for
peers and their ladies."
"An essential facility on this floor were some toilets which had been erected specially
for the occasion and separately and suitably inscribed PEERS and PEERESSES'. For the
purposes of this occasion, Richard and I were temporarily ennobled, as it were. But
visiting the PEERS' was no ordinary matter. One could not just nip smartly away and
come back at leisure. There were very strict security precautions and arrangements.
You had to wait outside the door of your own cubicle, and in good time (if you were
lucky and traffic was light) a uniformed official would arrive to escort you there
and shall always remember Richard with patience and apprehension outside his cubicle,
trying to catch the eye of this uniformed flunkey, just as one would hail a bus,
and proceeding under escort to the PEERS' and eventually back again. This solemn
ritual was carried out with all the dignity worthy of the occasion.' "
Even enclosed in his box, Monty's shirt was thought to be noticeable from the floor of
the Abbey. He was sent by Peter Dimmock to Austin Reed to buy a stone coloured 'inconspicuous'
shirt at the BBC's expense. He chose a very expensive silk shirt which happily lasted him
The five cameras in the Abbey were Marconi 1.0. Mk.2. from MCR 10 (North & Midlands)
and MCR 9 from London. A sixth camera was sited in the control room looking at captions.
Don Mackay was perched high up above the West Door cradling a Watson 5-1 zoom. This
was one of the first outings for this zoom and Don had worked hard at improving the
crude mechanical zoom control wheel on the side of the lens. His big moment was to
come after the ceremony when the Queen left the Abbey wearing a crown for the first
time after the Coronation. He was in position at 6am sitting cross legged - tailor
fashion on the small camera platform eyeing the special BBC lunchbox beside him
that was provided to last for the twelve hour sojourn. In honour of the occasion,
the Beeb had even included a half- bottle of wine. Young Don's thirst got to him
at midday and in haste he gulped down the wine. Unfortunately the 'wetą was taken
too fast and he developed hiccups - not the most comfortable way to hold a shot
a long time on a long, long lens. A telerecording of the event testifies that
even sitting crosslegged with hiccups Don delivered a rock steady shot.
Over at the Victoria Embankment, the first OB to be equipped with image orthicon cameras
(Marconi Mkl's), MCR7, was positioned to cover the Queen's drive from the Palace to
Westminster Abbey and to transmit a mammoth fireworks display in the evening. Ron Chown,
an engineer with MCR 7 had caught the 4am underground to be on site at 5.30am. He was
still recovering from a late night at the TV Theatre, Shepherds Bush where a Dickey
Afton Variety Show transmission had over-run by two hours. Ron also remembers the lunch
"Lunch boxes were provided and when Jimmy Hartwright (S.T.E.) suggested a tidy up, the
sound engineer, Cedric Beadle hadn't touched his, he was keeping it till later. When he
was asked to put it away, he did, straight into the Thames'"
Stephen Wade who had left cameras and was now one of the first of a new breed known
as OB Stage Managers, was also working with MCR 7. He remembers:
"I woke stiff from a night on an ex army bed in someone's office in Langham Place and
had just time for a cup of tea before Wynford Vaughan-Thomas picked me up to give me a
lift to my position on the Embankment. We had to pass through massive gates that sealed
off some of the roads to the route by, I think, 8.30. This was part of the security system,
not much by today's standard but this was the age when such violence as we have now was
An OB Stage Manager was called upon to do many things - direct, commentate, act as a
presenter. On Coronation Day Stephen Wade had to double as understudy to Max Robertson
who was the route commentator for the Embankment.
"Max of course is a healthy type and stayed that way all day, so I was denied my moment
of glory. My memories of the procession are of splendour undreamed of. Of a thousand or
so schoolchildren round our rostrum screaming like half a million. Of a wonderful coal
black lady with whom London fell in love with, Queen Salote of the Friendly Islands.
Quite the largest lady most of us had ever seen with a smile to match, and who in
spite of the fact that a cold could be fatal to her rode in an open carriage in
conditions that must have been freezing to her. She had with her a minute black
gentleman who some wag (Noel Coward) suggested might be her lunch."
MCR 11, equipped with three Pye I.O. cameras, had driven down from Scotland was drawn
up like a wagon train in Hyde Park. The Scottish flags on the front of the scanner
may have indicated that they considered that they were there for the Coronation of
Elizabeth the First; Scotland being a separate nation at the time of the first Queen
Elizabeth of England.
Back in Westminster Abbey, Tony Flanagan crouched under his camera on the organ screen.
The floor boards removed to make room for his feet, his back menaced by a ring of steel
sharp cello pegs. He shared this position with nearly five hundred musicians comprised
of a choir, an orchestra,organist and trumpeters.
At first, the Earl Marshal and Sir William McKie, Director of Music, had agreed to the BBC's
request for a camera on the organ screen on the understanding that the camera was fixed
with no operator. It was then suggested that a cameraman might be able to sit beneath the
camera to turn the lens turret and focus. This required a very small cameraman and the
search was on to find BBC's smallest cameraman.'Bud' Flanagan was chosen and after giving
a demonstration of screwing himself up into the available space, the idea was found acceptable.
But there were more problems: A hitch in the proceedings came at a rehearsal when at the
exact spot Flanagan was to crouch he was faced disconcertingly, by the point of a 'cello.
Would this vital camera position have to be abandoned? It nearly was, until someone
suggested that if the camera was raised only a fraction it might be possible for Eugene Pini,
the 'cellist, to pass his bow under it, and for the point of the cello to be placed between
Flanagan's feet. So there he was for the great occasion, equipped with headphones so as
to be kept completely in the picture but not able to talk back to the producer; he sat
uncomfortably and silently for the whole proceedings, but he was not forgotten and did,
in fact, play one vital role.
With Peter Dimmock having taken tremendous pains to account for the smallest detail with his
traditional thoroughness he was suddenly faced with a situation for which, if the information
was correct, he had made no provision. It was that the National Anthem was to be played
for the Queen Mother's procession. This seemed unlikely but it had to be checked, but how?
Only Flanagan in the midst of the orchestra could find the answer easily but he could not
talk back, so Flanagan was asked to investigate and pull his ear if the answer was "Yes",
and smooth his hair if it was "No" happily for all concerned he smoothed his hair; the
rumour was false.'
Without a hitch
Peter Dimmock was in the control room built just outside the Abbey directing the Abbey cameras
with John Vernon vision mixing. In Broadcasting House, the output of five groups of MCR's was
selected and switched under the control of S. J. deLotbiniere, Head of Outside Broadcasts
(Television). MCR 6 and MCR 12 were at the Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace. MCR 8
was outside the Abbey and MCR 9 and MCR 10 cameras were inside the Abbey. MCR 11 was in Hyde
Park and MCR 7 was on the Embankment.
Conrad Frost writes:
"The planning for the nation-wide and world-wide communications on coronation day built up into
such a pattern of complexity and efficiency that the American network men, who supposed they knew
it all, were left open-mouthed. More than a hundred international commentators, speaking in
forty-two languages. were able to go on the air simultaneously. Television alone was to supply
seven hours of vision on the coronation and to record 60,000 feet of film. Every line and every
control panel in the control points was duplicated in case of failure. Even the commentator was
supplied with a spare microphone. In case of power failure a secondary battery storage system
But there was one panic moment as Stephen Wade remembers:
"It is to the everlasting credit of engineering that this incredible collection of equipment,
put together on a scale never before attempted and with a frightening potential for failure,
worked and continued to work throughout the day with one exception. At Broadcasting House
sat S. J. deLotbiniere, the overall producer and with him the senior hierarchy. Just before
"On Air" everything died, all screens blanked out, sound gone. Word has it that people aged
visibly and hair turned white in the time it took to find out that someone's foot had tripped
over a cable and yanked out a master power supply. The technical problems that were resolved
and the technique displayed by the operators was complimented by all those who appreciated
the challenge this mammoth OB presented."
Bob Hubbard from the Midlands Unit was positioned on the Victoria Memorial with a 40" lens
mounted on a Pye I.O. camera to pick up close-ups of the Royal party as they came out onto
the Palace balcony 300 feet away. A BBC publication indicated what was
involved in keeping the shot steady:
"The use of this lens demands extreme care because any slight vibration, even that caused by a
puff of wind, results in a highly exaggerated movement of the image on the screen.
But despite these problems, the compliments came flooding in from around the world with
references to one beautiful framed picture after another."
The North American Race
The total number of viewers through the world was difficult to estimate. It was transmitted
live to France, Germany, Holland at a time when standards conversion was in its infancy.
Special arrangements were made for America and Canada.
The problem was to
get the pictures to America quickly and it was solved by fitting out aircraft as film
processing and editing laboratories. Both the American networks, Columbia and the National
Broadcasting Company, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company entered into what was a race.
Motorcycle messengers would race film from cine camera positions to Heathrow where the
BBC TV signal would be picked up in a control room in which, by new techniques telerecordings
would be available almost simultaneously.
The Canadians had borrowed three record-breaking
Canberra PR3s from the RAF and equipped them for this special purpose. The Canberras would
take the pictures as far as Goose Bay, Labrador. Three Mustang P51s would take one set of
the film and telerecordings to Boston for Columbia Broadcasting's show ing on their
USA network, while Canadian CFlOOs would fly a duplicate set to Quebec for Canadian
NBC were later to organise a Canberra of their own. which would fly to Gander,
refuel there, and go on direct to Boston. In the event the NBC plane ran into mechanical
trouble when it was two hours out across the Atlantic, and it had to turn back. In view
of this apparently disastrous setback, the network fell back on earlier plans to take
the BBC material from the RAF planes at Goose Bay. And although their own procession
material failed to be available they managed to get on the air a few minutes before NBC.
That evening 85 million Americans were to watch the coronation on TV.'
British establishment sensibilities were disturbed when it was discovered that during the
American transmission of the coronation communion service, there was a break for an
interview with J. Fred Muggs the 'charismatic chimpanzee' who was solemnly asked - 'Do
they have a coronation where you come from?
At Lime Grove, Crew 2 was in Studio G rehearsing 'Serenade for a Queen', produced by Brian
Sears with illustrious names such as Alicia Markova and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf. In Studio
D, Crew 1 was working on a children's programme called Youth Tattoo' and at Alexandra
Palace, Crew 7 were on duty all day in Studio A providing continuity for the coronation OB.
Whilst 20 million viewers watched the transmission in black and white, 150 children and staff
of the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street watched part of the procession in colour.
Pye of Cambridge were given permission to set up three colour cameras on the roof of the
Foreign Office, and by using a portable transmitter beamed the signal to Ormond Street
to display colour pictures on two 20" sets. Twenty years later it would be standard
practice for major OBs to be in colour. and today it is common place to deploy 20 to
25 cameras just for one programme 'Match of the Day'
This is in sharp contrast to the TV coverage of the 1937 coronation, in fact the first true BBC
Outside Broadcast. The site chosen to cover the coronation procession of 1937 (they were not
allowed in Westminster Abbey) was at Apsley Gate, Hyde Park. There were three cameras (Emitrons)
one on the pavement for close-ups and two on the arch itself.
The entire OB television team were quartered in dormitories in Scotts Hotel, Langham Place and
after three hours sleep they walked to Hyde Park and switched on the van.
They got the first test pictures at 6.00am, switched the van off again and sat down for the
seven-hour wait - fed from large food hampers supplied by the Corporation: "cold chicken,
game pie, hams, fruits, cheeses. wines and beers. We were treated like lords and we felt
like lords and there was nothing we would rather have been on that day than a member of the
BBC's television crew." (John Bliss cameraman).
There was no on-site producer. Tony Bridgewater (E.LC.):
"That was strange. I don't know whether they forgot to appoint one or whether it never occurred
to them it was necessary. I regarded myself as the producer. I mean, after all, you only had
to choose one camera or the other and most of the time it was only too obvious which one
should be used. And that was done by our vision mixing chap usually with me standing at
the van door looking out to where I could actually see the procession and I'd say. "Well
I think old Chap, I'd try camera 3 now," and, "All right, now let's have 2"."
This carefree nonchalance was overtaken in 1953 by supreme professionalism. The people who had
tried behind the scenes to stop the television cameras entering the Abbey had been routed, and
after the 3 June their attitude became nothing more than "an historical oddity, as anachronistic
as the man with the red flag who walked before the motor car
At a cost of forty-thousand pounds, 120 people of the BBC TV team had provided a TV programme
for over 200 million around the world. The broadcast lasted from 10.15 in the morning, when
Sylvia Peters in Studio A opened the transmission, until 11.30pm, when Richard Dimbleby said
good night from a deserted Westminster Abbey.
The last event of this historic broadcast was MCR 7s coverage of the Thames fireworks
'After the triumph at the Abbey we were drunk with the sheer euphoria
of what had been done. British Television had not only grown in this country from a pigmy to
a giant in one day but had demonstrated to the world that no one could touch us for expertise
or quality. However the day was not over yet and my next job was to help rig a camera on to
a boat so that we could get off shore for the fireworks display by the embankment in the
evening. The boat was small, a sort of overgrown rowing boat and the camera was cabled to
the shore. We prayed that there were no punctures in the cable! We need not have worried,
like everything on that charmed day it worked. There was one drawback. In the middle of
the river was a barge with some mortars for throwing up star shells. The noise was
incredible and the shock waves hit our boat hard enough to make it leak and with every
bang the leak got worse, but we made it, we lasted out the display and got back before
"We derigged and I started to walk back to Broadcasting House. It was very late and I stopped
in a shop doorway to light a cigarette. The next thing I knew was a copper prodding me
gently and suggesting it was not a good place to sleep. As I walked the last mile. the
street was getting light with a new day and bands of revellers were finishing parties or
starting new ones. Television had come of age. We had a new Queen. Hilary had climbed Everest,
there had never been a day like it and 1 do not think there will ever be another one.'
This account of the Coronation Day OB was compiled by Peter Ward with the help of Stephen Wade,
Don MacKay, D. R. G. Montague, Ron Chown, Laurie Duley and BBC OBs Acton.
1 Leonard Miall "Richard Dimbleby" 1966 p86
2 Gordon Ross "Television Jubilee 1961 p93
3 Conrad Frost "Coronation June 2 19531' 1978 p44
4 BBC Publications "The Year That Made the Day" 1953 p35
6 Bruce Norman "Here's Looking at You 1984 p193
7 Asa Briggs "The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom" Vol. iv. 1979 p473
Also grateful thanks to Alan Lafferty of BBC Engineering Information Department.