Saturday, May 6, 2023



I have previously talked about Marshall McLuhan’s description of television as a “cool” medium, requiring more participation and effort from the viewer to determine the meaning of its low-resolution output. Televisions were limited at the time of the publishing of McLuhan’s book “Understanding Media” in 1964: small screens, low-definition picture, mostly black and white, mono sound, and competing with any sound and movement happening outside of it. Have technological advances helped to “warm” television as a medium in the following sixty years, making it easier to simply sit back and watch?

For British viewers, this is an easy comparison to make. Only three Coronations of British monarchs have occurred in the near ninety years a regular television service has run, the first happening only six months after broadcasting began, with each occasion demonstrating the power and potential of the medium in a different way each time.

Television cameras were not allowed in Westminster Abbey for the Coronation service of King George VI and Queen Mary on Wednesday 12th May 1937 (not a bank holiday), although the BBC, who did carry a live radio commentary, later broadcast the newsreels filmed there. However, the procession following the service was televised for an hour from 2pm, from cameras placed at Apsley Gate at Hyde Park Corner, both at crowd level and above them on scaffolding, with Frederick Grisewood commentating on the pictures. This was the BBC’s first TV outside broadcast, using a unit delivered two days earlier.

You could argue this effort was pointless. With only a few hundred prohibitively expensive television sets in use, and with coverage limited to Greater London, anyone able to view were likely either in the crowd, or in the Abbey, but the precedence was set. Film cameras may have allowed people to witness events at a distance, and radio may let you hear them, but television now demonstrated the potential to eclipse them both.

British television was already broadcasting using the 405-line standard that remained in use until 1985, and the use of commentators for lower-definition, lower-contrast black and white pictures was almost a necessity – this was the same “cool” medium McLuhan described in the 1960s. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned on Tuesday 2nd June 1953 (this time a bank holiday), on one of the first occasions that British television was broadcast through the day, commentators were used at every point to interpret and contextualise the pictures, most notably Richard Dimbleby at Westminster Abbey.  

In 1953, the Queen overturned arguments from Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and his government about it being fit or proper to admit TV cameras, and asserting the right of subjects to participate in the ceremony – remember that Prince Philip remarked that he and the Queen watched the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, immediately snuffing out a row in Parliament over the broadcasting of violent content. This Coronation coverage, doubled the number of televisions in British homes to three million in the year preceding it in preparation - with an audience estimated at 28 million, averaging at seventeen people per television, you did well to see any picture at all.

Which brings us to Saturday 6th May 2023 (finally a weekend). In my experience of watching the Coronation of King Charles III, television remained a “cool” medium, the coverage on BBC One having to compete for my attention with ITV’s coverage from another room – the first time it has had to compete for Coronation coverage - and the sound of a tumble dryer. 

Despite that, the picture was bigger, playing on a thirty-two inch screen; the picture quality was in 1080-line high definition with vivid colour; more cameras, and mobile cameras, made for a more cinematic presentation; and the commentary was correspondingly minimal, with Huw Edwards in Westminster Abbey interjecting on fewer occasions than James Mates on ITV. The BBC alone provided four different ways to watch the same pictures, with another commentary providing further information for accessibility purposes, with signing for the deaf, and with no commentary at all.

In much the same way that films are broadcast on television, with the viewer at home changing their setting to suit, television remains a “cool” medium through its setting, no matter how much television itself tries to bridge the gap. There is no need for a separate feature film of the Coronation of King Charles III, like Pathé News did with the high-definition colour film for his mother’s ceremony in 1953, for this Coronation was shown live in cinemas, which would have been interesting to experience.

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