Crowning moment

<em>In memoriam, the Queen Mother</em> - Pomp and ceremony. William Cook rediscovers an anthropologi

The Queen Mother's death, we are all told, marks the end of an era, the passing of a better time. Well, that's as may be. As luck would have it, you can now revisit the day when the widow of George VI became the Queen Mum, and see for yourself how it felt to live, for better or worse, during that deferential epoch.

A Queen is Crowned is the original feature film of Elizabeth II's coronation, and it has been re-released on video to celebrate her golden jubilee. However, her mother's funeral gives it a more profound topicality. For true-blue Tories, it is a welcome invitation to wallow in a lost imperial past, when Britannia ruled the waves, and most of the dry bits in between - but for the rest of us, it is a fascinating insight into how Britain used to feel about its most familiar family, and the world's most famous woman.

The coronation was Britain's first national televisual event, watched by 20 million viewers - an unprecedented audience that would still top the ratings today. Yet in 1953, only two million homes had a television set, and most people still saw moving pictures only at the cinema, which is where this documentary film came in. A Queen is Crowned won a Bafta award and a Golden Globe, and was even nominated for an Oscar. But best of all, unlike the BBC's black-and-white broadcast, it was filmed in lush Technicolor, and nearly 50 years later it still looks remarkably modern. In fact, it is only the patriotic soundtrack that gives the game away - because although the uniforms and scenery are timeless, this costume drama is actually an archaic souvenir of a vanquished age.

A Queen is Crowned is narrated by Laurence Olivier, and he kicks off with that rousing speech from Richard II about this sceptred isle and its silver sea. The rest of the script is not by Shakespeare, but it might as well be, because Olivier invests it with all the majesty of a Shakespearean sonnet or soliloquy. Industrial England is redrawn as a rural idyll of country pubs and churches, Scotland is reduced to a Highland loch between Edinburgh and Balmoral, and Wales is a mystic paradise where Merlin and Arthur sleep. "Three lands indivisible, a union of loyalty," coos Larry. You would never guess Britain had just emerged from a ruinous world war that had left it blitzed and bankrupt, but that is precisely the point of this euphoric film and the heraldic pageant that it eulogised. Coal, meat and butter were still rationed. We wanted escapism, not realism; and the coronation provided it, with (literal) bells on.

Whether you are irritated, moved or merely amused by the reverent superlatives of Olivier's commentary, the procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey is an absorbing slice of photojournalism. The buildings are darker, the crowds are paler, and the Queen looks quite beautiful but incredibly young - more like a teenager than a head of state. It is spooky to see Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother, riding side by side in the same carriage - one still young, the other already old - knowing that they died only a month apart. However, the most intriguing bit by far is the ceremony itself. Like England's World Cup win, we have all seen the highlights ad infinitum, but although the actual crowning, like Geoff Hurst's winning goal, is the climax, the preceding melodrama makes it an epilogue to the main event.

Until I saw this VHS tape, I had no idea how religious a coronation really is. The newly crowned monarch even ends up taking Holy Communion, but what comes before feels far more pagan than Christian. Elizabeth is stripped of her fine garments, down to a plain white gown, almost virginal in its simplicity. She is draped in a golden robe, given a sword, to defend widows and orphans, and two bracelets - one for sincerity, one for wisdom. The sceptre represents her regal authority, the orb her subservience to Christ's universal kingdom. She swears to maintain the Protestant reformed religion and the settlement of the Church of England, but the way she is lifted bodily into her throne by her lords spiritual and temporal seems closer to papal Rome than Anglican Westminster. Potent symbol or mumbo-jumbo, it's a riveting piece of theatre - Lord of the Rings for real. Royalists and republicans alike should learn more about these ancient rituals - better to understand what they would preserve, or destroy. This coronation is an anthropological relic - a primitive act of ancestor worship far more impressive and important than the happy-clappy monarchism we are spoon-fed by the mainstream media.

After this atavistic rite, the rest of the film is a complete anticlimax - a march past by lots of soldiers, in traditionally awful English weather. Nevertheless, I would still rather be in the Mall in 1953 than in the Dome in 1999. "We want the Queen, we want the Queen," bellows the vast crowd outside the palace, and the Queen comes out on to the balcony and waves, and goes back inside again, to begin the weirdest job on earth.

A Queen is Crowned is released on 13 May by Carlton Video (£10.99)