In the Barbican’s new retrospective of the feminist artist Carolee Schneemann, there is a piece from 1983 called War Mop. In case you haven’t seen it, it comprises a TV and a mop, the latter mechanised so that it repeatedly strikes the top of the former. Thunk, thunk, thunk, it goes, and it’s enough to drive you mad.
Standing in front of this installation soon after the Queen’s death, it struck me as a perfect metaphor for the way some people must be finding the TV coverage right now. Thunk, thunk, thunk… When will it ever stop? But alas, I’m not one of them. OK, so things were a little on the tedious side on Sunday, when the hearse made its six-hour journey from Balmoral to Edinburgh. But even then, there were moments of fascination. On the BBC, Jane Hill – about to perform the longest gig of her life – was joined by Sir Tom Devine, that great authority on Scottish history, and it was wonderful. His deep expertise, his lightly poetical way of speaking, his absolute refusal to use more words than were strictly necessary. Note to gabbling newspaper royal correspondents: this is how it’s done.
The BBC has the best experts, the best presenters and the best camera shots. As even the Daily Mail has come close to admitting, there really is very little point in watching any other station. Yes, coverage-wise, there’s a lot of it – Huw Edwards’ announcement of the Queen’s death already feels like half a century ago – but I only tune in for the big moments, those times when the exquisite precision involved in these strange days is fully on display.
And here I speak not only of young soldiers sombrely bearing a coffin, nor even of Penny Mordaunt’s admirable padded headband (worn at the accession ceremony at St James’s Palace), but also of the marvellous demurral of the new Princess of Wales when it came to meeting the eye of the Duchess of Sussex. How did she learn to do this? Is she self-taught, or did some kind of tutor visit Kensington Palace for weekly training sessions? I’m from Yorkshire, the county of grudges, and even I might have wavered in the same circumstances.
It’s all mad – and madly interesting. As I write, my highlights include the new King Charles’s velvet mourning coat (a lily gilded with thick brocade), Liz Truss’s extraordinary bum-curtsy (half the internet has already likened her to Mrs Overall in Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques), and Prince Andrew’s vague efforts at unctuousness outside the gates of Balmoral (all it’s won him so far is a couple of ageing corgis).
I’ve learned such a lot, including the fact that Professor Vernon Bogdanor of King’s College London can give Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair, a good run for her money when it comes to what we shall loosely call analysis: that strange combination of facts, hearsay and covert desire in which TV commentators have no choice but to trade when the endless hours want for punctuation. Though his blond highlights are not half so well done as hers.
Will Nicholas Witchell retire after this, the season of his most panting monologues? (To think the critics thought Ian McKellen was energetic in Hamlet recently!) And if he does, will Charles III put the kibosh on his OBE for services to broadcasting? I don’t know. To quote Tom Devine, the future is not my period. But I will just say, before I settle down to watch the next glorious instalment, that GB News and its bastard sister, TalkTV, have never seemed more repellent or more useless – something that strikes me as ironic, given their politics.
This should have been their moment: their viewers are, we gather, utmost patriots. But they simply don’t have what it takes. Who, in their right mind, wants to watch Trisha Goddard nodding cluelessly at the camera at a time like this? What manner of beast can bear to listen to that bloated creep Dan Wootton, who was last seen in an absurd film he posted on Twitter in which he was taking a moment for “quiet contemplation” outside Buckingham Palace?
My strong guess is that TalkTV’s days in particular are numbered, and that this, in the end, may be yet another thing for which we have reason to give thanks to our beloved late Queen.
[See also: Will the British monarchy last?]
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession