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6 May 2023

The madness of King Charles’s coronation

TV viewers were offered the BBC’s bland, benign authority, David Starkey’s frenzied robe facts and Sky’s celeb-spotting – and the damp campness of British history in the making.

By Will Lloyd

Are we mad? You have to ask the question on Coronation Day. If we are not mad, our television royalty is, at the very least, blind. “Just a light drizzle,” said the BBC’s Sophie Raworth, as a relentless driving rain pissed it down all over the Mall. Does the King believe in pathetic fallacy? Well, he believes in reincarnation, the primordial revealed wisdom of all ancient faiths, and used to (apparently) be a big fan of Melanie Phillips’s writing, so pathetic fallacy is hardly a stretch. London looked fish-grey and dull as old pennies on the screen. The rain fell. 

Earlier, Jamie Oliver had appeared in the BBC commentary box. It was still morning, and Oliver seemed rough and curled at the edges, like a wide boy who had been brought in off the street after a big night in the City. He told Kirsty Young how much the King liked organic vegetables. A photo of Charles pondering a lasagne flashed on the screen. Young murmured her approval. The BBC, like the monarchy itself, is good at this one thing: saying nothing with authority. 

On ITV there was a slight easing on the etiquette front, and a popping of rhetorical buttons. Tom Bradby, who is approaching 60 but presents as a 37-year-old Hackney-dad Everyman, was chatty and informative, and far less reverence-addled than Kirsty Young. The state frock-coated Household Cavalry streamed behind him at one point, and Bradby admitted, “I’m not much of a horseman.” Tom, we could have guessed that. 

[See also: Have a little sympathy for Prince Harry’s hacking claims]

Over to Sky News, with Kay Burley and someone called Anna Botting. Here was the obsession with social detail and trivia that is the lifeblood of modern monarchy. You could practically hear Burley’s neck craning to see who was who, what was what, and where who and what’s-their-name were seated. Precedence and snobbery matter. A grimacing Emmanuel Macron floated past the camera lenses, no doubt thinking about how much he would love his own orb and sceptre. Burley was more impressed by the sight of Lionel Richie, who, she lied to viewers, “never gets old”. Ant and Dec appeared, as did Joanna Lumley. “Absolutely… fabulous,” purred Burley. Not in attendance was Joe Biden – the president’s doctors probably only allow him a limited number of cross-Atlantic trips in a calendar year – but the Yanks, Burley seemed to say, had still done Britain a favour. “Joe Biden isn’t here, but Katy Perry is.” Phew!

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Perry’s presence was doing the same heavy lifting over on CNN, where Anderson Cooper fronted the coverage. Their crawling news chyron, which has been a permanent feature on the channel since 11 September 2001, was not given a day’s rest out of respect for the King. Instead it pumped out big newsy insights, like: “SOON: KING & QUEEN DEPART BUCKINGHAM PALACE FOR CORONATION.” The coronation, said the channel’s London correspondent Bianca Nobilo, was “an unprecedented collection of individuals”. Perhaps Nobilo has never heard about the Congress of Vienna.  

CNN’s coverage was also being streamed live on YouTube, accompanied by a rolling comments section. As Charles was heaved into the historic Gold State Coach, one user posted a constant stream of links to pasta recipes. Earnest “God Save the King” comments were soon lost in a hurricane of full caps-lock screaming and Diana slurs.

I sought calm, so I switched over to GB News. There, proceedings were being covered by an unholy trinity: Nigel Farage, David Starkey and Alastair Stewart. For some reason, the picture quality there had been set to 240 pixels, which made everything look like it had been filmed with a toaster. Starkey was brilliantly mad, superbly galvanised. When the furtive Duke of York arrived at Westminster Abbey, Starkey launched into a frenzied description of his robes, which involved several asides, aperçus, put-downs and anecdotes, including what sounded like something close to a unilateral declaration of war on France. 

Then poor, lonely Prince Harry arrived. “I think it’s right that he is here,” said Farage with all the ex cathedra grandeur of a man who has tried and failed to become a member of parliament several thousand times. “He is entitled to wear his medals,” said another correspondent, grudgingly. As I switched channels, Starkey was lovingly describing Princess Anne as looking like “the principal boy in a pantomime”. 

Back on the BBC, Raworth had to finally admit that “umbrellas are out in force”. Tony Blair rocked up dressed as the mayor of a small town in the north of England. Theresa May was wrapped in a hotel bathrobe. Gordon Brown’s defeated face was like a heavily used scented candle: aroma of gravy and failure. Raworth was above any political commentary, though, even when Boris Johnson, bearing what could only be described as a hideous, shit-stirring grin, bumbled into the Abbey. Appropriately, Liz Truss seemed to have no idea what was going on. She was probably just happy to be there. The former prime ministers were followed by a procession of Commonwealth leaders, bearing flags. Were they bringing them back? I hope they kept the receipts. Notably, Justin Trudeau did not dignify the occasion with his traditional party trick – maybe he’s saving his make-up for the next coronation. 

What was happening on TalkTV? I joined five other viewers to find out. Well: not much. I watched as men dressed as playing cards scurried around, no doubt looking for trumpets or something, and Lord President of the Privy Council Penny Mordaunt won the entire ceremony by standing next to the King, holding a giant glittering Arthurian mega-blade with such perfect stillness, such drag-queen authority, that she likely became the next leader of the Conservative Party then and there. But there was no commentary at all on TalkTV, which promised the delights of Sharon Osbourne, Vanessa Feltz and “former royal butler” (what a thing to be for half your adult life!) Paul Burrell. Silence from them all. I wondered if my television was broken, or if they were, so I switched back to the BBC for the good bits.

How does Huw Edwards do it? The man has nailed the art of low, melodious, content-free ASMR burbling. He said absolutely nothing. He didn’t have to. By this point in the ceremony Charles was being de-robed for his oil massage. This bit was hidden from the general public, like the same process when it happens in Bangkok, or Bath Spa. Whatever happened behind the Anointing Screens must have been magnificent. “Zadok the Priest” soared out. I am English, so I shivered when this happened. 

Lord Mountbatten once reportedly told Charles: “You can’t possibly be King with ears like that.” Wrong, my Lord! The Crown was fixed to the King’s head, and those ears had their proper context at long last.

[See also: Is King Charles too left-wing for the Tories?]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?