The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast
The tradition of the Christmas broadcast by the British sovereign started 80 years ago in 1932, when John Reith, Director General of the BBC, persuaded George V to make a Christmas Day broadcast to the people of the Empire via the new BBC Empire Service (precursor to the BBC World Service). Although George V was famously conservative and suspicious of anything new, he saw the advantage of being able to speak directly to his people around the world.
The first broadcast was so successful that it was decided to make the King’s Christmas broadcast an annual event, and George V made live broadcasts in 1933, 1934, and 1935. He died in January 1936, a month after the 1935 broadcast. His successor, Edward VIII, abdicated in early December of that year; the upheaval meant that neither he nor his younger brother George VI made a broadcast that year.
George VI was a shy man who had suffered from a speech impediment as a boy and young man. Although this problem was largely cured by the time of his accession, he was never an enthusiastic public speaker. He was reluctant to revive the Christmas broadcast because of the stress of having to perform live and because he felt the Christmas broadcast was his father’s tradition and he shouldn’t intrude on it. However, the broacasts had become so popular that he received large numbers of requests for him to revive the tradition for 1937, his coronation year. In his 1937 broadcast he said that he was not intending for it to become an annual tradition, and indeed in 1938 there was no Christmas broadcast.
Then war broke out. Armed forces from all over the Empire were ready to help Britain in the struggle against Germany, and George VI realised that he would need to broadcast regularly to his people in this time of uncertainty and sacrifice, so the Christmas broadcasts were revived. His 1939 Christmas broadcast was famous for the inclusion of the poem “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’And he replied,
‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’
The King finished with, “May that Almighty hand guide and uphold us all.” The poem had been suggested to him by Queen Elizabeth, on whom it had made a great impact. It was recited again at her funeral in 2002.
With the nation at war, it was expected that the King would give his Christmas broadcast every year, and so it became an annual tradition for him. Once the war was over, he continued with the Christmas broadcasts every year, even though he complained that the prospect of having to give a live broadcast ruined his Christmas. Nevertheless, he made live broadcasts until the last one in 1951, when he was so ill that he recorded the message in sections to be spliced together for delivery. Despite the publicity photos of him sitting at his desk to deliver the speech, his speech therapist Lionel Logue revealed that he always gave his Christmas broadcasts, and other radio speeches, while standing.
The Queen continued the Christmas broadcast tradition from the beginning of her reign. The only year without a broadcast was 1969, when the television documentary The Royal Family, first shown earlier in the year, was rebroadcast over Christmas; however, after Buckingham Palace received feedback that people were unhappy about the omission, the Queen issued a written Christmas message. The broadcasts resumed in 1970 and have continued ever since. The texts of all the Queen’s Christmas messages can be found at the Royal Family website here.
Starting in 1957 the broadcasts have been televised (the 1957 broadcast can be seen here); they are recorded several days ahead of time and sometimes interleaved with footage of events relevant to the topic of the broadcast. The broadcasts have been posted on the Internet via the Royal Family’s YouTube channel since 1998. Since 1997 the broadcasts have alternated between BBC and ITV (previously they were the exclusive province of the BBC, but then the fateful Diana Panorama interview occurred…), and the 2011 broacast was produced by Sky News. The 2003 broadcast, from Combermere Barracks at Windsor, was the first one to be shot entirely on location, and the 2006 message was the first to be available as a podcast. Continuing the use of new technology, this year’s message will be broadcast in 3D. The Queen chooses the topic of each broadcast herself, so her Christmas broadcasts really are an opportunity for her to speak directly to her people in her own words. Her messages usually touch on topics that have affected the nation or the world during that year, as well as events and anniversaries in the royal family.
From the first broadcast in 1932, the Christmas broadcasts always air at 3 pm on Christmas Day. The time was chosen to allow the maximum number of people throughout the Commonwealth to listen since the broadcasts went out live. Nowadays the practice of recording the broadcasts ahead of time means that they can be shown at more convenient local times in the different countries. It also means that the broadcasts can be a little out of date – in 2011 the broadcast was recorded during the first half of December and so didn’t mention the Duke of Edinburgh’s hospitalisation for a blocked coronary artery, which took place over Christmas.
Britain isn’t the only country with a televised message from the monarch to the people over the winter holiday. For an overview of royal Christmas and New Year broadcasts from the monarch to the people, please see this blog.
George V delivering his 1934 Christmas message, public domain.
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