If there is one broadcast in the history of television that changed the habits of our nation, the televising of the Coronation of our present Queen in 1953 has to be a strong contender. The broadcast attracted an estimated audience of 20 million, changing a nation of radio listeners into avid television viewers.
At the beginning of 1953 there were five main television transmitters in the United Kingdom. The BBC knew that the Coronation television broadcast would be very popular and so gained permission to erect three more temporary transmitters in time for the event. In order to meet the deadline the transmitters were built into mobile vans that would later be replaced by permanent buildings. The transmitters were positioned at Brighton, Newcastle and Belfast.
The BBC then suffered a blow to their plans. They were told that cameras would not be allowed into Westminster Abbey to televise the actual ceremony. In those days the BBC Television Service, and in particular the Outside Broadcast Division, was a confident pioneering organisation. They would not accept a straight ‘no’ easily. They lobbied the Government and Buckingham Palace and eventually gained permission with the help of a little lens trickery as Peter Dimmock, the producer of the broadcast, explained; “We took an outside broadcast unit down to Westminster Abbey, and we put the camera below the choir screen. The Archbishop, the Duke of Norfolk, Ministry of Works and the press secretary of Buckingham Palace, they all came, and I was lucky enough, as none of them really understood television. So I put on a two-inch lens, which was the widest lens we’d got, and then got a girl to sit where the Queen would sit. And of course, she looked really small on the screen! I said, look. It’s not going to upset the Queen. They were all worried, quite genuinely, about it being too much of a strain for the Queen to know that she was on television. I said, no it won’t be a strain for her. Then another stroke of luck happened. They complained about the lighting. I discovered that the film newsreels had been given permission to put lighting in for a colour film camera. So I said we don’t need as much light as they do for a colour film camera. So that destroyed that argument. As a result of the tests, we were on tenterhooks for about 48 hours, and then the answer came through ‘OK’.”
The lighting in Westminster Abbey consisted of 120 KW lanterns pointing directly down from the triforum some 60ft above the floor. A similar set-up to that used by Bernie Davies in 2010 to light the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. The 120 lamps were supplemented by 60KW of light at a lower level also beaming down. Despite all the lighting coming from overhead, the effect, with the number of lanterns and the reflection from the carpet, gave an overall soft light that allowed the Marconi Image Orthicon cameras to operate at F6.3. This meant there was considerable depth of field and reduced the contrast with any naked lights and candles on the chandeliers.
The main problem facing the cameramen was the space they had to operate in. The five cameras in the Abbey had to be as inconspicuous as possible and most were housed in small wooden ‘box like.’ huts where even the shortest cameramen couldn’t stand up. Peter Dimmock explained how they hid a camera within the orchestra above the organ.
“The Ministry of Works had the brilliant idea of taking up the floorboards. We put Bud Flannigan there. He was the smallest cameraman we had got and we had the camera there hidden with a cloth.”
The rehearsals for the broadcast inside the Abbey went on for hours. Peter Dimmock and John Vernon, the assistant producer, wanted to get every shot and the timing just right and went through the script several times. Up until that time, an engineer had done the vision mixing. Peter Dimmock asked Tony Bridgewater, the senior engineer, if John Vernon could operate the vision mixer and to Peter Dimmock’s surprise, he agreed. “To my utter astonishment he said yes. I was thrilled it made all the difference- we’ve never been allowed to do it before.”
Apart from the cameras in the Abbey there were fifteen more covering the processional route to and from Buckingham Palace. In 1953 the BBC had six operational OB units. There were three based in London, one in Birmingham, one in Glasgow and another in Bristol. The coverage of the Coronation demanded that all the units came to London and that MCR 6, which was in storage, was re-equipped to cover other live events during the week of the Coronation. All the three camera mobile control rooms from MCR 6 to MCR12 were built into articulated trailers that allowed the equipment to be de-rigged relatively easily. The contents of MCR 9 and 10 were moved into a hut beside the Abbey to control the five cameras in the Abbey and a camera used for captions.
The equipment from MCR 8 was installed in a hut behind the grandstand in front of the Abbey. MCR 7 was on the embankment, MCR 11 from Glasgow was in Hyde Park while the Pye equipment from MCR 12 was housed on the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. From the Memorial, cameraman Bob Hubbard, was able to get superb close-up shots of the royal family on the balcony of the Palace using a 40” lens mounted on a Pye Mk 3 Orthicon Image camera.
The central control and switching between the five outside broadcast units took place at Broadcasting House under the supervision of S J de Lotbiniere, Head of Outside Broadcasts (Television). All the OB’s were connected to Broadcasting House by landlines. The Abbey used the specially designed balanced pair cable that was laid in 1937 from Alexandra Balance through Broadcasting House to the West End and Parliament. The other OB’s used a combination of coaxial cable laid by the GPO between telephone exchanges and the use of ordinary telephone cables with video repeaters. With five OB units and another 3 remote cameras working to these units, It was thought necessary to sync all camera sources to eliminate any frame slip at the central control room when cutting between the different OB units. To achieve this, a system was divided using a master sync pulse generator taking sync from the mains and feeding it via telephone line to each camera point where it was locked to the local waveform generator. The composite picture and synchronizing signal after having passed over the link back to Broadcasting House were then compared in timing with the master waveform on a double-beam oscillograph. The outgoing sync pulse for each camera source could be adjusted through 360 degrees using a geniometer. By rotating the geniometer, the signals were accurately in synchronism.
On the day of the Coronation the weather took a turn for the worse with grey skies and rain. And just before transmission all the screens in the central control room went blank. Fortunately it was soon discovered that a technician had accidently unplugged a crucial connection and the fault was rectified before the programme was due to go on air. Despite these setbacks the televising of the Coronation and the excellent viewing figures led not only to the BBC planning a significant investment in their television network but also justified plans for an Independent Television Service.