The surreal thing about watching the BBC One coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s death was that we all knew in advance what the coverage was exactly going to be like once the news arrived. The precise wording. The solemn voices. The black ties and repeated library footage.
Many of us had read or re-read news stories such as The Guardian’s “London Bridge is Down” in recent days, reports that revealed the intricate and well rehearsed procedure and broadcast announcements for when the Queen dies. It was a procedure that we had also witnessed first-hand, a similar procedure rolled out when the BBC announced the death of her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, the previous year.
And yet, nothing can prepare you for the enormity of witnessing the announcement in real time. Shortly before 6.40pm on Thursday evening, BBC newsreader Huw Edwards announced The Queen’s death on the flagship channel BBC One. All other main BBC channels then suspended their programming and joined the same broadcast to hear Edwards repeat the message. It included a statement from the Royal Family, followed by a broadcast of the National Anthem.
At the same time, all BBC radio stations across the country and around the world joined the same broadcast led by BBC Radio 4 where a similarly worded statement was also read aloud. With all television and radio united in this way, there was no avoiding it. For millions of Britons, they will remember where they were when they heard this news for the rest of their lives.
The BBC needed to get the tone of the announcement right. They did, with Edwards providing the necessary composure and grace required. He had already been broadcasting all afternoon on the BBC of the news of the Queen’s ill health; his black tie and sombre mood earlier providing viewers a clue of the news that was yet to come.
In fact, the most notable thing about the coverage prior to the announcement of The Queen’s death was that it had existed at all. The fact that BBC One had suddenly suspended all programmes until the early evening and that Edwards was wearing a black tie after the Royal Family’s first statement of the Queen’s ill-health was enough of an indication to many that this was serious and they should anticipate the worst.
And with the coverage undoubtedly rehearsed countless times over the years, the BBC especially under real pressure to make this pitch-perfect, mistakes in broadcast coverage were few and far between. Most of the time, it was referring to the Queen in the present tense “is” rather than the past tense “was,” which was often swiftly corrected. When the Duke of Edinburgh died last year, a clip from a digital pre-recorded livestream BBC Radio 1 Dance went viral for how it cut away from intense techno music to a solemn broadcast announcing the Duke’s death. Following the Queen’s death a similar interruption took place, but by chance it was a somewhat less jarring juxtaposition.
There also were moments that you thought you were witnessing a mistake until you realised that you weren’t, such as the moment when Prince Charles was no longer being referred to by newsreaders not as “prince” but as “king.” It took viewers time to realise that they did not know how to refer to the new king either, until it was announced in a statement by Prime Minister Liz Truss (herself new to the role) and a statement by Clarence House that he was to be referred as King Charles III.
And for those who did not want to watch the near-blanket news coverage on the BBC and across most of the public service and commercial broadcast channels, they could simply avoid it altogether. Following the unexpected death of Princess Diana back in 1997, BBC viewers were only able to watch a careful selection of alternative programmes the following evening. Now firmly in the streaming age of 2022, despite all BBC channels merging to only offer a single programme (or like BBC Three and BBC Four were taken off air altogether) viewers were simply able to switch on a streaming service or BBC iPlayer and watch anything else of their choosing.
It is new programmes that will not air for a while. Blanket coverage is expected for days. Well-crafted documentaries held in vaults will be tweaked and then broadcast. Landmark and publicised new fall dramas will be delayed. New seasons of shows such as “The Great British Baking Show” or “Strictly Come Dancing” are unlikely to air either. Perhaps for days, or even weeks.
However for now, the future has become an afterthought as people dwell on the unexpected present. “It is hard to take it in that her reign has ended,” said one BBC correspondent. “I think this is going to be unsettling and disorientating many of us. I suspect in terms of the scale that we are about to witness, I suspect it will be comparable to the reaction of Diana’s death.”
The surreal announcement of the Queen’s death is one thing. When Britain will return to anything like normal there will be another.