The Queen's pearls of wisdom over 50 years
By Christopher Howse
When the Queen delivers her message at 3pm on Christmas Day it will be exactly 50 years since the young monarch first addressed her subjects via the new medium of television. Much has changed, says Christopher Howse, but her moral leadership and devotion to duty have never wavered
The darkling pud might still be glowering on the plate and the sprouts not yet have worked their internal magic by the time the Queen comes on, but in millions of houses across the land, the 3pm deadline remains irresistible.
Though Christmas trees somersault with fashion and goose usurps turkey, the Queen's Christmas message seems to many an unmovable ritual. This Christmas, it is 50 years since she first entered the homes of her subjects across the world via television.
And this week, the Queen became the eldest monarch in our history, passing the age that Queen Victoria attained.
She has never stopped moving with the times, jetting about, shaking hands, walking, walking, walking fearlessly through crowds. Her Christmas Day broadcasts reflect the changes in her style and in the nations of which she is Queen.
Her Christmas message is not so concentrated an event as it once was. It is less like a curtain being pulled aside, hieratically, at a single moment.
advertisementNever again will 28 million British people all sit down at the same time to watch, as they did in 1980. The Queen is now broadcast at various times: you may even download the speech for your MP3 player as you jog round the deserted streets.
People often call it the Queen's speech, but to her it is important that the slot is The Queen's Christmas Message to the Commonwealth. Her place at the head of the Commonwealth goes beyond the interference of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians at home.
For the first televised message, broadcast live in 1957, she sat behind the same desk where her father and grandfather had sat for their wireless broadcasts.
The young Queen of 1957 looked into the camera and said, optimistically: "I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct."
She wanted to welcome us "to the peace of my own home", at Sandringham.
Did we really look like that, 50 years ago, those of us old enough? So neat and buttoned-up.
Her pearls, three strands of them, then and now are a perennial triumph. They are good pearls. Not cheap. They suit her and they go with any outfit: pearls with yellow in the first colour broadcast in 1967, pearls with light blue, pearls with magenta.
Then there is the voice. The Queen transcends class - everyone else must seem to her much the same, from the eminence of her position. But she still speaks as older members of the upper class speak, saying "orphan" for "often".
Even so, her accent has changed. In 1952 it sounded as if she was saying: "I em speaking to you from my own hame, where I em spending Christmas with my femlay."
Now she sounds less clipped, although the change has not been undertaken consciously to seem "one of the people", like the rapid Blair-Cameron journey from public school to estuary.
Whatever she sounded like in 1957, the Queen hit a serious note for a woman of only 31, Queen for only five years, at a time when countries of the Empire were easing into independence within the Commonwealth, while at home most people had "never had it so good".
Her concluding quotation then, from The Pilgrim's Progress, sounded almost like a valedictory from a monarch who had seen out a long reign: "My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who now will be my rewarder," she said, in Bunyan's words.
That first televised message also included prophetic words on "unthinking people" who misused technological innovations such as television.
"They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint."
She was to see plenty of that in the next five decades - indeed, we nearly lost the Christmas Message entirely in 1969, when footage from the nosey documentary The Royal Family was shown instead.
Wisely, the Queen never again allowed the cameras such access to her family's private life, and the images accompanying her Christmas message remain under her own control - including the archive footage used in a fascinating compilation from the 50 speeches, to be broadcast by ITV1 on Christmas Day, which would never ordinarily be released.
The Queen can do little about what people say of her. The reliability of the ITV documentary is torpedoed by an outrageous claim made by Robert Elms, a lifestyle bore, that she resented the rival power of Margaret Thatcher. The suggestion is that the Queen was jealous.
"The Queen felt slightly usurped," Mr Elms sneers, "by a woman with similar hair who takes internationally so much of the limelight."
Since, as Eve Pollard points out in the same programme, Mrs Thatcher was one of the few prime ministers to be awarded the Order of Merit, an honour entirely in the gift of the Queen, this demeaning hypothesis does not hold water for a moment.
Flat-footed satire against the Queen has long been familiar from Channel 4's Alternative Christmas Message, broadcast annually since 1993, when that dear old queen Quentin Crisp chirped up. It has grown less funny since.
Poor Rory Bremner was persuaded to appear as Diana, Princess of Wales in 1996, something that even Channel 4 did not attempt a year later. Last year it was a Muslim woman called Khadijah in a niqab.
The Queen's strange distance, which derives from her role as monarch, leaves her open to the buzzing assaults of the gutter press.
Her Christmas message in 1992 reminds us that 15 years ago saw a low point, her annus horribilis (as she had called it earlier that year in a speech at Guildhall) - with the fire at Windsor, the separation of Charles and Diana, and topless Sarah Ferguson's toes sucked on a million front pages.
"Like many other families," the Queen remarked for the Christmas cameras, with some understatement, "we have lived through some difficult days this year."
To make it worse, the Sun got hold of this Christmas message and published it the week before Christmas. "She went absolutely barking," says an unrepentant Kelvin McKenzie, the editor at the time.
"I helped her out. She got rather grumpy about it. Mr Murdoch paid a £100,000 cheque [to charity]. Next!"
He might well say "Next!", for most people do not care what he does these days.
By contrast people care very much about the Queen and her job. Opinion poll respondents are fickle, but even in 2001, another low point, only a third thought the monarchy should be abolished.
People realise how much better the Queen is than any alternative, when they think a little, as they did in 2002, the year of the Golden Jubilee. Only 12 per cent then contemplated an end to the monarchy.
That year, the Queen, in turquoise and the reliable pearls, her hair a secure monument to the hairdresser's skill, gazed firmly at the autocue and said that the jubilee events "seemed to evoke something more lasting and profound - a sense of belonging and pride in country, town or community".
True, she felt obliged to refer to the "cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of our 21st-century society", but from her perspective as Head of the Commonwealth, foreign ways do not boil down to a cloying multi-cultural jam that a default consensus has tried to spread evenly over British life.
At the heart of her reign lies the Queen's devotion to duty. If she has had no time for a wide pursuit of literature, she possesses the knack of finding telling phrases, like her father George VI. He, in his first broadcast during the Second World War, spoke some lines beginning:
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".
They were from a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, a lecturer at the London School of Economics. Never has an unrecognised set of verses been more successfully publicised.
The Queen's touch too transforms the prosaic almost to the mystical. The note of solemnity in each year's message derives from her personal moral standing, overlying her position as monarch. Without it, solemnity might trip into bathos.
In 2003, the Queen repeated a prayer from the surprising source of St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits:
Teach us good Lord
To serve thee as thou deservest;
To give, and not to count the cost;
To fight, and not to heed the wounds;
To toil, and not to seek for rest.
To labour, and not to ask for any reward;
Save that of knowing that we do thy will.
"It is this knowledge," the Queen concluded, "which will help us all to enjoy the Festival of Christmas."
Who could doubt it? And, among grown-ups with some insight into what the Queen's decades of service mean, who need not wipe away a tear?
'Lights! Camera! The Queen!' will be broadcast at 3.10pm on Christmas Day on ITV1.