Let's hope King Charles's first Christmas speech goes smoothly

Good luck, Your Majesty: Let’s hope King Charles’s first Christmas speech goes more smoothly than his great grandfather’s who started the tradition 90 years ago!

  • Just before King George V’s first broadcast, he sat down rather heavily and went through the seat
  • King George VI became the first to speak personally to the nation on Christmas Day without a prerecorded message 
  • Queen Elizabeth II chose to make her first festive broadcast using the same desk and chair as her father and grandfather before her

When the King makes his first Christmas broadcast to the nation on Sunday, let us hope that he fares better than his great-grandfather George V, who started this royal festive tradition 90 years ago.

That inaugural transmission on the BBC’s Empire Service in 1932 came live from Sandringham, where the King chose to address an estimated 20 million listeners across the world from his favourite wicker armchair.

Just before going on air, however, he sat down rather too heavily and went through the seat, exclaiming ‘God bless my soul’ as harassed flunkeys rushed to help him up.

This only added to the tension that the anxious monarch was already feeling. He would later say that the stress of making the broadcast ‘ruined’ his Christmas.

The first inaugural transmission on the BBC’s Empire Service in 1932 came live from Sandringham, where the King chose to address an estimated 20 million listeners from his favourite wicker armchair

King Charles will make his first Christmas broadcast to the nation on Sunday

And as we will see, stage fright also plagued his son King George VI, and even his granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II who made this annual address so much her own.

Although the technology used to capture it has evolved greatly — the Queen even filmed one of her Christmas messages in 3D — it has become as much a part of Yuletide as mistletoe, carols and turkey. Yet George V took much persuasion to make that initial broadcast.

It was the brainchild of Sir John Reith, the visionary founding father of the BBC. Quick to spot the opportunity that the new technology offered the sovereign to communicate with his subjects, both at home and overseas, Reith persuaded King George that his speech at the opening of the Empire Exhibition in Wembley in April 1924 should be sent out over the new-fangled wireless.

It was considered to be such a momentous occasion that many events, including the sitting of magistrates’ courts, were suspended so that an estimated 10 million Britons could hear the King’s voice for the first time, many on huge loudspeakers in public places up and down the country.

The Christmas broadcast, passed down from George V, his son King George VI, and to his granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II has become as much a part of Yuletide as mistletoe, carols and turkey

Over the following eight years, the King was heard on the radio a further 13 times but this was always while he was giving formal speeches and Reith was determined that he should speak more personally to the nation on Christmas Day.

His Majesty rejected the idea, fearing that without a formal speech to hide behind, he would lack the skill and fluency of such BBC stars as the much-loved gardener Mr Middleton, the Alan Titchmarsh of his day, and authors H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, both of whom had lectures broadcast by the fledgling corporation.

When his assistant private secretary Clive Wigram pressed him on the matter in 1932, the King criticised him for being ‘too modern’, at which point the exasperated Reith persuaded Ramsay MacDonald, the Prime Minister, to intervene.

The Labour leader realised that as the once mighty Empire was slowly transforming into the Commonwealth of independent nations, a personal speech from the monarch to his subjects throughout the world could help maintain unity.

Much admired and respected by the King, MacDonald reassured him that there was no need for him to perform in any sense and that a simple, honest approach would be best.

He also suggested that, to save the King unnecessary anxiety, his words could be written by Rudyard Kipling, the great imperial poet and author of The Jungle Book.

Pleased by this idea, the King finally agreed to interrupt the royal family’s traditional Christmas Day celebrations at Sandringham to perform the unwelcome duty.

King George VI addressing the people of Britain and the British Empire live over radio networks on Sunday September 3, 1939, the day of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany

Three o’clock in the afternoon was chosen as the best time to reach most countries in the Empire during the day. And for the King, this meant broadcasting at 3.30pm Sandringham time since all the clocks at the royal residence were set half an hour ahead to make the most of the daylight in the evening for shooting.

Although official photographs showed him broadcasting from Sandringham’s grand drawing room, the speech was actually delivered from what royal biographer Harold Nicolson described as the master of the household’s ‘ugly little room underneath the staircase’.

This made for better acoustics, there being fewer echoes. And, according to historian Dr Matthew Glencross, writing on the Government’s website history.blog.gov.uk, it also helped to calm the Sovereign.

‘From his naval days, the King felt most comfortable in small rooms,’ he says.

A thick cloth was spread over the table to muffle the noise of rustling paper as His Majesty’s hands shook with nerves. And although there was speculation that his three-minute speech would be spoken into a special gold microphone, the two models used came from a London cinema, rehoused in walnut boxes so they looked more dignified.

Taking a deep breath as he waited for a red cue light to indicate that he was live, the King launched into the short, 251-word speech which celebrated the power of the wireless to unite all the peoples of the Empire.

‘I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all,’ he said. ‘To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.’

His wife Queen Mary and the rest of the royals were supposed to be listening elsewhere in the house but his eldest son Edward, the Prince of Wales, had already heard several rehearsals of the speech and disappeared into the garden.

‘I confess I was rather hurt that you should have gone out to play golf just when I made my short broadcast,’ grumbled his father.

Despite indifference on the part of the prince, the address, which lasted only three minutes, was a great success.

‘It is almost impossible . . . to conceive the impact,’ wrote the late BBC television and radio commentator Tom Fleming in his book celebrating the history of the royal Christmas broadcasts.

‘Never had the voice of a British monarch been heard speaking personally and from a room in his own home, to his people throughout the British Isles, let alone simultaneously to his other peoples, scattered across the seven seas and five continents and comprising one-fifth of the world’s population.’

Listeners were captivated both by Kipling’s words and the King’s delivery. One eminent critic thought he had ‘such an odd, hoarse voice as if roughened by weather’, while Harold Nicolson considered it ‘very virile, rather bronchial, very emphatic’.

According to Nicolson, some of his vowels even sounded slightly Cockney, and this only added to the broadcast’s appeal.

‘His gravelly voice was compared to that of a father speaking to his family, earning him the moniker ‘Grandpa England’,’ writes Matthew Glencross.

Queen Elizabeth II making her 1957 Christmas broadcast to the nation from Sandringham – the first year that the broadcast was fully televised

Some listeners swore that they heard a Sandringham clock ticking in the background and others were equally fascinated by hearing the King clear his throat during the speech.

‘A King who reads a message into a microphone from a manuscript may be just a King,’ observed The Spectator. ‘A King who coughs is a fellow human being.’

The positive reception notwithstanding, the King saw the broadcast as a one-off, resisting Ramsay MacDonald’s attempts to persuade him to do more.

Appealing to his sense of tradition, MacDonald referred to the many great orations of Queen Elizabeth I and said what a pity it was that they hadn’t been recorded.

‘Damn Queen Elizabeth,’ replied the King.

Only the huge number of thank-you letters from the King’s subjects around the world persuaded him to repeat the ordeal, doing so every year until his final broadcast on Christmas Day, 1935. He died on January 20, 1936, less than a month later.

The Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII upon his father’s death, never made a Christmas address, abdicating the throne on December 11. With only two weeks to go before Christmas Day, it was decided that his younger brother, the new King George VI, had had insufficient time to prepare.

This was no doubt a huge relief to a monarch whose severe stutter and dread of public speaking were such that, when told he was to succeed his brother, he reportedly sobbed like a child.

As seen in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, George VI got through his biggest public addresses only with the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, who was with him at Sandringham when he made his first Christmas Day broadcast in 1937.

‘The king felt a certain comfort from having my grandfather around,’ Logue’s grandson Mark said in a BBC documentary about the history of the Christmas message. ‘The coaching and the training would go on right up until the last minute.’

He faltered only two or three times, but he found the experience so traumatic that he refused to make a Christmas broadcast in 1938, getting back behind the microphone only when war broke out the following year.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II recording her final annual Christmas broadcast in Windsor Castle, Windsor, England

Dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet as he addressed his people live from Sandringham, King George made the first of many such speeches which, according to the Royal Family’s official website, ‘played a large part in boosting morale and reinforcing belief in the common cause’.

The war firmly established these live broadcasts as a Christmas Day tradition but when the King made his final such speech in 1951, he was so ill with lung cancer that it had to be recorded phrase by phrase over several hours.

After his daughter Queen Elizabeth II succeeded him the following February, she chose to make her first festive broadcast from Sandringham using the same desk and chair as her father and grandfather before her. But her reign saw many innovations, including the first televised royal Christmas address in 1957. This went out live, much to Her Majesty’s consternation.

She is said to have frozen the moment she saw the autocue and Prince Philip had to come to the rescue, standing off-camera and saying something funny as the Queen was about to start broadcasting.

Visibly relaxing, she delivered the speech perfectly, unaware that atmospheric conditions meant that some viewers were hearing interference from American police radios, with one cop telling another that he was going to grab a coffee.

In the early part of Her Majesty’s reign, families gathered around to watch her speech on the one television in the house and would stand to sing the National Anthem at the end.

By 1980, it was attracting a record 28 million viewers — not far off the 30.1 million who tuned in to watch Eastenders’ Dirty Den hand divorce papers to Angie six years later.

Its appeal has endured. Last year, as in so many previous years, the Queen’s Speech was the most-watched TV programme on Christmas Day. Her Majesty’s poignant broadcast following the death of Prince Philip drew more than nine million viewers and beat both Strictly Come Dancing and Call The Midwife to the top spot.

From the 1960s onwards, the broadcasts have usually been recorded, which is just as well given what happened in 1986.

That year’s message was filmed in the stables at Buckingham Palace and had to be re-shot after a horse standing behind the Queen struggled to dislodge a bit of straw from between its teeth, with mouth movements which appeared to be mimicking her every word.

Where King Charles chooses to make his first broadcast remains to be seen, But of one thing we can be sure, in the fallout from Megxit there will be much scrutiny of which family members appear in the photos displayed around him — a royal soap opera unimaginable in the days when so little was known about the King’s private life, and it was a thrill just to hear his voice.

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