Heritage
How the Queen's First Televised Christmas Broadcast Changed the Royal Family Forever
Queen Elizabeth went live into millions of living rooms on Christmas afternoon in 1957.
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On December 25, 1957, the Queen made history with her annual Christmas broadcast. On the 25th anniversary of her grandfather George V's first message, Elizabeth's address made its television debut. Millions of people, sitting in their homes on the most sacred of family holidays, joined the Queen in her home for the first time.

The royal tradition, known as the King's Christmas Message, began in 1932, and the short address was an opportunity for the monarch to reflect on the year's major events and the royal family's personal milestones. Prior to 1957, it had been broadcast to the Commonwealth nations via radio, but in 1957 Queen Elizabeth accepted the BBC’s request to read her remarks live on television from her quarters at Sandringham, her Norfolk estate.


The Queen smiling towards the camera during her first Christmas day television speech.

In many ways, the evolution of the Christmas message mirrors the royal family's struggle to transform into a modern monarchy—to balance their roles as iconic figureheads with the insatiable thirst for information about their lives and relationships. Would they remain forever aloof and removed—or let the public in, little by little? With her first address, Queen Elizabeth made a convincing step toward openness. “I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct,” she said as she read from the Long Library in Sandringham at 3 p.m.

“It is inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you," the Queen added. "A successor to the Kings and Queens of history; someone whose face may be familiar in newspapers and films but who never really touches your personal lives. But now at least for a few minutes, I welcome you to the peace of my own home.”

Although delivering the message to the camera was a first for a British monarch, the Queen, who had given her first Christmas broadcast just five years earlier, was a pro.

“We had a run-through on the day and then went straight into the live broadcast,” Richard Webber, who was in charge of production, told The Telegraph. “The Queen was extremely accomplished with the teleprompter and read the message brilliantly.”

She also proved to be a stickler for details. During the historic moment, the Queen picked up a book and read a few lines from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. “The lines were printed on a sheet of paper inserted inside the book,” Webber recalled. “However, in the run-through, the Queen quickly spotted that it wasn’t the right book and asked whether there was a copy in the library. Sure enough, there was.”

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Despite their success, the Queen’s live televised broadcasts didn’t last long. In 1960, the message was pre-recorded from Buckingham Palace. The process was more convenient for everyone involved, and it meant a film reel of the message could be sent to all Commonwealth nations well in advance of Christmas day.

This tradition has continued every year since, with the arrival of the first color broadcast in 1967. The only exception is 1969, when the Queen decided to write a Christmas message instead of broadcasting one. It was the year of Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales, and she reportedly felt the family had had enough exposure for the moment.


The Queen in the Regency Room of Buckingham Palace after recording her 2016 Christmas message.

The audience for the Christmas message has been in steady decline since its peak in 1980, the year before Charles and Diana's wedding, when it hit 28 million viewers in the UK. But that hasn't stopped the Crown from innovating. In 2006, when around 7.6 million Brits tuned in, the speech was made available for download as a podcast for the first time, and in 2012, Sky News produced the program in 3D. These days, viewers around the world can also catch the address through the royal family's Facebook and Youtube pages.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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