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Dimbleby reigns supreme

If anyone deserves the tap on the shoulder from the queen's sword it's David Dimbleby. If Her Maj can see fit to knight the grovelling Trevor McDonald for services to sycophancy, then why not the man who is the closest thing television has to royalty of its own?

There wasn't a trace of McDonald-like bowing, scraping, cap-doffing or forelock-tugging in Dimbleby's excellent documentary The People's Coronation. This was a properly nostalgic wallow, to be sure, but it was tempered by wry humour and an unexpected degree of poignancy.

Dimbleby is better placed than most broadcasters to remember that heady summer of 1953, when a country still in the grip of post-war rationing and effectively bankrupt nonetheless somehow found the means to host the biggest British national celebration since VE Day – total cost £1.5m, about £36m in today's money.


His father, Richard, was the man charged with providing the commentary for the BBC's live coverage of the coronation, which was the first time television cameras had been allowed inside Westminster Abbey.

Richard, fearing he wouldn't be able to find a room on the day, decided he and the young David, then 14, would spend the night before sleeping on a barge moored on the Thames.

It's hard to imagine today's breed of current affairs broadcasters, many of who seem to regard themselves as more important than the story they're covering, slumming it like that. But then it's hard to visualise just how big a deal the coronation was at the time, when life in Britain seemed to be painted entirely in shades of grey and brown.

It's regarded these days as a landmark in television history, yet it very nearly didn't happen. The powers that be at first refused the BBC's request to place five cameras out of the 21 used to cover the coronation inside the abbey. Mounting pressure from the newspapers and an eventual nod of the royal head settled the argument

There was a condition, though: close-ups of the queen were banned. The BBC risked one and nobody ended up being locked in the Tower of London.

It was expected the audience would be around five million; it was four times that. In the months before the coronation, a million TV sets, costing between £1,500 and £2,000 each in today's terms, were sold.

The BBC people weren't the only ones subject to restrictions. A command went out on from on high that communities which planned to celebrate the coronation with a public feast were forbidden from roasting a pig or a sheep. Roasting a whole ox, though, was acceptable, provided the community in question had a historic tradition of ox-roasting and the correct licence had been obtained.

It was also stipulated that the meat should be given away free.

No surprise, then, that at one such gathering 7,000 ration-weary people queued up for hours in worsening weather for a single ox sandwich.


There were lovely little stories here. Dimbleby flicked through a sheaf of letters sent to newspapers, including one from a 14-year-old girl who complained about the amount of cheap, coronation-themed "tat" being sold in the shops, including red, white and blue slippers.

Stock cube manufacturer Oxo gave away a gaudy Coronation crown made of flimsy polythene and bearing the legend: "Oxo makes it meatier". It's become a collector's item.

Photographer Chris Barkham, who was 20 at the time, remembered elbowing his way to the front of the crowd before the procession to Buckingham Palace, determined to get the shot of the day.

When challenged by a uniformed cop, Barkham claimed he was "a famous Fleet Street photographer" who'd been given special permission by the queen herself to take her photograph.

It worked. Barkham's reward for a picture that appeared in almost every newspaper in the world the next day was a 10 guinea bonus. Whatever your feelings about royals, this was an utterly charming film, as rich and flavoursome as a slice of ox drenched in Oxo.