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An old lady, the Queen, dressed in blue, sitting at a desk in front of large Christmas tree.
The Queen’s second-last Christmas broadcast, in 2020, during the COVID lockdown. PA / Alamy

How the Christmas royal broadcast evolved – from the first reluctant monarch to an enduring queen and a new king

On Christmas Day, many in the UK will pause their festivities at 3pm to watch King Charles give his Christmas message – his second since his mother, Queen Elizabeth, died in September 2022.

The century-long broadcasting tradition has evolved from a broadcast transmitted solely on radio to one carried via television, online (including the royal family’s official YouTube channel), and on social media platforms. It will be rehearsed and pre-recorded in advance of transmission.

Last year the first speech by King Charles III was watched live by a record audience of 10.7 million, the viewing figures reflecting curiosity about how the new king would approach his first Christmas message, and the fact that it was broadcast simultaneously across several television channels.

But over a century ago, the first king to give a personal message to his subjects at Christmas took some persuading to engage with broadcasting to the nation at all.

My work (which appears as a chapter in the book Reporting Royalty – Analysing the Media and the Monarchy) looks at the origins of the relationship between royalty and the BBC, and how the establishment of royal media events aligned with the BBC’s aspirations as it grew from a fledgling radio and then television operation to the country’s national broadcaster.

The people, the king and the BBC

The relationship between monarch and subjects had been irrevocably reshaped by technological advancements in film, with Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee procession in 1897 and her funeral in 1901 becoming the first royal events to be filmed and shown in “electric theatres”.

The newsreels showcased the pomp and grandeur associated with the crown and enabled royal events to be shared with a wider audience, marking a significant shift in the crown’s interaction with the public.

Midway through the reign of Queen Victoria’s grandson George V, broadcasting began in the UK with the launch of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922.

A black and white photograph of King George V in full dress uniform.
Though initially nervous, King George V was touched by the reaction to his first Christmas radio broadcast in 1932. Everett Collection Inc / Alamy / Shutterstock

The general manager of the BBC, John Reith (later to be the first director general) was keen to seek the royal seal of approval for his new broadcasting company. He wrote to the king in 1923 to ask whether he would be interested in “delivering a message to his people” on a significant date such as Christmas, new year or Easter. The king was reluctant and declined this request.

This began a campaign that was to last nine years. The king’s opening address at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition was broadcast on the BBC. This was not the only function at which the king’s announcements were transmitted via “the wireless” (radio), but he was still not persuaded to speak directly to listeners on Christmas Day. He lacked confidence that he would make a good broadcaster and did not believe he had the skills to write the message.

Reith noted in his diaries his irritation at the royal reticence. More pressure was gently applied by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. He could see the benefits of the king addressing his subjects across the empire, as was, while it was taking its first steps in its political transformation to the commonwealth.

MacDonald reassured the reluctant monarch that simplicity and honesty in his delivery would be more than adequate for the task, adding the suggestion that poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling could write the speech.

Reith’s diaries show that the combination of the launch of the BBC’s Empire Service (later the World Service) in December 1932, plus “a strong recommendation from the prime minster”, finally persuaded the king to give the first Christmas Day address, live from Sandringham.

King George V’s shaking hands caused the papers to rustle into the microphone and he was later to complain that “his nerves in preparation for the event quite ruined his Christmas”.

But the royal message appeared to resonate with his listeners, symbolically binding together “the family audience, the royal family, the nation as family”. An extremely positive public reception had left the king “very pleased and much moved”, convincing him to repeat the exercise.

The king’s broadcasts over the succeeding years focused on basic well-wishes for his subjects. They were effective in bringing the reigning monarch into people’s homes. King George V gave his final Christmas message in 1935, and died a few weeks later. Edward VIII succeeded him, but abdicated on 10 December the same year and never gave a Christmas broadcast.

The annual tradition resumed in 1937 with King George VI, who had been having speech therapy since 1926 to help with his stammer and public speaking. His struggles were the subject of the award-winning film The King’s Speech, where he is shown being coached for his Christmas broadcast. When his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, acceded to the throne in 1952, she seamlessly continued the tradition.

Queen Elizabeth and King Charles

The queen’s speeches would span every technological innovation in broadcasting over her seven decades as monarch, including the first televised Christmas speech in 1957.

For viewers this established formula confirmed the notion of the queen as a steady presence, while keeping up tradition and a link to the past and providing the comfort of the familiar through times of change and challenge.

Following in his mother’s footsteps in 2022, King Charles chose to deliver his first Christmas broadcast standing in the quire of St George’s Chapel at Windsor. He retained the crucial elements: expressions of appreciation for his the queen’s service, sympathy with families struggling with the economic crisis, and messages of hope for the future. He is the first male monarch to have delivered a televised address.

The monarch’s Christmas speech symbolises for many a connection with the royal family during the festive season. It has reflected not only technological progress and the development of broadcasting, but also the monarchy’s adaptation to a changing world. King Charles has seven decades of broadcasts by his late mother to learn from, but must now establish his own voice without losing continuity with the past.

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