A TELEVISION epoch closes. The Duke of Edinburgh was, we understand, the driving force, overruling the Establishment and, of course, the Church, in ensuring that the Queen’s Coronation was televised and accessible to the masses — even those watching in public houses.
His eagerness to modernise, to embrace new technology, and to engage with ordinary people was well reflected in two tributes broadcast on the evening of his death, although they were set in what many (not I) will consider an archaic throwback: the cessation of all scheduled programmes, replaced with those deemed appropriate and respectful, today’s media observing court mourning.
No doubt a response to the outcry after the off-hand manner in which TV marked the death of the Queen Mother, the extent to which this, in turn, foments general discontent among those denied their evening’s episodes of soap operas and game shows will be an interesting measure of how much public opinion has moved on since 2002 — or not.
Over the past 70 years, the Royal Family’s eagerness to reveal and share their lives has waxed and waned. The high point was the intimate documentary Royal Family, aired on BBC and ITV in 1969, strongly promoted by Prince Philip, and now withdrawn, was subsequently considered to be too undermining of the essential mystique. The bitter lesson of recent decades is how little control royalty have over their TV portrayal, as stage-managed interviews supposed to tell their side of the story have spectacularly blown up in their faces.
The Duke never indulged in such ploys, but must have wondered how much releasing the genie from its bottle was his responsibility, in later years viewing journalists and cameramen less as allies in his cause to usher in the modern world and more as opponents to be outmanoeuvred.
The contrast between the two tributes was characteristic. In His Royal Highness The Duke Of Edinburgh (Friday, Channel 4), Matt Frei provided, advantageously, a single viewpoint, as he knit together a marvellous series of reminiscences and memories, less deferential (showing, for example, a clip from Spitting Image’s portrayal of the Duke). It was heartfelt, warm, and positive.
A Tribute to HRH Duke of Edinburgh (Friday, BBC1) was far more magisterial, more objective, more “official”; it covered much of the same ground and incidents, but marshalled an even more spectacular cast, all his children providing personal tributes. It was good to be reminded of how long ago Prince Philip exploited his position to warn against catastrophic environmental change and species extinction, and to insist on the inextricable mutual dependence between humankind and the whole web of creation.
And we saw more religion than expected: his mother’s Orthodox order of nuns; her saving a Jewish family from the Nazis; and his initiation of international ecumenical initiatives. Despite his secondary, subsidiary position, this was an extraordinary life of achievement, personally enriching TV with a unique breadth of material.