Originally published on visualcultureweekly.wordpress.com on April 7, 2020.
An exceptional address to the nation was released Sunday by Buckingham Palace and it was yet another reminder of the extreme audiovisual sophistication and intelligence of the Queen’s broadcasts. A rare event, the message focusing on the current COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world was only the fourth of such in all of the Queen’s reign. Although her Christmas messages are a staple throughout the Commonwealth and the World, only on the occasion of the UK’s participation in the Gulf War, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, and the Diamond Jubilee celebrations has such televised addresses occurred.
In all of these broadcasts, regular and irregular, our attention should not only be focused on the words, but also on the audiovisual narrative created by even the most innocent-seeming detail. An example of the subtle but powerful play with the media language contained within these addresses is the use of framing, depth-of-field and sound in her message following the death of Princess Diana.
In 1997, after receiving strong criticism for her perceived lack of empathy and shared mourning with the British people, the Queen took these few minutes to present an alternative story. The video shows her, fatigued, dressed in black, standing alone on a balcony in Buckingham Palace, a crowd of mourners in the background. The initial thirty seconds of the message prominently feature the crowd, their cheers and cries crisply audible, as she thanks the people of Britain for their support. The camera then slowly zooms in on her visibly tired demeanor as the crowd becomes ever-so-slightly out of focus and their sound is gently lowered. “So what I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart”, she says as the camera brings our attention to her, and only her. The use of visual and aural cues encourages the viewers at home to consider the mourning of Princess Diana first as public, but then, as the language of the address changes, also private. We are brought in to stare at her at an intimate distance unusual in her regular speeches. She presents herself as a grandmother focused on her grandchildren who have lost her mother revealing an internal struggle between her role as monarch and that of matriarch to a tragedy-stricken family, gently asking the public for space.
Through such restrained adjustments, this message is communicated in under four minutes.
Sophisticated visual subtleties have been a key element of her addresses since their beginnings in 1957, and Sunday’s was no different. The establishing shots of Windsor Castle are almost identical to her 2019 Christmas speech. They both begin with shots of the immense grounds of the castle, but one haunting difference strikes us. Silence reigned in Sunday’s broadcast. Under regular circumstances, music is heard, and we even get to see the bands and choirs in the halls of the establishment she is speaking from. Also omitted was the traditional shot of the Royal Standard, symbol of the Queen’s presence. These two changes from regular broadcasts, in times of COVID-19, take on an important significance. The Queen finds herself alone. There are no visual or audio cues that another human might be in her presence. No band is there to play music, and no guard is there to hoist the flag. Visually, we have no reason to think she might be in contact with someone and possible contract the virus. For many Britons, and Canadians, who hold her and her title in high esteem, this is important for them.
Another striking omission from past years are the photos featured on her desk and in the backdrop. In regular circumstances, these are used to nuance her message. Wedding photos, baby pictures, childhood photos, portraits of past monarchs and extended family members are normally shown alongside the Queen to convey the importance of family at Buckingham Palace, and suggests a sense of continuity, tradition, timelessness of the institution she represents. For example, while some years feature her desk almost comically overloaded with pictures, the address during the Jubilee celebrations in 2012 featured only two: a portrait of her entire family and one of Will and Kate. Continuity and regeneration of power.
In this latest address, there were no pictures placed behind her. This detail has been received as a sobering reminder of the physical distancing we must all partake in and endure, for possibly an undetermined amount of time. Like many people around the world, these coming months mean separations from loved ones and the possibility of deaths within one’s family, in an almost unpredictable fashion.
These two major choices in regard to the staging of her message, the austere introduction and the removal of any references to other members of her family, spoke about how she wanted to present herself to the public, as a symbol of permanence.
Britons are facing a possibly turbulent few months not only in terms of public health, but in terms of political leadership. Both the heir apparent to the throne, Prince Charles, and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have contracted the virus (at the time of drafting this post, the latter was admitted to ICU due to complications). Combined with an aging monarch, the pandemic could mean rapid changes in power for the UK and the Commonwealth.
The Queen’s message rings even louder Britons face particularly uncertain months to come, the death toll suspected to rise due to a severely delayed response by government. For the survival of her empire, the Queen needed to intervene to make Britons realize the severity of what is at stake, not only lives of many citizens, but the stability of the monarchy. She has a lot to lose. She weaponized the symbolic power still allotted to her quite efficiently and went for emotions. The videos of people cheering health workers and images of rainbows drawn by children peppered her speech and placed her at the level of public opinion, closer than most elected officials perhaps. For many citizens of the Commonwealth, this is what they come to expect from the Queen. Even though elected governments can come and go, there Crown will always be there as symbol for stability and continuity, one thing we can all turn to for reassurance. The constant harking back to her role during World War II–speaking to the children of the nation as they were separated from their families for safety–suggests that her intent is to communicate a sense of safety, that this too shall pass, or, as she closes her speech with an allusion to the popular war-time song, “we shall meet again.”
In Canada, a parallel debate has gained some traction in the past days. The efficiency of home-made or non-surgical masks in slowing the spread of COVID-19 has been questioned by many. Officials suggests there use for daily activities but remind us that is not the best protection and to not forego physical distancing. Critics of the idea highlight the possible false sense of security it may cause. What, if anything, is this actually protecting us from? Is this only symbolic? Emotional?
Perhaps similar questions should be asked of the Monarchy and the way it represents itself.