It is always a sombre moment for this country when we lose our monarch and head of state, but somehow, this one seemed to hurt more than most. This is a look at of some of the TV and radio coverage of the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September 2022, which will be remembered for years to come. There has always been an unusual thing that has hung over British TV. The moment when the picture would fade away for the important news report that announces the death of a monarch. Could it happen during a primetime sitcom? Could it happen during a daytime game show? Could it even happen at about 3am when barely anyone is watching?
As it turned out, this sort-of happened before the actual death. On BBC1, at about 12:40pm, Bargain Hunt faded away, and viewers joined the News channel, after Buckingham Palace had taken the unprecedented step of announcing that doctors had become concerned for Her Majesty’s wellbeing. She had most recently been seen just two days earlier, welcoming the 15th Prime Minister of her reign. It was a reminder of last year when the Palace constantly insisted that Prince Philip was “in good spirits” when he was actually on his deathbed, meaning that the announcement of his death was more of a shock than it should’ve been, and you got the feeling that the public weren’t going to be fooled again.
The coverage remained on BBC1 for the rest of the afternoon, by which point Huw Edwards had taken over as host. There was a constant eye on happenings at Balmoral, where Her Majesty was residing, and family members were spotted making their arrivals, to say their goodbyes as it turned out. And just as it looked like all of the speculation about what exactly was happening had been exhausted, and the coverage was going to end, it was noticed that the flag on the top of Buckingham Palace was being lowered to half-mast. And then, at just after 6:30pm, and many hours after shows were initially interrupted, the moment that so many had dreaded had come.
As far as the BBC was concerned, this moment was always going to be delivered by Edwards. He had been a reporter since the late-80s, and he slowly worked his way up, becoming their main host by the early-2000s, and he was often seen on The 10 O’Clock News. Unlike what happened with Diana in 1997, it was fairly obvious that this moment had long since been prepared for and much rehearsed. Edwards began his announcement, but then there was a brief pause as BBC2 viewers joined. And then, the national anthem was played, and it was at this point that TV essentially went into sombre mode for the days to come.
Alongside Edwards in the studio was royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell (my mum once had a dream that he had died…), who seems to be a much derided figure for some reason. Edwards had to achieve the difficult task of hosting whilst being poignant and respectful, but without crossing the line into being “a bower and a scraper” (an accusation that has been thrown at Witchell). It was clear that both of them had been moved by the occasion, and they both spoke well as they reflected on the end of the longest reign in British history. It was a relief to many that this was all well received by viewers, and seemed to strike the right tone.
I very much doubt that Edwards was angling for a honour by doing all this, but other hosts including Alistair Burnet and Trevor McDonald have been recognised for their news work, so it could be possible. It also reminds you of the famous time when news host Walter Cronkite had to announce the assassination of President Kennedy, and he pretty much became one of the most revered and trusted figures in American broadcasting for years. His handling of this event should only strengthen the idea that Edwards is the leading host on the BBC.
As for the other channels, ITV started a news special at 5pm, meaning that viewers had to go without The Chase (and I imagine that they were NOT happy), but tough luck. Mary Nightingale was the host, although the announcement wasn’t as slick as on the BBC, mostly because Nightingale didn’t seem to know where her glasses were, but again, overall this was well handled. Channel 4 pulled the episode of Hollyoaks that had started only a minute or two earlier to go to Cathy Newman, while Channel 5 extended their news, and Dan Walker (who had recently been poached from the BBC) announced for them. There was also the unusual situation of there being no advert breaks on ITV, Channel 4, or Channel 5 for the next day or two.
And on Sky News, Dermot Murnaghan (who also announced the news about Diana when he worked for ITN) was stood outside Buckingham Palace, and he seemed to be rather dazed and lost for words about the whole experience. Various non-news channels pulled their shows and their advert breaks for a short while too. National and local radio stations also carried the announcement, and they went into sombre mode for a while. But they didn’t play any downbeat classical music, as they might’ve done not so long ago, instead they played a few pop songs, and ended up sounding like Smooth FM in a bad mood.
I think that this was all rather different to what happened with Diana 25 years ago. That news came out of nowhere, and channels had very little planned. There also seemed to be an undertone of anger from the public. While they mourned, a “this shouldn’t have happened” feeling was never far from the surface of the sadness. But that wasn’t the case this time. And as for myself, I was surprised because I was moved more than I thought I would be. And, like many other people, I took a moment to think about some of my much-missed relatives. These included a great-granddad who lived to 96 years old, the same age that Her Majesty did, although he had long since been stricken. It is remarkable to think that she reigned for so long, and was able to fulfil her duty to just about the very end.
And it was weird to think that this had finally happened, and for the first time in seven decades, there was a King on the throne. There had always been reports in Private Eye magazine that Charles was increasingly bored and frustrated with being heir, being one step away from his destiny for so long, giving the impression that he desperately craved being monarch, although I don’t think that was ever the case. There were also various documentaries and obituaries in the days leading up to the state funeral, which was an occasion where barely a foot was put wrong (and the BBC should be grateful that the biggest stir in coverage with viewers was caused on ITV by This Morning). I get the feeling that things will never be the same again…