The files arrived marked ‘STRICT EMBARGO’ and ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ and ‘FORTH BRIDGE REVISED’ and stamped with various crests and insignia. My dog Mot was intrigued and sniffed the stack warily. I have a few days to ingest this mass of information — ceremonial detail, armed forces involvement, order of service, processional arrangements, musical selections, historical precedent, the unabridged chronicle of Windsor and its College of St George and its splendid chapel — before hosting the BBC’s coverage of the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. In four hours of live broadcasting, watched by an audience of millions, the focus is on accuracy and tone. Most of the people doling out advice online have — predictably — never been entrusted with such a duty. But thanks anyway.
I was at home in south London — reading through my notes for when I present the local and national election results in May, as it happens — when news came through of Prince Philip’s death. Could I please present a two-hour special programme at 1 p.m.? A typically barmy request from a colleague who thinks London has only one postcode: N1. Certainly, a postcode starting SE is greeted with dumb bewilderment. But I do like a challenge, and I had barely 50 minutes to get my act together. ‘Would you like a cab?’ asked one co-worker, clearly unaware of the anguish faced by drivers having to choose which bridge to use to cross the Thames. Forget navigation apps: those of us with decades of experience know this is a matter of deep instinct, an almost mystical process. So I opted for public transport, as I usually do, and thanks to Southeastern trains and the Victoria line was at New Broadcasting House by 12.50.
It was no unqualified triumph, let it be said. I left home in such a rush that I mixed up my suits and realised on the train that jacket and trousers did not match. The prospect of standing at a video screen to open the programme — as we often do, despite my frequent protests — brought on powerful surges of the broadcaster’s equivalent of mal de mer as I imagined the nastier parts of our press crowing about my sartorial slip-up. I resolved not to stand under any circumstances. I need not have worried. It was a case of behind-the-desk presentation throughout: the appropriately dignified option, I told myself.
The funeral plans previously shared with the media have been ‘amended’ because of the Covid restrictions. The long-established masterplan, ‘Operation Forth Bridge’, is now officially ‘Operation Forth Bridge — Windsor Option’. The ceremonial elements planned for London have been cancelled, and all activity will now take place within the precincts of Windsor Castle. Philip was heavily involved in drawing up the plans, so the funeral — its service, music and processions — is in accordance with his wishes, right down to the military Land Rover transporting the coffin. The event is much reduced in scale, and Philip wanted it to be ‘no-fuss’, but let’s not forget that there will be hundreds of members of the armed forces taking part. It might be wise not to overdo the ‘small funeral’ narrative.
Viewers have been asking why Prince Philip is being ‘denied a state funeral’. One gentleman writes (anonymously, of course) in a flourishing hand on rather expensive notepaper to say that this is the BBC’s fault. Other correspondents have even more sinister scenarios in mind. Yes, I say, Philip is certainly entitled to a state funeral, but he opted for a military one with a service at St George’s Chapel. All this is a matter of public record. But we live in a curious age in which people believe what they choose to believe, and one person’s truth is another’s bias. Rational debate becomes almost impossible. And while I’m at it, I sense that importing more of the coarse American-style ‘opinion’ news culture is categorically not what we need right now.
Ahead of these great ceremonial occasions, I love the solitary rituals of reading and revising. The information has to be thoroughly absorbed: there is no time on air to be flicking through piles of research notes. A glimpse of the Major-General commanding the Household Division must immediately generate the name Chris Ghika; a sequence showing the castle and chapel must be sustained with useful details about their history and architecture. There’s no point looking for a friendly autocue at these moments — it really is time to sink or swim. As Prince Philip once said with typical gusto: ‘Just bloody well get on with it!’ And we will.
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