Hazel Baker is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.
She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.
She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain
Guest: Jessica Storoschuk is an historian behind the history and culture blog An Historian About Town. She studies the history of monarchy as well as the history of ballet and Christmas. And it is ballet that we are talking about today, specifically in the modern tradition of the monarch’s Christmas Speeches.
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to our London History podcast, where we share our love of London. It’s people, places, and history. It’s designed for you to learn things about London that most Londoners don’t even know. I am your host, Hazel Baker, qualified London Tour guide, and CEO and founder of londonguidedwalks.co.uk
Each episode is supported by show notes, transcripts, photos, and further reading All to be found on our website. Click on London Guided Walks dot code uk podcast and then select the episode that you fancy. And if you enjoy what we do, then you’ll love our guided walks and private tours that we offer throughout the year.
Joining me in the studio today is Jessica Stook, a historian behind the history and culture blog, and a historian about town. She studies the history of monarchy as well as the history of ballet and Christmas. She’s previously been a guest on episode 82, Ballet in London, and is here today to talk about the Royal Christmas message.
Many of us would’ve known them as the Queen’s speech, and it was a fundamental part of our Christmas day, having the presents. Then this, the Christmas lunch, and then at three o’clock gathering ground, the television sitting on whatever surface was available and listening to the Queen give her Christmas speech. 1957 Television braadcast
What is the Royal Christmas speech?
[00:01:43] Jessica Storoschuk: So the Queen speech, which will now be known as the King speech, is formally known as the King or Queen’s Christmas message. Though most of us aren’t using that formal long title, and what this is it’s a two to three minute broadcast. It was originally on radio and is now on television, and all of her social media and it’s the Monarch is able to sum up the year.
Reminisce on what has happened in the UK and across the commonwealth and look forward to the future and share their good wishes. This speech is usually broadcast at 3:00 PM in the United Kingdom, so that allows everyone to have their Christmas breakfast, open presents, see family, et cetera, and then they get to sit down and enjoy the speech together.
And a lot of people will still gather with their families to do in the Commonwealth though, it actually comes at very different times. So here in Canada, it’s broadcast on our national television station, CBC at 12:00 PM noon, local time. So if you catch a cbc, if you’re. From a different place that’s earlier in time, you can watch it before noon. CBC Radio typically plays it right before noon. It is all over social media though, so we can usually watch it by. Five minutes after what would be 3:00 PM in the UK because the Royal family puts it up on social media everywhere. So we’re not really bound by time constraints. However, in the past, interestingly, Australia and New Zealand actually would have to listen on Boxing Day.
When it was done live because of the international dateline and how time zones work, they would actually get it the next day. So luckily now that it’s pre-recorded Australia and New Zealand and everyone else gets it roughly at the same time, so all traditions have got to start at some point.
So when was the first Royal Christmas message and how did it come?
[00:03:47] Jessica Storoschuk: So the first Royal Christmas message aired in 1932, though it could have come about much earlier. So the head of the BBC approached King George the fifth in 1922 to do a broadcast. And the king said, no. It seems like this radio thing is a bit too newfangled and it seems to be just for entertainment. This isn’t what I want the monarchy wrapped up in. However, when the BBC approached him a decade later again, and with some nudging from his wife, Queen Mary George V, agreed to do the Christmas broadcast from Sandra, it was part of a project to launch what was then called the Empire Service and is now the World Service. First ever Royal speech.
Was the BBC’s International Radio Service given the hesitancy of the king? Did he then write his own speech or did he get someone else to do it for him?
[00:04:47] Jessica Storoschuk: Interestingly, the first Christmas message from King George the fifth was actually written by Rudyard Kipling, the author his speech, this first speech touched on technology and how incredible it was that the king was able to quote unquote speak directly to his subjects and everyone around the world and unsurprisingly, in this interwar period, it also discusses peace and encourages people to not put your interests above everyone else. So it’s quite different from the speeches we see now, but very much in line with what we know about King George the fifth and Rudyard Kipling, quite frankly.
When was the first televised Christmas speech?
[00:05:33] Jessica Storoschuk: We don’t get our first Christmas speech on television until 1957. So for the first few years of her reign, queen Elizabeth II did give the queen speech over the radio, and then in 1957 she shifted to television. So that was very exciting. And if people hadn’t bought televisions for the coronation, You can read of people buying television sets in 1957 and 1958 to be able to see that. And again, another way to gather with people to watch it if you don’t have a television. And in 1957, in 1958, it was broadcast live. And then in 1959 it shifts to being pre-recorded, which it still is to this day.
And have we had a Christmas speech each year since 1930?
[00:06:26] Jessica Storoschuk: Since the first Christmas speech in 1932, we have had three years without a Royal Christmas message. So in 1936, king George I sixth, did not give a Christmas speech, which is very understandable as his elder brother previously Edward II had abdicated only two weeks before. So there’s a lot happening.
Understandably, no Christmas speech on the itinerary. There was not a Christmas broadcast in 1938 either, and for the King’s next Christmas speech in 1939, obviously the Second World War had started so very differently in tone. So the jump from 1937 to 1939 is quite stark. And then finally in 1969, Queen Elizabeth.
Did not give a Christmas broadcast as the Royal Family Documentary had aired on the BBC in the summer. And that was done in conjunction with the then Prince Charles Investiture as Prince of Wales. And the Queen felt that the public had seen more than enough of her family during the year and that it would be best for her not to give the speech. The BBC did replay the documentary on Christmas Day, though, and the Queen released a handwritten message instead.
How did Majesty Queen Elizabeth II embrace technology?
[00:07:50] Jessica Storoschuk: During Queen Elizabeth, the Seconds Reign, we saw a massive change in technology from when she first came to the throne in 1952 to her passing in September of 2022.
So we see a lot more technological advancements in her Christmas speeches than we saw with her father and her grandfather, who really. Read their speeches and it was broadcast over the radio and that’s it. So when she started her reign, she broadcast over the radio like George the fifth and George VI had done.
Then in 1957, her first televised Christmas speech went on the air, and then in 1959 we see it recorded, which was important because it allowed her to. A not have to be at Buckhouse or Sandham or Windsor, wherever it was going to take place. And if she was on tour or somewhere else, the speech could still go ahead as planned.
So we see this televised recorded speech happening for quite some time. And then in the late nineties and early two thousands, we see it’s not just the BBC that hosts it, it opened up, it alternated between the BBC and the independent television news. And then in the 2010s we also saw Sky News added to the rotation.
So it doesn’t change how we see it, but the BBC no longer has control over it in the same way. And interestingly, in 2012 to mark her Diamond Jubilee, the Queen’s message was first broadcast in 3D. So depending on what you were watching it in, it did not look 3d. But if you have a device that supports it or a television that supports it, you could have watched that in 3D. 2012 Christmas message
We’ve had three monarchs delivering these Christmas speeches, and what have their main themes been?
[00:09:55] Jessica Storoschuk: So each of the three monarchs have their own themes for their Christmas speeches with George the fifth in the inter war period, we see continual please in asking for peace and. To remember that everyone is part of a larger family.
He did start discussing the dominions and the Commonwealth as the statue of Westminster had been signed and came into effect in 1931. So Canada, New Zealand, Australia, et cetera, are all their own independent nations now, so they’re starting to play on that. Then when we get to George the sixth, obviously much of his reign is either the or the post-war period. So his Christmas speeches tend to focus on everyone keeping their head up being there for friends and family, remembering the war effort. And then after the war Just a reminder that everyone went through all of this together and that we’re still trying to push through our rationing and everything as we recover from the war.
Both Monarchs did include some personal items and the Commonwealth, but it’s really this plea for Britain and the Commonwealth to pull together. Then with Elizabeth ii, we see a bit of a shift. She’s obviously got seven decades of Christmas speeches, so there’s a lot more to choose from with her. Her speeches do tend to really draw on family events, so births, weddings and big anniversaries.
Those sorts of things. We see those mentioned. She does talk about things going on in the Commonwealth and countries. She’s visited. For example, in 1967, she spoke about Canada’s centenary. And she does balance the personal and the quote unquote political. Even though the Monarch is not political, we do see a shift to more religious tones in her later years.
It’s not quite as prominent in her earlier broadcast, but in the later decades of the Queen’s life, she really did draw on Christian imagery, which is not surprising because we know she was very devout and as head of the Anglican church, it’s not inappropriate.
How did she send us a visual message with her speech?
[00:12:20] Jessica Storoschuk: As always, the late queen was a diplomatic dresser for her. Christmas speeches shows she would often wear different broaches or pieces of jewellery to signify different things. So if it was an anniversary of her mother, she might wear a broach or a bracelet or necklace, particularly connected to her. After Prince Phillips passing, she wore a broach that he had given her, so she.
These pieces draw connections. And now there are probably thousands of people who track these sorts of things. And you can find websites that will immediately identify the jewellery that the Royal is wearing and what its history and connections are. And the other element that people really focus on immediately is the pictures and who is in them on her desk. So obviously the royal family is quite large. You can’t have pictures of everyone, so there’s always. Two to four pictures of different members of the royal family that are somewhat prominently displayed. They’re in the background, but you can still see who’s in them.
And Eagle Eyed Watchers will always go to spot who’s in it. In the last few years of her reign, the Queen really like to focus on her heirs, so she would have Charles, William and George there in photographs. Version to draw that Dynastic line.
Where did Elizabeth II film most of her Christmas messages?
[00:13:58] Jessica Storoschuk: So Queen Elizabeth II filmed her various Christmas speeches at a few different locations. So in the beginning of her reign, it was recorded either for radio or television at Sangham House, which is where the Royal family spends their Christmas. When it was filmed at Sangham, it was usually filmed in the long library.
However, once it started being pre-recorded, she was able to have a lot more flexibility.
We have seen it filmed a lot at Buckingham Palace a few times at Windsor. Pretty much any royal resident she chose, although Buckingham Palace and Sandringham are the main choices. And she has a few that were, including footage from other places and other tours, but usually it’s the one shot of the Queen of Buckingham Palace, either inside or outside or at Sandringham. However, in the last few years, the Queen had essentially bubbled at Windsor Castle. So the last few speeches were filmed at Windsor, and it does seem fitting as it was her favourite residence and she loved being there. So that’s why we see Windsor for the last few years.
Who writes the Monarch speeches now?
[00:15:17] Jessica Storoschuk: So the Queen’s speech, or the King’s speech is actually one of the only times now that the Monarch can speak for themself. So Queen Elizabeth, along with the help from Prince Phillip would write her own. Christmas speeches and would actually pick the theme herself. So whereas the speech from the throne and pretty much every other time she speaks, there’s input from the government and various offices and organisations.
The Royal Christmas message is the one time where the Monarch is allowed to voice their own opinion and choose their subjects. So I think it’s going to be very interesting to see where Charles takes it and what themes will be.
This year will be Charles II’s first Christmas message. Do we know anything else, maybe where he’s going to be filming it?
[00:16:09] Jessica Storoschuk: So we don’t actually know where Charles is going to be filming his Christmas message from, and that’s going on the basis that he probably will be filming it ahead as his mother has done for several decades now. It has been confirmed that he and Camilla are going to be spending Christmas at Sangham, but I don’t know that it’s a guarantee that it will be filmed at Sandringham.
I don’t think Windsor will happen. He is not known to favour Windsor, and I don’t think he spent a ton of time there. Since his mother’s passing, I think there’s a good likelihood he might film it at Buckingham Palace before he’s still living at Clarence House, so we might see it filmed there. And that residence is associated with him still and I think will be for years and years to come. But Buckingham Palace is his quote-unquote office, and I think there’s a good likelihood he’ll probably film it at Buckingham Palace.
I know there’s quite a few to choose from, but do you have a favourite speech? Something that resonates with you?
[00:18:49] Jessica Storoschuk: I have two different favourites from the Queen’s Christmas speeches. Unfortunately neither George the fifth nor George, I sixth stand out to me. They are nice, but I don’t. Immediately gravitate towards them.
But the queen has two that stand out for me. So as a Canadian, the 1967 Christmas speech where she spoke of Canada Centenary and her five week tour of Canada is always one of my favourites. And then jumping forward very far in time, 2012. Probably my favourite because it marked her Diamond Jubilee.
It was a fantastic year for her. And coming after 2011, which was always also a great year for the royal family, they had two weddings. The Duke, the Duke of borough recovered from his heart surgery. And in 2012 it felt much more joyous and lighter. And understandably, there’s always a lot going on in the world, but the 20 12 1 really seemed to be a much happier and more joyful Christmas message than sometimes we get.
Do you think the King’s speech is still relevant today?
[00:20:05] Jessica Storoschuk: I absolutely think that the Royal Christmas message is still very important. As we’ve said earlier, this is the only time that the Monarch can speak for themselves and are not being told what to say by the government or any other organization.
So I think that’s very important and an important tool for the moon. I also think it is important for the monarchy to and the Monarch to quote unquote be there for its citizens, and this is another way that the Monarch is able to reach millions and millions of people all at once. Obviously, the King and the Queen concert go on engagements all of the time, but that’s reaching a very small number of people.
Who happens to be there? This Christmas message is different in that it is broadcast around the world and is made for everyone, and we don’t see that very often, especially not across the Commonwealth. And the King not only speaks as the King of the United Kingdom, but also the King of Canada and New Zealand, Australia, etc.
And it’s important that it isn’t lost because those links are still important. And I also. in terms of royal traditions, it’s one of the, shall I say smaller ones, it doesn’t draw a lot of money. You’re not maintaining a building or a yacht to do this. It’s a very manageable way to do it, and I think in 2022, it is more than important to stay visible. So I think it is a very relevant and very important tradition.
[00:21:50] Hazel Baker: Thank you Jessica.
Maybe if you at home are listening to this and think, oh, I haven’t listened to a Royal Christmas message for Yonks. Really got out the habit, or you know what? I’ve never listened to one. I’m going to embed a couple of those throughout the years but maybe this year at three o’clock. If you are in the UK, you can sit after stuffing your face with your Christmas pudding, and you can listen to Charles II’s very First King speech.
And just a little reminder, that episode 82 Ballet in London is also where the lovely Jessica shares her love and enthusiasm about ballet and ballet dancers in London.
Christmas-themed podcast episodes:
Episode 98: Christmas Puddings Throughout History
Episode 75: The Christmas Cracker – a Victorian Invention
Episode 74: Christmas in 1950s and 1960s London
Episode 35: A Tudor Christmas
Episode 34: London’s oldest shops food and drink
That’s all for now. See you next time.