Operation “Pony Express” – 1953

On my first opportunity to greet royalty I flubbed my lines. As a six year-old lad welcoming the newly crowned Queen on her first visit to Wales, I’d been given a little flag to wave and encouragement to give a hearty cheer as she walked by.  I was well-placed at the front of the crowd, but when the time came to perform I was so over-awed that I just stood speechless with my little flag drooping [insert your own joke here].  In my defence, as well as being The Queen she was also the first TV star I’d ever seen. Her funeral last month reminded me of watching her coronation seven decades earlier, and a Canadian operation that made North American television history.

The Coronation Broadcast in Britain
Just five weeks before my dismal cheering performance, I’d watched Queen Elizabeth’s coronation live on television, which was still a rare fixture in British homes.  The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had shut down its small-scale and primitive television service during the Second World War, resuming again in June 1946.  The coronation would be the first such royal ceremony to be televised live, despite opposition from traditionalists like Winston Churchill, the Queen’s Privy Council, and initially from Elizabeth herself.  But Prince Phillip had become a driving force in making royalty more modern and accessible, ultimately prevailing over the naysayers.  Sales of televisions shot up in anticipation, and many families like ours joined our wealthier neighbours for coronation parties, clustering around small black-and-white screens to experience history being made.  For many, it was the first time we had ever watched TV.

TV in Canada
Although I didn’t know it then, the country to which our family would soon be immigrating had made an extraordinary effort to broadcast the event on the same day it occurred.  The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had launched its television service only nine months earlier – and then only to Montréal and Toronto, followed by Ottawa soon after.  The coronation offered a huge but challenging opportunity.  The few Canadians with televisions normally relied on American stations just across the border, so scooping the big American networks would be a significant coup for the Canadian broadcaster.  But, in an era before satellites and undersea optical cables, that meant physically transporting film across the Atlantic and into the heartland of the continent.  Beating the well-financed American networks would have to be a military operation, using the latest high-performance jets.

Operation “Pony Express
On coronation day, BBC Television used newly-developed techniques to film the broadcast in its headquarters at Alexandra Palace.  Then, seventeen canisters of film weighing 420 pounds (190 kilograms) were loaded onto a helicopter for the 30 kilometre flight to London Airport at Heathrow, where one of the latest Royal Air Force bombers, a Canberra, was waiting to fly high and fast to the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Goose Bay in Labrador.

The Canberra from RAF 540 Squadron waiting at Heathrow. Note the extra fuel tanks on the wings. (Photo: R.A. Scholefield)

That flight almost kept pace with the sun, arriving not long after the same local time as it had taken off.  In Labrador, the films were loaded aboard one of the new Canadian designed and built CF-100 fighters – the “Canuck” – for the 2½ hour flight to the RCAF station at Saint Hubert, and then transferred by helicopter to the CBC station in Montréal.  The broadcast began that afternoon, at 4:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, beating the American networks by 27 minutes.   With the support of the Royal and Royal Canadian Air Forces, CBC had been able to broadcast the first television program ever to be shown in Britain and North America on the same day.

Wing Commander George Nickerson arrives at RCAF Station Saint Hubert with the films. (Photo: CBC News)

Small Screens: Then and Now
We’ve come a long way in the seven decades since: from clustering around a tiny screen to watch grainy black-and-white images of the Queen’s coronation, to being able to sit comfortably in front of large screens to see her funeral live-streamed in high definition colour, direct from London.  But human nature is a funny thing.  Among those who actually lined the cortege route, despite knowing that the internet would soon be carrying terabytes of pictures and videos made by professionals in the best of locations, a great many busied themselves with the tiny screens of “smart” phones.  Have a look at the picture below and see how many were choosing to be respectfully present in the solemn moment, rather than focusing on a mobile device.  I count eleven.

Watchers on the cortege route
Screen-grab from BBC live-stream of the Queen’s funeral, 19 September 2022


[Header image of family watching the coronation courtesy of BBC]