My encounter with a royal broadcast, and how Prince Philip’s funeral will be very different

In 2011 I found myself in London working with a client. It just so happened that, during the month I was in the capital, the wedding of Prince William was set to take place. Royal events like weddings and funerals are broadcast live in the UK and around the world, and doing so is an incredible logistical feat that takes a huge amount of planning. In this current coronavirus moment, with restrictions and limitations in place, the upcoming funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh will be quite different to the royal event I – in a very minor way – attended a decade ago.

Although my health was in decline by 2011, at that point I was still working full-time and was still able to travel in relative comfort, so when a client I’d worked with for several years asked me to spend some time in their office with their marketing team I happily agreed and travelled to London. All expenses paid, I thought, so why not? I stayed in a small room in a shared apartment in King’s Cross, from where my client’s office was a short commute. It was, for someone who grew up in a small rural community, a change of scene! Though I’d lived in cities before, I never really got used to the dense crowds of places like London – but if I thought my commute or my lunch break were busy, that was nothing compared to the royal wedding!

Crowds at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.

After several years of dating, Prince William and Kate Middleton – now Kate, Duchess of Cambridge – announced their engagement in November 2010, and planning for the wedding kicked into high gear not only for the royal family, but for media companies as well. Though Prince Charles’ second wedding to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in 2005 had attracted a modest television audience of around 7 million in the UK, his first wedding to Diana, Princess of Wales in 1981 picked up an audience of over 28 million in the UK – and some 750 million worldwide. Broadcasters certainly expected William and Kate to manage something similar!

A huge event was planned, and the royal family were accommodating of the media, despite decades of mistrust between them, setting up cameras and microphones to capture every single moment of the day. Screens were set up in public parks in London – where I watched the ceremony – and all around the UK, and people lined the routes waving flags and joining in. After sitting to watch the wedding in Green Park – a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace – I found myself on the Mall in time for the newlyweds’ appearance on the palace balcony, as well as to see a flyover by the Royal Air Force.

My view of Buckingham Palace from the Mall in 2011.

There were an estimated one million people on the Mall along with me, and scenes of the event were broadcast to an audience of some 30+ million in the UK, and well over 160 million worldwide. It’s always been a source of interest to be able to tell people that “I was there” – even though I’m no royalist and wouldn’t have attended on purpose, it’s certainly something interesting to have participated in while I was able. An event.

Royal funerals, too, tend to draw significant audiences, and in light of the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh last week, it’s these events we should really be looking to for points of comparison.

The funerals of both the Queen Mother in 2002 and Princess Diana in 1997 are the largest royal funerals of note in the last few years, and the best comparisons to what we could expect to see on Saturday. The Queen Mother’s 2002 funeral picked up an audience of over 10 million in the UK – but this is barely a third of the 32 million who tuned in to see the funeral of Princess Diana.

The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales was a massive television event in 1997.

Royal weddings, like the one mentioned above, are meticulously planned months ahead of time, with every detail ironed out. With eight days between the announcement of Prince Philip’s death and the funeral, you’d think that putting together an event like this, with plans to televise it worldwide, would be impossible. But that’s far from the truth.

The reality is that the royal family and broadcasters have been working on funeral plans for Prince Philip and other senior royals for decades. Prince Philip himself is said to have worked on his own funeral arrangements, crafting an event that would cause, in his words, “minimal fuss,” and even designing his own Land Rover-based hearse! Perhaps he would have appreciated the scaled-back nature of this event, caused by the pandemic, which means a maximum of thirty people can be in attendance!

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021)
Picture Credit: Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A lot has changed since even the wedding of William and Kate ten years ago in terms of the way audiences consume media, and I will be genuinely interested to see whether the viewing figures for Prince Philip’s funeral come close to matching other comparable royal events. The move away from broadcast television to on-demand streaming has changed the way many people, especially younger people, interact with what they watch.

In a growing number of cases, people are opting not to watch any broadcast television, replacing it with subscriptions to streaming platforms, and even eschewing the traditional television set in favour of smaller, portable screens like phones and tablets. While that wouldn’t be my preference for how to watch, well, anything, I can’t deny that it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. How many of these people will step away from Netflix, YouTube, or Paramount+ to tune into a royal funeral, I wonder, and how many will simply opt to watch highlights later?

How many people will watch the funeral live, and how many will simply stream the highlights afterwards?

Royal events have been huge draws for television audiences going back to at least the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. My father can vividly remember crowding around a brand-new television to watch the queen’s coronation, and while in 2021 we shouldn’t be crowding around anything, there is still power in royalty for television broadcasters. One need only look to the success of Netflix’s The Crown as evidence.

So it will be a point of interest to learn how many viewers turn up for Prince Philip on Saturday. Broadcasters will have had a number of plans in place for different events, different crowd sizes, and even different weather conditions. April weather in the UK can be unpredictable – in the last couple of days it snowed, coming after several days of unseasonably warm weather! So you never know what you might be up against, something broadcasters will have to work around.

The Crown on Netflix shows how big of a draw anything involving the royal family can be.

In 2011, to get back to my own experience, while exploring the Mall in the days before the wedding, and on the day itself, I came upon a temporary structure that had been built opposite Buckingham Palace especially to house a number of different domestic and international broadcasters. It was an odd shade of green and appeared to have been built largely from wood and scaffolding! Regardless, it did its job and quite a few broadcasters – including big ones like the BBC – appear to have made use of it.

Whether such a structure will be able to be built in time for the funeral is not clear, nor are whether restrictions in place because of coronavirus would even allow for so many people to work in such close proximity. The pandemic has disrupted so many events and plans, and Prince Philip’s funeral is no exception.

The temporary media structure in 2011.

It’s a huge logistical effort to televise an event of this nature, and given the pandemic and associated restrictions, it will be a herculean task to get everything ready in time so that the funeral and its broadcast go smoothly. But plans have been in place for a long time – just as there are plans for other big funerals and events – so all the broadcasters have to do at this point is put them into place efficiently.

On a personal note, as someone who grew up in the UK with family members who were generally pro-monarchy, the passing of Prince Philip is a noteworthy event. We shouldn’t taint that nor sidestep it with criticisms of the man or the institution; there will be time in future to discuss both monarchy as a concept and the present royal family, but now is not the right moment. Suffice to say it will be a significant event for the country, despite the unusual backdrop of pandemic-related restrictions. And I daresay I will tune in on Saturday to watch at least part of the service.

The funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021) is due to take place on Saturday, the 17th of April 2021. The event will be televised in the UK and around the world. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.