This post is republished on the 60th anniversary of The Queen’s first televised Christmas message, broadcast in 1957.
As many of us tune in today to hear (or watch) The Queen delivering her Christmas message to her subjects around the world, some of us might be focusing less on the words she speaks and more on the way she says them. Every year my ears delight in the music of her voice itself: her plummy accent — the quintessential example of received pronunciation, or what we used to refer to as “BBC English” — harks back to an earlier age when Englishmen and women, especially those in the upper echelons of society, spoke very differently. (Scroll to the end of this post to watch the Queen’s first televised Christmas message, broadcast in 1957, and a speech given by her second oldest grandson earlier this year.)
Has anyone else been watching The Crown on Netflix? Claire Foy puts in such a remarkable performance as The Queen, absolutely nailing the voice of the woman and the monarch who has ruled the Britannia waves for 60 years and counting. As Foy herself commented in a recent interview with Variety about portraying such an iconic role: “The voice was a good way into it. It wasn’t so much her voice but the voice of the time. It was so different from how we speak now.” The lavish mega-budget production benefits not just from its stellar cast, stunning location shots, and a beautifully eloquent script by Peter Morgan: it dug right into the accents, knowing how much those voices captured and represented a family and class at the top of the totem pole — and how much they changed with the times, as the ruling family itself struggled to keep up with its people. The Crown’s producers even brought a dialect evolutionist (yes, let’s say that again — a “dialect evolutionist”) onto the set. As someone on IMDB pointed out: “For his role as Winston Churchill, John Lithgow’s dialect coach was William Conacher who also had to coach the other mostly British cast due to subtle changes in English accents over the decades. Lithgow stuffed cotton in his nostrils to capture the faint nasal timbre of Churchill’s intonations and a dialect evolutionist was on set to monitor the accuracy of accents over the time span of the series. It was noticed, for example, that the Queen’s pronunciation of vowels during the 1950s differed enormously from the way her grandson Prince Harry Windsor speaks today.”
Let’s get a load of Harry’s 21st-century syllables, which are such a far cry from his grandmother’s plummy vowels of the early ’50s:
Here’s the first televised Christmas broadcast or ‘Queen’s Speech’, filmed at Sandringham House in Norfolk in December 1957, nearly 60 years ago: