Costumes, wands, castles, a bagpiper: Queen Elizabeth’s funeral had it all

Spectators positioned along London's Horse Guards Parade watch live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's funeral on a telephone.
Spectators positioned along London’s Horse Guards Parade watch live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on a telephone. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

LONDON — There have been royal blockbusters before, but never a show like this.

Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was an elaborate farewell production that had it all: elaborate costumes, bagpipes and bells, mounted soldiers, cannons and castles.

The streets along the procession routes were packed with crowds, but the far larger audience watched on television around the world.

Many analysts said the funeral could turn out to be the most-watched TV event in history, with much of the world’s 7.7 billion people catching at least some of it.

Those who have been planning this for decades clearly had this audience in mind.

An estimated 650 million people watched the first moon landing in 1969, a record at the time. It is believed that more than 2 billion people watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, but improvements in mobile phones and the internet have made it much easier to watch a big event today.

Giant screens have been installed in outdoor plazas in cities across the country. More than 100 cinemas and churches showed big screen shows of BBC coverage. The Royal Shakespeare Company screened the funeral at its theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, central England.

Since covid, many churches have been set up for Zoom’s funerals. Many people sat on benches at Holy Trinity in London’s Sloane Square on Monday, watching with the smell of incense filling the morning air.

Pubs and restaurants that don’t usually have televisions have one for funerals. At Motcombs, a Mediterranean restaurant not far from Buckingham Palace, people drank coffee or champagne while watching.

“We thought some people might not be able to handle the crowds and need a place to watch,” said Ken Anderson, who said his son was the owner.

When the police were no longer allowing anyone into London’s Hyde Park, several thousand people stood in a deserted street near Harrods department store, listening to hymns blaring from the loudspeaker.

“I will never see people like that again,” said Jillian Martin, an educator from Northern Ireland.

British officials are betting that the huge effort to give the Queen a head start, the cost of which is still unknown, will yield much more in tourist revenue.

Japanese broadcaster NHK broadcast the funeral live, with simultaneous interpretation, and the funeral was the third most trending term on Japanese Twitter.

In Hong Kong, hundreds of people watched the funeral on their phones and tablets, laid flowers and waved the Union Jack flag outside the British consulate. Hong Kong was a British colony for a century and a half until the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In Sydney, Graham Cousens, 56, had been out with friends but said he had set up his television at his home to record the funeral.

“It’s such an important moment,” he said. “It’s not that I feel that much personally, but I can see what it means for the English people.”

Even Google made its logo black in the UK on Monday in honor of the Queen.

Not everyone in central London was happy with the massive security presence, locked tube stations and blocked streets.

“I can think of better things to spend all this money on. Of course it’s great for tourism and flower vendors, but I’m not sure the Queen would be into this extravaganza,’ said Lily Haverford, 42, a teacher.

“It’s pretty as a picture, but, in the end, what does it really mean?” she says.

Many interviewees around the world said it was a show worth putting on.

To prepare the backdrop, London’s landmarks were cleaned. New rolls of grass were laid near Wellington Arch, where the coffin was transferred to a hearse for the 25-mile journey to the Queen’s final resting place in Windsor.

Even this hearse was made for TV, with huge windows and internal lighting designed to give people the best possible view of Her Majesty’s coffin – but more importantly, to make it ‘pop’ on TV.

“It must be beautiful for TV,” said a busy gardener picking “dead bits” from flowerbeds near Buckingham Palace ahead of the funeral.

The music was loud, with military bands, pipers and drummers accompanying the Queen’s coffin.

The players were perfectly costumed. The Grenadier Guards wore bright red tunics and their famous bearskin hats, others were draped in ceremonial swan feathers. Beefeaters in their distinctive ruffled collars. King Charles III and Prince William, now the first to ascend the throne, in immaculate military uniforms laden with medals.

Photos: Interior of the factory that manufactures royal uniforms

In Bermuda, Kim Day, an expat involved in community theater who watched the funeral at a theater that showed it live, said Britain put on a “perfect show”.

Live events are nerve-wracking, said Jon Reynaga, a British film and television producer.

But he said the involvement of the military, the years of government planning and the royal family behind it all, is unique.

“They talked today for hours about orbs, sceptres, symbolism – and people love it,” he said.

Along the London motorcade route, lined with huge British flags, for a day it seemed like everyone was an extra on a movie set.

Mourners in the streets closed their arms and lowered their heads in a moment of silence. Some wore royal-themed costumes.

Lots of flowers thrown, so much rain that the driver of the royal hearse had to sweep them away with the windshield wipers.

“We take great pride in getting it right,” said Jess Fox, 24, from York, England, who left her home at 4.45am to drive to London. “British people feel very happy and proud to play the role.”

The funeral was the perfect production for the Queen’s seven-decade reign, which opened with the first ever televised coronation and ended with the most-watched royal event ever.

Many Britons bought televisions for the 1953 coronation, then dressed in ties and dresses to watch.

A BBC planning document, held in the National Archives, showed the network understood even then that it was broadcasting for the planet, not just Brits.

“The full technical resources of the BBC will be deployed to cover the coronation for the world from dawn until after midnight on June 2,” he said.

There have been other hit shows in the royal catalogue, mostly featuring Princess Diana in the lead or supporting role. The glamorous princess with the electric smile essentially brought the royal family into a new, brightly lit world – the way color television has pushed aside black and white.

First Diana’s 1981 ‘wedding of the century’ to then Prince Charles, then her funeral 16 years later, then the weddings of her famous sons William and the elegant Catherine, then Harry and Meghan – rightly, finally, a real actress as a royal co-star.

Speaking to a Washington Post reporter in 1994 at a dinner party in Washington, Diana was asked how it felt to walk down the aisle with the eyes of the world on her in her fairytale dress.

“Oh my God,” she said. “My dress was so wrinkled; all I could think was, ‘I need an iron.’ ”

And of course, the Royal Family was also the subject of a bona fide TV sensation, “The Crown”, which blurred the lines between fact, fiction and fandom.

Here are the episodes of ‘The Crown’ to watch to learn more about the Queen

Monday was all about Elizabeth and staging the last show of her historic reign. British television channels broadcast the events all day without commercial breaks.

The BBC has come under fire from critics who believe the state-funded network has overdone the coverage.

“It was sad when she first died,” Brendan Hoffman, 50, said as he sat in a bar in Sydney. “But that,” he said, pointing to a large television showing the Queen’s hearse en route to Windsor Castle, was “mourning porn.”

The funeral was planned with the kind of precision that would delight a Broadway stage manager. The official timetable was for the Queen’s coffin to be moved to Westminster Abbey at 10.44am. Not 10.40am, not 10.45am.

William Shawcross, a royal biographer, said planners would have calculated precisely how long the gun carriage would take to make the journey, rehearsing and measuring every step of the approximately 140 Royal Navy officers carrying it, down to the second .

Late Monday afternoon in Windsor, after a service at St George’s Chapel, the Lord Chamberlain broke his wooden ceremonial wand and placed it on the Queen’s coffin, symbolizing the end of her reign.

As the sovereign’s bagpiper played a lament, his coffin disappeared from view as it was lowered into the royal vault.

And the curtain fell.

Michael E. Miller in Sydney, Amanda Coletta in Bermuda, Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo and Karina Tsui in Washington contributed to this report.

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