Almost every year since 1932 the reigning British monarch has addressed the nation on Christmas afternoon. It started with King George V, the present queen's father, whose Christmas message went out on the radio. These days Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas message is broadcast simultaneously on British television and radio and on many other networks around the world. Last year, viewing figures fell below 10 million for the first time ever -- down from a record high of 17 million back in 1987. Can a tradition from the days of empire possibly have any cultural resonance today? Gareth Mitchell filed this report from London.
QUEEN ELIZABETH II: By any measure, this Millennium year has been an unforgettable one. Since the turn of the year...
GARETH MITCHELL: The Queen's opening paragraph from last year's Christmas broadcast. As is the custom, the monarch referred back to the year just gone and then went on to reflect on the Christian significance of Christmas.
QUEEN ELIZABETH II: Christmas is the traditional if not the actual birthday of a man who was destined to change the course of our history, and today we are celebrating the fact that Jesus Christ was born 2000 years ago...
GARETH MITCHELL: For Matt Wells, media correspondent at The Guardian, the annual broadcast serves at last one obvious purpose.
MATT WELLS: The queen doesn't have much contact with her subjects during the year apart from the occasional walkabout and appearances on television. She certainly doesn't speak to the very much. So it's the one opportunity for people in Britain who have little contact with the monarchy actually to hear the sound of their voice, and I think it's this slightly odd nature of the broadcast that makes it such a strong tradition.
GARETH MITCHELL: That strong tradition goes back to the broadcast's early days when it was an opportunity for the monarch to talk to the British empire. Though most of the empire has gone now, the queen's former spokesman, Dickie Arbiter, says the sentiments of the address, largely based on values and spirituality, remain much the same.
DICKIE ARBITER: At the end of the day, this is a Christmas message to the Commonwealth, and there is the religious aspect to it without ramming home the idea of Christianity. It's also a sort of look back on the year --of some of the highlights of the year -- and with television they try to bring in the pictures of some of these highlights.
GARETH MITCHELL: Filming footage from royal tours to include in the Christmas message is a fairly recent innovation. Until about 5 years ago the queen simply addressed the camera. In recent transmissions, the queen has treated viewers to glimpses of Windsor Castle and she's tried all kinds of TV techniques usually reserved for the slick media professionals; a royal effort to craft "must-see" TV. And to be sure that it is--
MATT WELLS: The queen's Christmas broadcast is shown at 3 o'clock on the two major television networks in Britain. They take it in turns to produce it and show it at the same time.
GARETH MITCHELL: Guardian media correspondent Matt Wells.
MATT WELLS: So it's one of those very few leftovers of patrician Britain where the broadcasters almost tell you that actually now have to sit down and watch this.
GARETH MITCHELL: And for those viewers who consider the queen's message the television equivalent of watching paint dry, there is an option.
MAN: Channel 4, one of the more subversive British broadcasters, doesn't broadcast the queen's Christmas message. Instead it broadcasts an "alternative Christmas message," as it describes it. It invites controversial or interesting figures from the year to come and give their take on Christmas.
GARETH MITCHELL: This year it's thought that a survivor from the World Trade Center attacks is going to give the alternative message. The contents of the queen's broadcast are always a closely-guarded secret. By sweet-talking Buckingham Palace, I was hoping to bring a scoop to On the Media, but sadly, to no avail. Uniquely the queen's words in the Christmas message are her own. Just about everything else she utters in public is prepared by the government. The personal tone and its strict embargo is always a welcome Christmas gift to journalists manning the country's otherwise quiet newsrooms. Matt Wells.
MATT WELLS: For the British newspapers and the British news broadcasters, the queen's Christmas message gives them a bit of a handle on Christmas day, and indeed in recent years the queen's Christmas broadcast has made the top of the headlines. So it is still very much a talking point.
GARETH MITCHELL: But who's going to be tuning in this year? Well I thought the Kensington area of London, close to the former home of the late Princess of Wales, would be a good place to canvas some opinion from the streets as to whether the broadcast is a must-see Christmas day event.
GARETH MITCHELL: Will you be watching the broadcast this year?
MAN: Absolutely. Yes.
GARETH MITCHELL: Why is that?
MAN: It's just the thing you do every year, so got to, got to see the "Old Girl" on TV; absolutely. Has to be done.
WOMAN: I think it's on at the wrong time during the day.
GARETH MITCHELL: Right. So it's 3 o'clock in the afternoon; it's not convenient for you.
WOMAN: It's not. No. No.
MAN: I normally do tend to watch it, but don't really pay that much attention. It's just a traditional thing. I've just-- moving wallpaper I think.
GARETH MITCHELL: Do you think it's a good thing that it still happens though?
MAN: It's part of tradition, and she is still the monarch of the country after all.
GARETH MITCHELL: Ah, well the nation might be shrugging its shoulders now, but next Tuesday's telly event will be watched, as usual, by millions. But that's just us British [view]. I mean it's not as if we celebrate the fact that the queen's head is on our currency, but talk of replacing it with the Euro and we suddenly come over all patriotic. So whilst it's true that there might be a collective glazing over of the eyes across Britain at 3 p.m. on December the 25th, to even think of a yuletide without the queen's speech -- well it's just not cricket, is it? For On the Media, this is Gareth Mitchell in London. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis and Michael Kavanagh; engineered by George Edwards and Dylan Keefe and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Allison Lichter, John Keefe, Liam ben-Zvi and Sophie Kaplan. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
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BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
QUEEN ELIZABETH II: ..a man who was destined to change the course of our history.