About a year ago I posted the Observing the Eighties first Christmas message. We were still in the snagging stage then. A year later the project is up, running and being used in ways we hadn’t even imagined. It seems appropriate to hand this year’s Christmas Message over to someone who has something new to say and has been using our archive in innovative ways – Sussex history postgraduate: Owen Emmerson.
Has the world changed, or have I changed? The Queen’s Speech and Christmas ‘from below’ in the 1980s
by Owen Emmerson
In the wake of Graham Stewart’s best-selling ‘Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s’ , the use of the Observing the 1980’s resources during our MA seminars has enabled us to think beyond the top-down ‘high-politics’ narratives that are being offered about this relatively un-historicised period. Such accounts of the 1980s openly dismiss ‘the unreliable memories of those who shaped the period’ – namely politicians – let alone those termed ‘the people’. Statistics of participation, such as those who watched the Queen’s speech, are offered as an indication of enjoyment and compliance, over the documented opinions of those who experienced them. The central thread of our particular course was explore ‘The People’s Century‘ by means of these often overlooked life histories, and to think critically about how and why historians have utilised life history within historical research. By focusing upon the digitised day diaries submitted to Mass-Observation from Christmas day 1986, we were able to explore how seemingly ‘iconic’ moments that dominate contemporary retrospectives of the 80s, such as the Queen’s Speech, were experienced.
During 1986 Thatcher famously refused to take sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid, the Queen allegedly thought her ‘uncaring’ for doing so, Andrew married Fergie, The Smith’s released The Queen is Dead and famously half of the population tuned in to watch Dirty Den serve Angie with divorce papers in Albert Square on Christmas day. The majority of Mass-Observer’s were amongst those who watched that particular EastEnders Christmas special, and the vast majority also were counted within the 28 million viewers who watched the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. It is clearly significant that nearly half the population watched the Queen in 1986, but in both top-down and retrospective narratives the significance is often held within the size of the statistic alone. Beyond their participatory role within making up these statistics, the day diaries of observers allow us to understand why they chose to do so, and crucially what they thought of their experience. Their responses problematize the suggestion that 1986’s Queen’s speech viewing statistics were demonstrative of a nation ‘predominantly in tune with the Monarchy.’
Whilst the majority of respondents mentioned the Queen’s Christmas Speech as a feature of their Christmas day, for many it was noted as a contentious tradition. Many took umbrage with the unorthodox location of the broadcast (The Sandringham Mews) whilst others felt the lengthy ‘Dickensian’ introduction with roasting chestnuts and horse drawn carriages was ‘daft’. Respondent W729 noted that she watched the speech with her mother whilst the men, who didn’t wish to watch it, washed up. She mentions none of the content, nor if she enjoyed it, but states that it is nice ‘not to feel guilty about sitting down for 10 minutes.’ Similarly respondent C108 doesn’t mention any appreciation of the speech, but states that she heard it whilst finishing the preparations for her lunch at 3:30. N403 opted out of the speech and instead tackled a Rubik’s Cube. L1002 also details that she was a participant, and also notes that ‘most of the men folk think this is a “bind” and want to watch something else’ but that she ‘likes to hear what she has to say’. She is, however, critical of how un-relaxed the Queen appears, and thinks that 10 minutes is ‘too short!’. However, respondent W633 listened to the speech on the radio, and was moved that the Queen’s message of ‘starting with love in our own homes’ had been the ‘thoughts going through my mind during the periods for private prayer in church.’
Coupled with the fact that there were only four million people in the UK with more than three other channels to choose from, and that viewing figures rapidly declined after a surge in Sky subscription in 1987, the Queen’s speech on 1986 was perhaps the last in which many impartial viewers sat through it. These respondents are counted within the statistics of those who watched this event, and yet the varied and detailed responses to it give far greater depth of understanding of its significance to, and an insight into what people’s participation actually equated to.