Even for the most experienced monarch in history, this was a tall order: how do you sum up the worst year in living memory without leaving the nation in floods of tears or reaching for the Off switch?
The only solution, therefore, was to accentuate the positives. And that is what the Queen did yesterday in an exceptionally upbeat Christmas message – one which also turned out to be the most multicultural of all time.
From beginning to end, here was a montage of warm-hearted or inspirational scenes, many of them illustrated by images from the Duchess of Cambridge’s Hold Still photography campaign. The only mournful moment consisted of the Queen herself paying homage at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.
The Queen, pictured here centre, delivered her pre-recorded message to the nation yesterday
What began with the magnificent sight of the Band of the Household Cavalry playing the National Anthem on horseback outside St George’s Chapel concluded with the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir belting out one of the jauntiest numbers in their Christmas repertoire: Joy To The World.
Running through it all was the theme of selflessness, of what the Queen called ‘the kindness of strangers’.
That has been exemplified all year, of course, by the National Health Service. The broadcast included several scenes of the Royal Family joining in the global celebrations for International Nurses Day back in May.
Yet Her Majesty was keen that the spotlight should not focus on one sector. Rather, she sought to reflect the way in which people from all walks of life have shown the same ‘quiet, indomitable spirit’ in their own way. She was keen to span all ages: ‘To our young people in particular I say thank you for the part you have played.’
And here, on the most important date in the Christian calendar, she was also determined to include all the other great religious festivals which have been disrupted this year – including Passover, Eid, Vaisakhi and Diwali.
The Queen, pictured, mentioned several other major religious festivals which have been disrupted this year as a result of Covid-19
It’s the first time a Christmas broadcast has included Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, among other faiths, in what is, by tradition, an overtly New Testament message. Yet, as well as being Defender of the Faith, the Queen is head of a Commonwealth that happens to include more non-Christians than Christians among its 2.4billion citizens. It is why her one other annual message – on Commonwealth Day – is a secular one.
Yesterday’s multicultural element was not some nod to the woke. This was simply her way of saying ‘We’re all in this together’ when it comes to our religious high days and holidays. The Queen had also chosen to include scenes from around the Commonwealth, a reminder of the days when this broadcast was consumed by a broader international audience than has been the case in recent years.
While all this diversity will surely have met with the approval of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, there was no reference to the Californian branch of the family.
That was simply because all the royal clips which were featured yesterday were taken from official engagements during the year. The Sussexes had withdrawn from formal royal operations just as this pandemic kicked in.
Over the years, it has become a Christmas ritual for royal anoraks to read deep meaning into the photographs on the Queen’s desk during her broadcast. Friends of the Sussexes have even suggested that their absence from the photo frames last Christmas was a contributing factor in their decision to quit the royal scene (though they had been centre-stage the year before).
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So, in this regard, the 2020 regal backdrop was a disappointment. Aside from an unblemished blotter, a floral display and a silver box, the only item on the Queen’s desk in Windsor Castle’s Green Drawing Room was a photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh. Yesterday was his 100th Christmas Day. Her Majesty’s minimalist approach, one royal source admitted, was partly down to her irritation with the obsessive scrutiny in recent years (two years ago, she was the subject of a Twitter ‘storm’ thanks to the gold-painted piano standing behind her).
However, the main point of this uncluttered scene was to emphasise the way in which this has been a Christmas like no other.
You have to be well in to your 70s to have heard all the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts. They were radio-only until 1957, when the Queen switched to television (live broadcasts until 1959 and pre-recorded thereafter).
It has often been a challenge to strike the appropriate note in the aftermath of a seismic event such as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 or the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001.
In December 1988, the Queen had already recorded her message when a terrible rail crash at Clapham Junction and a major earthquake in Armenia was followed by the bomb that brought Pan-Am Flight 103 crashing down on the Scottish town of Lockerbie. That year, she summoned the cameras back again to record an appropriate postscript to her original message.
This year has been so tumultuous that her script required no tweaking, despite the sudden dramas of recent days with new Covid strains and a Brexit deal.
The central message would remain the same because it is a timeless one: as long as we look out for each other, we will get through this.
It was all recorded, according to the prevailing regulations, shortly before Berkshire went in to Tier Four last weekend. The members of the NHS choir all had to travel to Windsor separately. This lot are fairly used to the Christmas spotlight, having enjoyed a well-deserved No 1 hit five years ago. However, there could be no royal handshake to thank them for their troubles on this occasion.
Only two cameramen plus one technician were allowed into the Green Drawing Room with the Queen – and only then with masks and a negative test result. The rest of the BBC Studios team were confined to another part of the castle.
However, there was one modest upside to this strangest of situations. Recording anything at Windsor can be a challenge because of all the air traffic heading in and out of Heathrow. What’s more, the Queen has to record two messages – one for television, another for radio.
As Prince Philip revealed a few years back, whenever the chosen location has been Windsor, it’s been a case of speaking in ‘30-second chunks’ in between aircraft movements. Not this year.
Thanks to Covid-19’s disastrous impact on international travel, the Queen was uninterrupted.