Excerpt: Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II

At twenty to six, she did a final run-through with the autoscript, looking into the camera as Fellowes and Crawford watched. One rehearsal was enough, they decided. Then at five fifty-five, the countdown started. As the clock ticked round to six o'clock, the technicians turned their attention to the two television monitors in the corner. One showed the early evening programming on the BBC. The other displayed the interior palace shot of the queen looking intently into the lens. The floor manager was counting down, "Five, four, three, two" — then he made a motion to the queen, mouthing "Go!" Suddenly both monitors were showing the same image and Elizabeth II began to speak live to the nation.

Robert Fellowes had talked his first draft over with Geoff Crawford and David Airlie, the Lord Chamberlain, and had then faxed it to Balmoral, where the queen and Robin Janvrin worked on it together. The final version had been sent to Downing Street in line with the procedure prior to the queen's Christmas Broadcast, when the prime minister's comments are invited as a matter of courtesy.

"It was not for the Prime Minister's approval," stressed an aide. "We're always a bit of a stickler for that. It was her own speech. She wasn't speaking 'on advice.' "

"On advice" is the constitutional term for speeches when the queen is acting as the government's mouthpiece, greeting a foreign head of state, or, most obviously, when reading out the government's avowedly political agenda in the Queen's Speech at the Opening of Parliament. Her speech in September 1997 was infinitely more challenging. Normally, it was her royal job to be plain vanilla. This Friday evening she had to do the opposite of what she had been trained for and had practised all her life — she had to show at least a little of her personal feelings.

"Since last Sunday's dreadful news," began the queen, "we have seen throughout Britain and around the world an overwhelming expression of sadness at Diana's death. We have all been trying in our different ways to cope. It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings — disbelief, incomprehension, anger and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days. So what I say to you now, as your Queen, and as a grandmother, I say from my heart."

The words "as a grandmother" had come from Alastair Campbell.

"Alastair was quite tentative about it," remembers one palace insider. "He said, 'The Prime Minister has only one comment, which is, would it be right for the Queen to say speaking as a grandmother?' We grabbed it and used it."

The live crowd backdrop was the speech's other masterstroke. As the queen spoke, viewers were able to look through the window behind her, where people were moving about like matchstick figures in a painting by L. S. Lowry, coming and going, still laying their flowers.

Peter Edwards had been struggling all afternoon to get an uncluttered soundtrack, and the decision to go live had made his problem worse. The heat and sweat in the room had added further interference to the whistle of the lights.

"Can't you get a clearer sound?" the BBC control room were shouting down the line.

Edwards opened the window to get a few minutes of fresh air and heard an extraordinary sound outside — the quiet murmuring of ten thousand or more people as they milled around in the traffic-free arena outside the palace.

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