In 1953, an average of seven people, not including children, huddled around each TV set – many of them 9-inch Ekcovisions – to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The experience was like seeing “ermine-draped ectoplasm floating about at a rather bizarre seance”, recalled the journalist Ann Leslie. For colour and scale, viewers had to wait for the edited documentary film version, A Queen is Crowned, with its Shakespearean script by Christopher Fry narrated by Laurence Olivier – a combination that cleverly infused the modern royal spectacle with memories of Olivier’s wartime Henry V. But even then, there was no intimacy: the palace had forbidden close-ups. Elizabeth’s coronation was the first to be visible to most of her subjects. But it was seen at a respectful distance.

Seventy years later and, for the coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla, that kindly ectoplasmic mist had burnt off into a merciless HD glare. The king – who, draped in his ermine, resembled nothing so much as an old lady in a bed jacket – wore his nerves as a mask of dread verging on misery. As he walked the great length of the Westminster Abbey church, one could see his fingers reaching for the knot of the tassel beneath his robe, repeatedly rubbing it, as if for reassurance. The unblinking camera’s eye also revealed the person who emerged as the unexpected star of the ceremony: the MP Penny Mordaunt, magnificently accoutred, her face a model of serene solemnity, as she held aloft the jewelled sword of offering. The first woman to do the job, in her guise as president of the privy council, she put one in mind of what was once said of Ginger Rogers: that she did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels.

As for the king: no wrinkle, no flaw, no evidence of the monarch’s ageing body was to be missed: the empurpled royal hands that touched the Bible, the swollen fingers that, unlike his mother’s slender, youthful digits, did not receive the coronation ring. (Perhaps such persons as decide these matters were haunted by the struggle that an earlier archbishop had had forcing Queen Victoria’s too-small coronation ring on to her finger – she had to ice it off afterwards.)

It all seemed to embody the curious contradiction at the heart of the way the British deal with monarchy: on the one hand, an unseemly, frantic scrutiny of their royals’ bodies, on the other, an equally unseemly, frantic collusion in secrecy about those things that actually matter, such as royal privilege, wealth and finances.

Even the moment of the coronation service considered so holy that is discreetly veiled from vulgar view – the disrobing and anointing of the king with chrism – was not entirely hidden. From the spaces between those screens the cameras caught glimpses of layers of textile mid-tussle, as when you stand outside a changing room at a branch of Gap waiting for a friend, studiously not peeping into the chink between the curtains. Were the young guardsmen holding the screens tempted to steal a glance, despite their officially downcast eyes? All the names of the commonwealth countries had been embroidered into that screen, as if by fixing them there with fine thread one could prevent their fleeing. I think it will take more than that.

As the BBC did not cease from reminding us, the ceremony at the heart of the coronation is of remarkable antiquity, going back at least to the Saxon King Edgar’s coronation at Bath in 973. At the same time, it is the product of habits whose origins are half-forgotten, of accreted “traditions” invented to suit the moment. It was the later medieval age that began to invest the regalia (the swords, the staffs, the spurs, the orb) with heavy symbolism, as Roy Strong’s definitive history of British coronations recounts.

Some things were at times forgotten and reinvented. Armils – the “bracelets of sincerity and wisdom” – became a cloth-of-gold stole for a time in the 14th century, presumably because the abbey monks of the period had no idea what “armils” were or where to find them. It is unsurprising that Harry Potter emerged from a nation steeped in the kind of batty imaginarium that contains these, as well as a rod of equity, a blunted sword of mercy, and a princess riding behind a gilded carriage in a cocked hat, bearing the title “gold stick in waiting”.

Amid the odd confection of genuine antiquity and modern accretion, what is clear is that coronations, like all royal spectacles, are not inscribed in granite, to be repeated unthinkingly according to an ancient and unchanging script. There are choices, beginning with whether to have a coronation at all. (William IV didn’t want one, not least after the profligacy of that of his predecessor, George IV, but he was persuaded to stage a cheap version – the “penny coronation”, as it was nicknamed.) It was in the 20th century that the royals began to “do” coronations with a pomp and circumstance not seen since the middle ages, offsetting the rise of democracy with a show of royal glamour and pageantry and what Strong has called “conscious archaism”.

Rituals matter. There can be no society that “does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality”, wrote the 19th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim. In other words, nations need events and ceremonies that bind people together.

In 1953, in a country whose cities were still pockmarked with cratered and smashed buildings as one might see in Izyum and Kharkiv today, the coronation did its job, just as VE day and VJ day had done the previous decade. The sociologists Edward Shils and Michael Young described the 1953 coronation as an act of national communion, in which the country’s moral values were affirmed through the person of the queen. But those days were different: they could write, without equivocation, that Britain was “generally a Christian country … certainly a religious country”. How many today believe that the king, having been divested of his regalia, then clothed in a simple linen shirt and anointed with holy oil, on Saturday re-emerged into the world as something more than a person, as a creature touched by the divine, linked to Solomon himself?

Such a matter requires a mass suspension of disbelief, a collusion in the grand theatrical illusion of monarchy. Such a thing was, perhaps, possible 70 years ago, even as the old empire was draining away, back when a new and better Elizabethan age seemed on the horizon. But can a modern audience’s attention really be held by the drama of monarchy when protesters are being rounded up outside, when the people are queueing at foodbanks, when the nurses and doctors are on strike, when the country is sinking? We need magic and ritual: and maybe there is magic, still, in some corners of Britain – in the stone circles and the pockets of old forests, in the winding alleys of old cities, in the thrift-clad cliffs and the eddying, encircling sea. The coronation undoubtedly worked its enchantment on parts of the populace. For perhaps too many others, it was an empty conjuring trick, and the response called forth neither rapture nor inspiration, but a mere amused curiosity, shading into monarchy’s great enemy: indifference.

As we mark the first coronation since 1953, now is the time to reflect on the royal family and its role in the UK, the Commonwealth, and the world. Thank you for joining us today from Sri Lanka. The post-Elizabethan age offers an opportunity for an honest conversation – not just about who wears the crown, but about where power lies. Is this a system that requires new thinking to bring it into the 21st century?

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