The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53
London, University of London Press, 2019, ISBN: 9781909646940; 446pp.; Price: £50.00
Date accessed: 3 June, 2023
At the time of writing this review (early April 2020), Harry and Meghan had decamped to Los Angeles, Prince Charles was recovering from the coronavirus, and Queen Elizabeth had just delivered a rare television address to the British people urging resolve in the face of COVID-19. These are not developments that Edward Owens could have possibly anticipated when writing The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-1953. Luckily enough for him, though, each in its own way plays into his narrative.
In ceding their status as senior royals, Harry and Meghan renewed conversations about the burdens associated with the crown—and turned fresh attention on the “dutiful” William and Kate. That Prince Charles has contracted the coronavirus, meanwhile, illustrates a royal family inseparable from the nation that it serves, even as it stands apart. These themes of self-sacrifice, collectivity, and resolve were only reinforced in the Queen’s televised remarks to her subjects, where she reassured audiences that “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” To underscore this message, a photo flashed across the screen of the Queen and her sister Margaret delivering their famous radio address to British children in 1940.
Burdens. Responsibilities. Intimacy. Vulnerability. Family. These are words that appear again and again in Owens’s perceptive if sometimes protracted analysis of the way the monarchy harnessed mass media to forge stronger ties with the British public from 1932 (George V’s Christmas radio broadcast) to 1953 (Queen Elizabeth’s televised coronation). In six substantive chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion, and illustrated with photographs culled from the press, Owens describes how the Windsors—assisted by key courtiers, media partners, and Church officials—used radio, print and television to pitch a new version of themselves to the nation, one intended to right a seemingly outmoded institution. This vision emphasized the emotional connection between sovereign and subject and drew attention to the sacrifices of the royal family. As Owens shows, nothing about this vision was self-evident, especially in the early years. And yet, as recent events attest, it’s a vision that has proven remarkably resilient.
Some aspects of Owens’s narrative likely will be familiar to readers. Much has been written about George V’s pioneering use of the radio to connect with his subjects during the 1930s, and about his second son’s more troubled relationship with the medium (popularized in the film The King’s Speech). The televisation of Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation has also received extensive scholarly treatment. What animates Owens’s book, however, and gives it its analytical purchase, is his decision to pair these better-known moments with less-studied encounters between the royal family and its listening, reading and viewing audiences. For example, he devotes his first chapter to the marriage of Prince George—younger brother of Edward VIII and George VI—to the fashionable Greek Princess Marina in 1934. (The media-savvy couple were the first royals to participate in filmed interviews and to kiss on camera.) Also notable is Owens use of materials culled from film newsreels, assorted newspapers, the BBC Written Archives Centre, Mass Observation Archive, Royal Archives, and Lambeth Palace Library to flesh out his narrative. The royal family, famous for its inscrutability, has more than met its match in this resourceful young historian.
In its most revelatory sections, Owens shows that the standard tropes used to describe the modern monarchy were actually the product of careful and coordinated messaging. One takes away from this interpretation new appreciation not just for the shrewdness of certain royals, but also for the expertise offered by a series of palace press secretaries (the position was first created in 1918), journalists, and archbishops. Working closely with the royal family, men (and they were almost always men) including Archbishop Cosmo Lang, Sir Clive Wigram, Sir Alexander Hardinge, Dermot Morrah, and Sir Alan Lascelles helped the Windsors master the art of “self-exposure.” When George V turned to radio during the 1930s, for example, he leaned heavily on Lang (his archbishop), to ensure that he struck an appropriate tone. It was at Lang’s urging that the King opted for informality and intimacy in his addresses, greeting his audiences as “my dear friends” and casting himself in the role of father to the nation. It was also at Lang’s urging that the King stressed the onus of his position. As Owens explains, “[t]he archbishop created a template for royal public language that…stressed that royalty was forced to forgo the pleasures of ordinary life in executing their public service” (p. 132).
At no time were advisors’ efforts more heroic than following the Abdication Crisis of 1936. As Owens explains in his third chapter—an innovative study of the media campaign around George VI’s coronation—“officials and news editors had to work hard to fill the charisma vacuum created by [Edward VIII’s] abdication with forceful meaning” (p. 41). Edward VIII, after all, had been a media darling, and the public had a hard time giving him up – much harder, indeed, than many of us realize. His younger brother, in contrast, appeared faltering, hesitant, stolid, and unadventurous. Advisors’ solution? They presented the new king as a committed public servant and symbol of democratic politics. In this formulation, it mattered little what George VI himself said or did. It was his willingness to serve that was meaningful, and what the Crown signified on a more abstract level. George VI thus became “the defender of the nation’s and empire’s political freedoms” and his coronation “a symbol of the inexorable progress of constitutional democracy, in direct contrast to continental despotism” (p. 41).
Such “royal public relations repair jobs” seemed to do the trick (p. 136). Drawing on a cache of letters stored in the Royal Archives and assorted materials collected by Mass Observation, Owens shows the efficacy of these strategies in improving public relations. Following the radio broadcast of Prince George and Princess Marina’s wedding in 1934, for instance, listeners wrote letters praising the event for fostering a sense of “national belonging” (p. 48). Similarly, when prompted in 1937 to write essays on “The finest person who ever lived,” 46 schoolboys (out of 512) chose to write on George V, making the king, as Owens notes, the “second most popular choice after Jesus” (p. 125). Mass Observation reports on George VI’s coronation, meanwhile, expressed overwhelming sympathy for the new king and recognized the burdens associated with his position (p. 181). And when Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mum) decided to deliver a special radio broadcast at the outset of World War II, her words received rapturous reviews from many of her female listeners. One woman upset by “poor health and a young son in the army who seemed to have gone beyond my love and care” wrote to the queen that when her “quiet words echoed in the room you seemed to speak to me, and gradually I saw how much a little home meant, and how important it was to keep on carrying on” (p. 219). Of course, those inclined to engage in correspondence or record their impressions were likely already of a royalist bent. But the enthusiasm is striking nonetheless – and all the more for the fact that the public reactions so closely mirror strategic intent.
Which is not to suggest that these strategies were always successful. Owens’s book is at its most engaging when illustrating the limits of these public relations schemes. It is in these sections that the British public—often referenced en bloc—take on more idiosyncratic qualities. Particularly telling is Owens’s discussion of the royal family during World War II, the subject of his fourth chapter. During the war, the Windsors and their advisors pushed a narrative of “a shared suffering that united the monarchs and their subjects”—one that highlighted the bombing of Buckingham Palace, the separation of the king and queen from their daughters, and the princesses’ own wartime contributions (p. 205). Some Britons, however, recognized the hollowness in the “equality of sacrifice” rhetoric. As Owens notes, “the royal tourists did not always meet with a warm welcome” when they visited “blitzed communities.” He continues, “After the Luftwaffe’s first attacks on London’s East End in September 1940, it was rumoured in elite circles that the king and queen had been booed on visiting local inhabitants who had been bombed out of their homes” (p. 235). Even the wartime death of Prince George, the duke of Kent, did not fully assuage the Windsors’ critics. “While on the one hand,” Owens writes, “respondents described the duke as just another casualty of war (signaling the class-levelling experience of wartime bereavement), they often added that his wife and children would not suffer the same material hardships as other families who had lost loved ones to the fighting” (pp. 250-251). (Similar critiques would surface during Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s courtship in 1947, outlined in Chapter Five, when one Mass Observation respondent complained that the “royal couple will be over-paid and under-worked and live luxuriously; also they will breed child parasites who will be granted huge allowances and be reared expensively” (p. 299).) Part of why royals had to be so assiduous in their messaging, then, stemmed from perpetual fear of antagonizing the public that they courted.
If Owens had pushed his inquiry further still, he might have said more about how the royals and their handlers grappled with gender in their media strategies—and on how their strategies, in turn, affected men and women differently. There are some tantalizing observations on this subject. In his sixth chapter, Owens examines Elizabeth II’s televised coronation coverage as focused on what he describes as “royal maternalism” (p. 43). As Owens explains, “[T]elevision images of the queen separated from and then reunited with her two children—in particular, her son and heir Prince Charles—evoked powerful feelings from viewers who sympathized with the way her public role seemed to prevent her enjoying the freedoms of a normal family life” (p. 43). For Owens, such images of separation and reunion encouraged Britons towards an even greater appreciation of Elizabeth’s sacrifices, that is, of the “unenviable burden” of the crown (which in this case barred the Queen from experiencing a more fulfilling version of motherhood). But might these displays of female independence have also stimulated different lines of thinking? The young Margaret Thatcher, for one, writing as a barrister-in-training, considered Elizabeth II’s accession a moment for British women to “wake up.” As she explained in a piece for The Sunday Graphic, a woman “now occupies the highest position in the land.” “If,” she continued, “as many earnestly pray, the accession of Elizabeth II can help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand” (Margaret Thatcher, “Wake Up, Women,” Sunday Graphic, February 17, 1952).
Owens also might have done more with the Empire. He touches on imperial and Commonwealth concerns in his treatment of George V’s Christmas broadcasts, where he notes that the King described the empire as a “family of nations” and helped to advance the idea of the holiday as “a time of imperial reunion” (p. 97). And in his chapter on Elizabeth II’s coronation, Owens acknowledges that the extensive media coverage helped shore up the Commonwealth (both for those at home and abroad), though he goes on to suggest that historians have been misguided in privileging the Empire in their interpretations of the event’s salience (think Jan Morris’s Coronation Everest or Wendy Webster’s Englishness and Empire). For Owens, “royal maternalism,” not the Empire, proved the dominant lens through which audiences—or, at least, audiences at home—made meaning of the ceremonial. But surely this is a false dichotomy. Both imperial and familial dramas shaped the Coronation narratives. (Instead of adopting an either/or framework here, then, I would have preferred a both/and formulation.) Also strangely absent are references to the works of Anne Spry Rush and Hilary Sapire on empire loyalism. To be fair, though, Owens recognizes the primarily domestic focus of his study and, in his Conclusion, encourages others to pursue how his themes played out in imperial and international contexts.
Finally, and perhaps I write this because I’m a Victorianist, I would have liked to see Owens give more than a passing glance to the 18th and 19th centuries. He does acknowledge that “[T]he projection of the family life of the monarchy in the years between 1932 and 1953 was not entirely novel” (p. 8). To this point, he notes that George III was an early adopter of the family model of monarchy (p. 118). He also cites Victoria and Albert’s clever use of photographic cartes de visite (8) to establish intimacy with their subjects. There is a rich literature tracing these developments. What then makes the 20th-century Windsors’ strategy distinctive? It may be more an intensification or amplification of preexisting tendencies—encouraged by the newly available media and an increasingly sophisticated public relations machine—than the pivot that Owens often contends it to be. Long before the advent of radio and television, royals relied on tours, portraiture, photography, memoirs, and ceremony to promote a culture of “democratic royalism,” to borrow William Kuhn’s formulation. In this respect, Kate, William, Meghan and Harry’s more recent experiments with YouTube, Instagram, and personal photography – aided by their bevvy of advisors and assistants— only make up the latest chapter in an evolving story of strategic media engagement.
To call out these limitations, however, is not intended to detract from or dismiss this book’s sizeable contributions. At 428 pages, The Family Firm already does much to explain, in forensic detail, how and why the monarchy has survived into the 21st century. As Owens shows, it is by no means obvious that the Crown today should be such a forceful symbol of national unity. That the Windsors are viewed in this way by so many owes much to the generations of royals and their collaborators who have worked to cultivate a particular image. Whether or not heightened understanding of their plotting will sour Britons on the monarchy is for Owens’s readers to decide. Judging by my own emotional reaction to the Queen’s recent televised speech, I suspect that for most it will not.
I am very grateful to Professor Chernock for her detailed and generous review. As Professor Chernock notes, when I finished writing the book at the end of 2018, I did not anticipate the events of this winter. The ‘resignation’ of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan from ‘the firm’ after a public feud with the tabloids and, rumour has it, other members of the royal family, was a moment of rupture in what has otherwise been an uninterrupted narrative of dutiful and domestic monarchy—at least since 1936 and the abdication of Edward VIII. This event was the single most important royal episode of the 20th century. Its legacy lives on in the values projected by the current monarch, Elizabeth II, and her heirs: duty is all; personal happiness and self-fulfilment must at least appear to come second to public service and self-sacrifice. Where Edward once failed, so it is again with Harry and Meghan, who have chosen to reject the rules of the game in order to pursue their own ambitions. This has seen them pilloried by hostile commentators who argue that the couple—much like the rebellious king in 1936—have let the side down.
The abdication is the formative event at the heart of the The Family Firm which influenced my analysis and arguments more than any other. I think it is worth briefly revisiting in order to explain why the 1930s was, indeed, a pivotal decade that witnessed innovation in the royal public relations strategy, rather than the kind of ‘intensification’ that Professor Chernock points to in her review. In the last years of George V’s reign (1910-36), the House of Windsor started to vocalise the idea that to be royal was to be inescapably burdened with duty. In Chapter Two of the book, I examine how, under the authorship of Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, the old king’s final royal broadcasts articulated this narrative of hardship and how, crucially, this earned him the respect and affection of the listening public. Certainly, the idea that the monarch and royal family were committed to carrying out public service is one that had an older lineage, stretching back to at least the Victorian period. However, it was only in the 1930s that the royals began to describe publicly how they placed duty ahead of private fulfilment. And it was only because of the new technology of radio that they were able to project this idea directly into the homes of millions in Britain and across the wider world.
It was ultimately Edward’s privileging of personal gratification ahead of the kind of duty publicized by his father that was his greatest failing in the eyes of conservative society. And herein lies further evidence of the significance of the 1930s as a transformative moment in the evolution of royal public relations. The version of duty that George V promoted in his final years on the throne was all the more powerful because it was deliberately anchored in tension with the new kinds of self-fulfilment that were being popularized at the time. More than ever before, ordinary British people aspired to live happy, emotionally enriched private lives. And yet, according to the royal public language developed by Lang and palace courtiers, members of the House of Windsor put their personal desires to one side in order to dedicate themselves first and foremost to the service of the nation. As Chapter One argues, the royal weddings of the 1920s and early 1930s elevated an idealised vision of family life, which simultaneously worked to remind the public that royalty had to forgo ‘ordinary’ pleasures like privacy. Thus, the increasingly intense media exposure of royal personalities in these years added to the public image of the ‘burdened royal’. After he succeeded his older brother, George VI became the definitive symbol of self-sacrifice as the court’s media strategy shifted once again, in order to highlight how the new king had—despite deep personal misgivings—taken on the symbolic weight of the crown in order to do what Edward could not: serve.
And, yet, the duke of Windsor, as he would subsequently be known, remained a firm favourite of many and perhaps even of a majority of Britons. Edward’s pursuit of romance ahead of duty endeared him to large sections of the population, who supported the king in his personal ambitions. Ideas of true love clearly resonated with some members of the public. Professor Chernock notes in her review that The Family Firm could have disaggregated more effectively between the groups in society most affected by the royal PR emphasis on domesticity and intimacy, and explored in greater detail how gender shaped people’s responses. I agree with her that the book as a whole could have done more to try to distinguish between the different emotional registers used by men and women to describe the parasocial relationships they forged with royalty. It was easier to do this in the chapters on the period 1939 to 1953 where, generally speaking, there is much more evidence that records ordinary people’s experiences. One challenge in researching The Family Firm was locating personal testimonies for the pre-1936 (pre-Mass Observation) period, which could shed light on the way the public internalised the monarchy’s public image. But in later chapters I was, for example, able to suggest—based on my analysis of more than 350 M-O reports on the 1947 royal wedding—that young women of the same age as bride-to-be Princess Elizabeth were often very moved by her love story because they sympathized with the image of a woman who aspired to have an ‘ordinary’, happy family life, but who seemed unable to do so because of her ‘extraordinary’ burdens as heiress presumptive to the throne.
Gender does feature throughout the book as a lens for examining how the media presented the public images of the principle cast of royals in ways designed to resonate with audiences. This ranged from the paternalism of George V, through the masculine sex appeal of the duke of Kent and a young Prince Philip, to the glamorous femininity of Princess Marina of Greece and the far less fashionable, though nevertheless ‘homely’, image of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. I’m afraid that my research did not uncover many ‘radical’ presentations of the royal family in terms of their gendered public images. Professor Chernock notes that a 26-year-old Margaret Thatcher interpreted Elizabeth II’s accession along feminist lines. But based on my encounter with the welter of Mass Observation personal testimonies collected in connection with the 1953 coronation, I would suggest the future Prime Minister was an outlier, and not particularly representative of her generation. Rather, for the majority of women, men, and children who tuned into the crowning and then went on to write about their experience, the new monarch was a reassuring symbol of youthful, maternal femininity.
This image of the maternal monarch certainly coexisted with broader definitions of an event that was notable for its ‘Commonwealth’ appeal. In response to Professor Chernock’s review, I would suggest future research looks more closely at how a distinctly ‘British’ formulation of monarchy, as explored in The Family Firm—which I believe was primarily defined by ideas of duty, self-sacrifice, and domestic intimacy—compares to formulations in different parts of the empire/Commonwealth in this period. There are many more books to be written on this topic, as there are many more books to be written on the regional and class dimensions of monarchy within the UK. These are themes that I tried to point to where the sources allowed for it—for instance, in connection with children’s essays sent to Mass Observation by schools in north and metropolitan England in 1937 and 1953. However, more work needs to be done to first of all discover personal testimonies like these at a local level, in order to then highlight more of the similarities and differences that have characterized the responses of a heterogenous public to the monarchy. While the protagonists of the The Family Firm are members of the House of Windsor, the real stars of the story are, as Professor Chernock notes, the ordinary people who took the time to write down their often idiosyncratic thoughts about the royals. One of my principal aims in writing this book was to give full expression to the range of opinion captured in their personal testimonies. I am therefore very encouraged by this review, and I hope that other historians will continue to expand our understanding of the ways different groups of people have made sense of the monarchy over time so that we might better understand its reach and significance in today’s world.