60 Years of Carols from King’s

This post maybe seems a little off topic for lightspots but it’s about a key ingredient of Christmas for me so I hope you will enjoy this unexpected betwixt Christmas and New Year piece.


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A kind of tradition

Like many Christmas traditions, the origins of the BBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of Carols from King’s are not quite what you might expect.   The first television broadcast from King’s College Cambridge was in 1954 but the ‘tradition’ was not revived until some ten years later, significantly, perhaps, coinciding with the start of BBC2 earlier in 1964.  To my knowledge, the service has been broadcast annually ever since.

Complete footage of that first 1954 broadcast has been recently unearthed or, according to accounts, ‘unfrozen,’ cleaned up and was shown on Christmas Eve together with the 2014 service.  Christmas Day brought an accompanying documentary celebrating sixty years of Carols from King’s.

It is a rare treat to see any television footage from as early as 1954 as so little survives.  Given that the service is dictated by its own unchanging internal liturgy, not too much is different content-wise between 1954 and 2014.  The 2014 broadcast is bathed in a glorious golden amber glow which I have never seen so well captured as here and which seems almost synonymous with the warmth and light of Christmas itself.

Christmas card and a tapestry

Nevertheless, there were times when the milky monochrome of 1954 lent its own possibly unintended enchantments.  An arresting shot appeared of organ pipes and fan vaulting framed together like a kind of 1950s heraldic Christmas card or perhaps a design for the Christmas Number of the Radio Times.  At other times the picture seemed briefly transformed into a kind of ecclesiastical tapestry rendered in 405 lines and black and white.  The restored picture still background-flickered a little just as our coronation television used to, as if to remind us of the era.  You were aware of the huge heavy 1950s’ cameras on their dollies tracking slowly and affording none of the heavenly vantage point views of recent years.  There were a couple of quite prolonged holding shots which felt very stationary to a modern viewer.  Another difference was the marked lack of close-ups in 1954, as if to suggest that the liturgy, the overall form and the tradition – not the individuals partaking in it – are of paramount importance.  This had been corrected by 1964.

That first Carols from King’s took place a year after the coronation and was probably inspired by the success of that huge television ‘first’.  The bringing of tradition into a new age of television resonates with that brief New Elizabethan era which reigned as post-war austerity and rationing faded but before consumerism really got a grip.  The following year, ITV began broadcasting and the McMillan era beckoned.

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Year of the solo

The service always begins with Once In Royal David’s City, the first verse sung by a lone chorister.  In the documentary celebrating sixty years, the 2011 candidate recalls the “moment when everything goes away and you’re just there – an amazing feeling.”

To me, performing that role in our local church near Guildford at the age of ten exactly forty years ago, it was the single most nerve racking experience of my life.  I was at the head of the choir as we processed slowly up the nave towards the choir stalls.  I could hear my voice gulp at every word.  Strangely, afterwards, everyone said they never heard my gulps and I think they were telling the truth; it was the sound of my own nervousness audible only to me.   So nervous was I, in fact, that singing solo felt like a kind of out of body experience, an extreme hyper self-consciousness, perhaps.  The voice I was hearing was not the sound coming out of my own mouth.

In 1974, Christmas began the moment I reached the end of that first verse.  Like the King’s choristers who have sung that solo, I always look back upon ‘my solo’ whenever I hear it sung today.

Watching religiously

As a child, I never watched Carols from King’s  – we didn’t have BBC2 until 1973 and BBC1 or ITV probably offered a more entertaining alternative.  But over the last twenty years or so, I have watched it regularly, religiously, you might say, such that Christmas would seem incomplete without it.  It almost feels as if I have always watched it, so powerfully does the service connect with Christmas past as collective memory, as liturgical tradition, as television institution and with childhood memories of Christmas and carols in particular.

John Rutter put it perfectly when he said “For an enchanted hour and a half the world seems to stop and we are in the realm of Christmas where everything is perfect”.  Yes, it does feel as if there is a quietening, a feeling of peace descending… Transmitted in the very late afternoon, it has become the setting for a warming mince pie and a glass of ginger wine with my partner before we both depart to our respective families for Christmas.

Images show rehearsals for Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College

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