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Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was a farewell production for the ages

Spectators positioned along London's Horse Guards Parade watch live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's funeral on a phone.
Spectators positioned along London’s Horse Guards Parade watch live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on a phone. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

LONDON — There have been royal blockbusters before, but never a show quite like this.

Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was an intricately staged farewell production that had it all: elaborate costumes, bagpipes and tolling bells, soldiers on horseback, cannons and castles.

The streets along the procession routes were jammed with crowds, but the far bigger audience was watching on TV around the world.

Many analysts said the funeral could turn out to be the most watched single TV event in history, with a large portion of the 7.7 billion people around the globe catching at least some of it.

Those who have been planning this for decades clearly had that audience in mind.

An estimated 650 million people watched the first moon landing in 1969, a record at that time. More than 2 billion are believed to have watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, but improved cellphones and internet have made it vastly easier to watch a big event today.

Giant screens were set up in outdoor squares in cities across the country. More than 100 movie theaters and churches showed big-screen broadcasts of the BBC’s coverage. The Royal Shakespeare Company screened the funeral at its theater at Stratford-upon-Avon in central England.

Since covid, many churches are set up for Zoom funerals. On Monday, many people sat in pews at Holy Trinity in London’s Sloane Square, watching with the smell of incense filling the morning air.

Pubs and restaurants that ordinarily don’t have a TV got one for the funeral. At Motcombs, a Mediterranean restaurant not far from Buckingham Palace, people drank coffee or champagne as they watched.

“We thought some people might not be able to handle the crowds and need a place to watch, ” said Ken Anderson, who said his son was the owner.

When police no longer allowed any more people into London’s Hyde Park, several thousand just stood in an empty street near Harrods department store listening to hymns blasting over the loudspeaker.

“I will never see the likes of this again,” said Jillian Martin, an educator from Northern Ireland.

British officials are betting that the enormous effort to give the queen a proper send-off, the cost of which is still unknown, will return far more in tourism revenue.

Japanese broadcaster NHK carried the funeral live, with simultaneous interpretation, and the funeral was the third top trending term on Japanese Twitter.

In Hong Kong, hundreds of people watched the funeral on their phones and tablets, laid flowers and waved the Union Jack flag outside the British Consulate. Hong Kong was a British colony for a century and a half until the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In Sydney, Graham Cousens, 56, was out with friends but said he had set his television at home to record the funeral.

“It’s such a momentous moment,” he said. “Not that I personally feel that much, but I can see what it means to the English.”

Even Google turned its logo black in the U.K. on Monday in honor of the queen.

Not everyone in central London was pleased with the massive security presence, the locked-down Tube stations and blocked streets.

“I can think of better things to spend all this money on. Sure, it’s great for tourism and the flower-sellers, but I’m not sure the queen would be into this extravaganza,” said Lily Haverford, 42, a teacher.

“It’s pretty as a picture, but, in the end, what does it really mean?” she said.

Many people interviewed around the world said it was a spectacle worth staging.

To prepare the backdrop, London landmarks were scrubbed. New rolls of sod were laid near Wellington Arch, where the coffin was transferred to a hearse for the 25-mile trip to the queen’s final resting place in Windsor.

Even that hearse was made-for-TV, with huge windows and internal lighting designed to give people the best possible view of Her Majesty’s coffin — but more importantly, to make it “pop” on television.

“It has to look good for TV,” said one busy gardener picking “dead bits” out of flower beds near Buckingham Palace ahead of the funeral.

The music was powerful, with military bands, bagpipers and drummers accompanying the queen’s coffin.

The players were perfectly costumed. Grenadier Guards wore bright red tunics and their famous bearskin hats, others were draped in ceremonial swan feathers. Beefeaters in their distinctive ruffled collars. King Charles III and Prince William, now first in line to the throne, in crisp military uniforms heavy with medals.

Photos: Inside the factory that makes the royal uniforms

In Bermuda, Kim Day, an expat who is involved in community theater and watched the funeral at a theater that showed it live, said Britain put on a “perfect show.”

Live events are nerve-racking to pull off, said Jon Reynaga, a British film and TV producer.

But he said having the military involved, the government planning for years and the royal family behind it all, is unique.

“They talked today for hours about orbs, scepters, symbolism — and people love it,” he said.

Along the London procession route, lined with huge British flags, for one day it seemed like everyone was an extra on a movie set.

Mourners in the streets locked arms and bowed their heads in a moment of silence. Some wore royal-themed costumes.

Many tossed flowers, such a rain of them that the royal hearse driver had to sweep them away with the windshield wipers.

“We take great pride in doing things properly,” said Jess Fox, 24, from York, England, who left her home at 4:45 a.m. to get to London. “The British feel very pleased and proud to look the part.”

People outside Westminster Abbey observed two minutes of silence to mark the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

The funeral was the perfect bookend production to the queen’s seven-decade reign, which opened with the first televised coronation in history and ended with the most-watched royal event ever.

Many Britons bought TVs for the 1953 coronation, and then dressed up in ties and dresses to watch.

A BBC planning document, stored at the National Archives, showed that the network understood, even then, that it was broadcasting for the planet, not for just the British.

“The whole of the technical resources of the B.B.C. will be deployed in covering the Coronation for the world from dawn till after midnight on 2nd June,” it said.

There have been other blockbuster shows in the royal catalogue, mainly featuring Princess Diana in the starring or supporting role. The glamorous princess with the electric smile basically brought the royal family into a brightly lit new world — the way color TV pushed aside black and white.

First was Diana’s 1981 “wedding of the century” to then-Prince Charles, then her funeral 16 years later, then the weddings of her celebrity sons, William and the elegant Catherine, then Harry and Meghan — fittingly, finally, an actual actress as royal co-star.

Speaking with a Washington Post reporter in 1994 at a dinner in Washington, Diana was asked how it felt to walk down the aisle with the eyes of the world upon her in her fairy tale dress.

“Oh God,” she said. “My dress was so wrinkled; all I could think was, ‘I need an iron.’ ”

And of course, the royal family has also been the subject of an actual television sensation, “The Crown,” which has blurred the lines between fact, fiction and fandom.

The Post’s Jennifer Hassan analyzes how Netflix’s “The Crown” depicted Queen Elizabeth II through her decades-long reign. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Here are ‘The Crown’ episodes to watch to learn more about the queen

Monday was about Elizabeth and staging the final show of her historic reign. British TV networks carried the events all day without commercial breaks.

The BBC has taken some heat from critics who believe the state-funded network has overdone the coverage.

“It was sad when she first died,” said Brendan Hoffman, 50, as he sat in a bar in Sydney. “But this,” he said, gesturing to a large television showing the queen’s hearse on its way to Windsor Castle, was “mourn porn.”

The funeral was planned with the kind of precision that would cheer a Broadway stage manager. The official schedule had the queen’s coffin moving to Westminster Abbey at 10:44 a.m. Not 10:40, not 10:45.

William Shawcross, a royal biographer, said planners would have worked out precisely how long the gun carriage would take to make the journey, rehearsing and measuring out every step of the 140 or so Royal Navy officers bearing it, down to the second.

Late Monday afternoon in Windsor, after a service in St. George’s Chapel, the Lord Chamberlain broke his ceremonial wooden Wand of Office and placed it atop the queen’s casket, symbolizing the end of her reign.

As the Sovereign’s Piper played a lament, her coffin disappeared from view as it was lowered into the Royal Vault.

And the curtain fell.

Michael E. Miller in Sydney, Amanda Coletta in Bermuda, Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo and Karina Tsui in Washington contributed to this report.

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