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Tuesday, December 30, 1997 Published at 11:55 GMT

Special Report

The tradition of the Queen's speech

The Queen's message to the Commonwealth on December 25 has become as traditional a part of the British Christmas as roast turkey and Christmas pudding.

Millions of people across the United Kingdom turned on the television to watch the Queen sum up the year and offer the season's greetings to her subjects.

Millions more around the world listened to the speech on their radios and, for the first time, on the Internet. The speech was broadcast online at various Web sites, including this one. The text is also available on the Buckingham Palace Web site.

Even international travellers in the middle of the Atlantic had the chance to watch the speech. British Airways planned to show the broadcast on Christmas Day on their long haul flights out of Heathrow and Gatwick.

King George V, on Christmas Day in 1932 (Dur: 3'37")
The tradition was begun by the Queen's grandfather, King George V, in 1932. In the early days, the message went out live but from 1960 onwards it was recorded a few days in advance.

In the past, most of the speeches have been regarded as uncontroversial, even a little dull. The notable exception was the 1992 broadcast - the Queen labelled that year an "annus horribilis".

Viewing figures for the speech in Britain have been in steady decline, nearly halving from the 1987 figure of 28 million to 15 million in 1996. .

But this year many were waiting to see how the Queen would review a year which has seen the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and an unprecedented outpouring of public grief for the Princess who became known as the "Queen of Hearts".

A royal Christmas

In 1932 when King George V made the first royal Christmas broadcast to what was then the British Empire, it was transmitted live from his small study at Sandringham, in Norfolk, where the royal family always spend their Christmas holidays.

The speech was scripted by the famous author, Rudyard Kipling, and began with the words: "I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all."

Queen Elizabeth II made her first Christmas broadcast on BBC radio in 1952. Her first televised speech took place in 1957.

The contents of the speech are always top secret until it is first transmitted. In 1987 the BBC hit the headlines when its royal correspondent of the time, Michael Cole, accidentally revealed some of its contents.

In her 1992 "annus horribilus" speech, the Queen, expressed her sorrow at a year which saw the break up of two of two family marriages, one divorce and the fire at Windsor Castle.

That year, as in many others, she began with references to Sandringham and her own family: "I first came here for Christmas as a grandchild. Nowadays my children come here for the same family festival. To me this continuity is a great source of comfort in a world of tension and violence."

She then went on to speak of how the "sombre year" had been put into perspective by the example of a close friend, who, suffering from a terminal illness had continued to put others first.

This was also the year in which the Sun newspaper printed leaked details of the speech on December 23, much to the dismay of Buckingham Palace.

The message in the making

The speech has traditionally been filmed in great secrecy at Sandringham in the week before Christmas. But this year it was recorded at the newly restored Windsor Castle.

The Queen speaks directly to camera and the package usually features royal footage from the year. It is sent in advance around the world to 17 Commonwealth countries, to be broadcast at a convenient local time.

As a result of leaks in the press in previous years, many media outlets do not receive the text of the Queen's address until late on Christmas Eve.

This year, for the first time, the broadcast was not produced by the BBC. Instead, it was made by Independent Television News (ITN) who will meet the current costs of about 100,000.

When Buckingham Palace decided to end the BBC's monopoly on the rights to produce the speech, it was seen by some as a deliberate snub in retaliation for its Panorama interview with the Princess of Wales in November 1995, which was not sanctioned by Buckingham Palace.

However the palace denied that a slight was intended and said that it had been considering for some time how to involve the ITV network as well as the BBC, "so that the arrangements reflect the composition of the television and radio industries today".

Under the new arrangement, ITN will again produce the broadcast next year, with production reverting to the BBC in 1999 and 2000. This alternating two-year cycle will be up for review periodically.

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The text of the Queen's Christmas message

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