Queen Elizabeth II has been monarch so long that a sovereign’s death is unprecedented in the memories of many Britons, and the world has changed so immensely in the decades since the funeral of George VI that her passing will require a whole new playbook. But you’d better believe they do have a detailed plan, choreographed down to the minute.
In an absolutely amazing feature, the Guardian details at length how the moments will unfold. The code phrase: “London Bridge is down.” (Or, well, that was the code phrase.) The prime minister will be among the first to know, along with ambassadors, heads of the Commonwealth nations, and other high-level officials, all of whom will presumably lunge to their closets for their darkest suits.
The several-thousand-word story provides fascinating insight into the amount of planning and forethought that will go into one of the most solemn of royal events. The piece is also packed with details that are downright eerie. For instance:
At the BBC, the “radio alert transmission system” (Rats), will be activated – a cold war-era alarm designed to withstand an attack on the nation’s infrastructure. Rats, which is also sometimes referred to as “royal about to snuff it”, is a near mythical part of the intricate architecture of ritual and rehearsals for the death of major royal personalities that the BBC has maintained since the 1930s. Most staff have only ever seen it work in tests; many have never seen it work at all. “Whenever there is a strange noise in the newsroom, someone always asks, ‘Is that the Rats?’ Because we don’t know what it sounds like,” one regional reporter told me.
It’s not just the BBC with a creepy alert system, either:
For people stuck in traffic, or with Heart FM on in the background, there will only be the subtlest of indications, at first, that something is going on. Britain’s commercial radio stations have a network of blue “obit lights”, which is tested once a week and supposed to light up in the event of a national catastrophe. When the news breaks, these lights will start flashing, to alert DJs to switch to the news in the next few minutes and to play inoffensive music in the meantime. Every station, down to hospital radio, has prepared music lists made up of “Mood 2” (sad) or “Mood 1” (saddest) songs to reach for in times of sudden mourning. “If you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on,” wrote Chris Price, a BBC radio producer, for the Huffington Post in 2011. “Something terrible has just happened.”
Media outlets have been rehearsing their coverage for years; Sky News and ITN, for instance, practice with the name “Mrs. Robinson” for the Queen. The Guardian spoke to a former head of BBC News and learned that, “The rehearsals for her are different to the other members of the family, he explained. People become upset, and contemplate the unthinkable oddness of her absence.” The experts who will appear on panels in the aftermath already know it, and yet the subject of the Queen’s inevitable death is unnerving and taboo—many of the sources interviewed for the Guardian piece asked not to be identified by name.
Meanwhile, as the news is hitting all these media outlets:
At the same instant, a footman in mourning clothes will emerge from a door at Buckingham Palace, cross the dull pink gravel and pin a black-edged notice to the gates. While he does this, the palace website will be transformed into a sombre, single page, showing the same text on a dark background.
Frankly, it sounds like CNN’s infamous doomsday video. And in a sense, it might as well be:
The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”
The piece is absolutely worth reading in full.