It is always a challenge to introduce a major cast change in a long-running serial. Saturday morning, in a special episode with elements of “The Crown” and “Succession,” King Charles III finally became the focal figure of the royal ensemble — if only for a day.
The coronation of a British ruler is, of course, a political ritual and a religious ceremony. But it is also, as the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 established, a TV show. It’s an anachronistic assertion of divine right retooled to recognize that, in the electronic era, even hereditary rulers have to argue their relevance.
Charles’s coronation was a full-color spectacle, showing off the peacocked glory of British tradition and the bells and whistles of 21st-century TV. Britain brought out its finest garments, its finest relics, its finest rain. The networks took in all the splendor they could capture on camera; there were even graphics offering an X-ray of Westminster Abbey. The term “fairy tale” was deployed more than once.
But fairy tales have messages. This one had many: To convey continuity while styling the monarchy as modern, to reframe the narratives around the royal family and to introduce Charles not just as a leader but as a lead.
This was a tall order. Charles has never been the star of his own life. He’s been the king for months now; he’s been an international figure for decades. But much of his story has been his mother’s, his wives’, his children’s.
For nearly the entire television age, his mother was the visual representation of royalty. His wedding was one of the biggest TV events of the 20th century, but he came first in “Charles and Diana” only by virtue of birth and, perhaps, the alphabet. Now, in a sense, he is a secondary or tertiary figure in a running soap opera lately dominated by other characters, including his disgraced brother and his estranged son and daughter-in-law.
Saturday, he was at the center. And amid a day of carefully staged celebration, he looked somber, even weighed down by it. Each piece of royal hardware presented to him during his installation — orb, bejeweled sword, robes upon robes — seemed to add psychic poundage. Queen Camilla, wryly smiling throughout, seemed to be having more fun.
Maybe the most peculiarly apt element of the ceremony came when Charles was ritually anointed behind a screen of lavishly embroidered panels. The barrier is meant to guard a sacred moment between the monarch and God, but it also captures the oddness of the king’s relation to celebrity: a theatrically intimate act, staged in privacy before an audience of millions.
Even his departure in a bumpy, lustrous gold coach felt like a symbol of the discomforts of splendor. On the BBC, a panel discussed the challenges and perils of entering a carriage while trailing yards’ worth of luxurious fabric. (You have to mind the creases.)
American TV, in the black-coffee hours of a Saturday morning, had other things to focus on. On this side of the Atlantic, two and a half centuries away from the Revolution, it’s easier to take it all in as a costume party, as the royals were borne through the streets like elaborately plated desserts.
The American networks were especially abuzz about the solo presence of Charles’s author-influencer son, Harry, which raised questions about Harry’s absent wife, Meghan, their retirement as working royals and the accusations of racism, fights and bad blood in the royal family. Even as the royal procession prepared to march back to Buckingham Palace, CNN’s cameras were busy picking Harry out on the sidelines.
The coronation itself was consciously stage directed to present the image of a modern and inclusive monarchy, one trying to shed its colonialist baggage. A gospel choir sang alleluias along with the stately hymns; non-Christian religious figures were given roles in the highly Protestant ceremony.
But Harry, in his civilian suit, was also a reminder of the schism between the traditional and the modern in the royal family that can’t be drowned out by pageantry. Even as the new king appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in a downpour to view a weather-attenuated flyby, much of the press attention focused on Harry’s absence. (Charles’s heir, Prince William, was shunted off to the side with his family.)
Elizabeth was able to survive the family dramas of her time partly on the strength of the popularity she built through the media, starting with a globally televised coronation that introduced her as a young woman taking on a big role. Charles is famous, and he has an earnest media image as a man of issues. But he doesn’t have the same long-earned affection or celebrity, and he may not have time to build either.
He does have the title, though, and the colorful ceremony — however slimmed-down it was purported to be — played to the emotional attachment to the country and history of his subjects, at least those who showed up and tuned in. If the king can’t be the star, the ceremony seemed to say, there’s always the crown.