Cultures of Worship: Democracy, Royalty and Celebrity in Inter-War Britain

Speakers: Ed Owens, Frank Mort, Max Jones

Chair: TBC

‘The ancient world knew… the public needed circuses instead of bread’, Keynes argued in 1936, but present day democracies believed that ‘shows and ceremonies’ were ‘fit only for… savages’. Writing in the shadow of modernist hero worship on parade at the Nuremberg rallies and Moscow’s Red Square, Keynes demanded a form of democratic spectacle that could match both Fascist and Soviet style authoritarian populism. He identified only George V’s Silver Jubilee as the one ‘extraordinary example’ of the type of celebration that fulfilled the British public’s craving to ‘collect in great numbers and feel together’ before a sovereign figurehead.

To what extent did mid-twentieth century British political democracy, both at home and in the white dominions, require validation from shows, ceremonies and authentic heroes, in the ways Keynes claimed? Or to put it more starkly: were royalty and movie stars now inter-changeable in the inter-war popular imagination? These questions inform our three papers which deliberately bridge the fields of elevated public culture and media generated consumption, with their focus on royal weddings and empire tours and the stars of radio and the silver screen. Our answers call for a more nuanced relationship between sovereignty, publicity and politics and a more complex understanding of the audiences for these cultures of worship – who were at once addressed as citizens, subjects and consumers.

Paper 1 Abstract: Democratic Splendour: Monarchy, Imperial Politics and Publicity in the Prince of Wales’ Tours of Canada and Australasia 1919-1921.

Prof. Frank Mort, University of Manchester

‘Kings and princes now live in the fierce glare of publicity’, argued Sir Wilfred Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada. The pre-eminent figure in this version of publicity conscious royalty after 1918 was Edward, Prince of Wales, who led an international field of princely contemporaries and newer celebrities with his distinctive brand of modernism and pseudo-democratic accessibility. Between 1919 and 1925 his public profile was transmitted across the empire via his extended world tours. My paper examines the Prince’s role in the dominions as the representative of a distinctively British projection of democratic royalty by focusing on his first tours to Canada (1919) and New Zealand and Australia (1920). Faced with the collapse of the old European order of princes and the new revolutionary challenge of Bolshevism, it was in these settings that an embryonic version of royal, democratic spectacle became tied to the politics of empire, as advocated by leading imperial statesmen and courtiers.

My approach locates experiments in the democratic display of royalty in the white empire, rather than on the more familiar terrain of Britain’s streets. In Canada and Australia the Prince was drawn into competing forms of nationalist and imperialist politics. He was embraced not only as the personification of empire but also as representing domestic aspirations for increased self government and cultural recognition. These experiments fused the crown’s constitutional functions with its media heightened appeal. The Prince’s tours brought together an influential press pack who stayed physically and symbolically close to their royal visitor. Working with the active support of Buckingham Palace and dominion politicians, journalists began to reshape the public face of the British monarchy. I argue that royalty’s ability to address ‘the Anglophone citizen’, as Laura Nym Mayall has termed it, rested on their ability to speak to audiences who were understood to be not only subjects of the crown but now avid consumers of royalty.

Paper 2 Abstract: Communicating Constitutional Democracy: Mass Media, Emotion and Social Cohesion at the 1934 Royal Wedding of George and Marina

Ed Owens, University of Manchester

This paper shows how a relatively unknown interwar royal wedding witnessed significant innovations in the way both Buckingham Palace officials and the mass media sought to communicate to British subjects a vision of a democratic public sphere that had constitutional monarchy at its heart. Building on recent historical work which has examined the diffuse and unsettled nature of Britain’s democratic political culture between the wars, this paper demonstrates how royal love stories were jointly orchestrated by the media and Palace as national set-pieces to try and integrate a new mass public into the constitutional compact through identification with popular narratives of romantic intimacy. The 1934 marriage of Prince George, youngest surviving son of King George V, to Princess Marina of Greece, accelerated this shift towards a more informal, emotionally expressive royal populism. It was the first occasion on which members of the House of Windsor spoke directly to cinema audiences through the newsreels, while the bride-to-be popularized the royal wave as a gestural mode of communication between royalty and British subjects. George and Marina were the first royals to be publicly photographed kissing and their marriage ceremony in Westminster Abbey now involved British listeners when it was broadcast live by the BBC. The wedding also witnessed a BBC interviewer ask working-class people for their views on a topic of public interest for the first time and officials consented to cameramen filming from the roof of Buckingham Palace. This created mass panoramas of a British people who appeared to gather around the national focal point of the monarchy. These innovative modes of media exposure facilitated new kinds of popular participation in the British public sphere and generated visions of a populace united in celebration of the love story. And, against the backdrop of authoritarianism on the continent, the 1934 royal wedding helped crystallize a British political identity that was closely aligned with images of home life and the sanctity of family.

Paper 3 Abstract: Authority, Exemplarity and Celebrity Between the Wars

Dr Max Jones, University of Manchester

Worship: To honour or revere as a supernatural being or power, or as a holy thing; to regard or approach with veneration; to adore with appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies. (OED)

The third paper in our panel will step back and situate the detailed case-studies of the transformation of the monarchy within the broader trajectory of changing cultures of worship in modern Britain.

Daniel Boorstin’s seminal distinction between authentic ‘heroes’ and fake ‘celebrities’ directed attention towards the new types of fame generated by what he described as ‘the graphic revolution’ of the nineteenth century. Boorstin’s erection of a simple opposition between heroes worthy of admiration for their achievements and celebrities known only for their ‘well-knowness’ remains influential, embedded in the continued use of ‘celebrity’ as a pejorative term. This paper will argue that historians should reject Boorstin’s distinction and instead follow Graeme Turner in understanding celebrity as ‘as a media process that is coordinated by an industry, and as a commodity or text which is productively consumed by audiences and fans’.

Modern practices of fandom flourished in the nineteenth century, but public moralists – teachers and clerics, philosophers and politicians – fought to retain control of the representation of popular heroes. In the first half of the twentieth century, the new media of radio, feature film and newsreel combined with innovations in print to transform cultures of worship and loosen the grip of the moralists: artists and writers producing stories about heroes for the market rather than moral edification, began to drown out their voices. The front page, the cinema and the wireless emerged as new sites of worship, with their own appropriate rites and ceremonies. Recognizability alone became a vital source of cultural authority, as Stefan Collini and others have noted.

Mort’s and Owens’ papers reveal how the royal family responded to these media innovations, performing multiple roles, from moral exemplars to objects of sexual desire, on new stages, domestic and imperial. These changes signalled decline and the erosion of moral standards for some, but opportunity for others, especially the potential to reach and convert new followers. Such divergent diagnoses continue to characterise British cultures of democracy.




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