Princess Elizabeth’s 21st Birthday Speech.

Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of King George VI, was due to turn 21 on 21 April, 1947. The Royal Family were on a tour of South Africa at this time and it was decided that the young princess should make a ‘dedication’ broadcast to the Empire from Government House, Cape Town on the evening of her birthday. There was, however, a problem. The beam radio link between Cape Town and the BBC in London was unreliable and often subject to extreme interference. Frank Gillard, a former BBC Wartime Correspondent, was covering the tour and sent a memo expressing his concern to Sir Alan Lascelles, the King’s Private Secretary. What if, he queried, the Empire were waiting patiently for the broadcast and nothing happened? It would look ridiculous.

Fortunately, Gillard and his colleagues came up with an excellent solution. The Princess could pre-record her broadcast on high-quality discs which could then be flown to London to be used as a fail-safe should the ‘live’ broadcast from Cape Town fail to materialise or be interrupted in any way. The ‘stand-by’ version was pre-recorded on the evening of Sunday, 4 April at the Victoria Falls Hotel in Southern Rhodesia, where the royal family were enjoying a brief stay on their current leg of the tour. The King emphasised to an already nervous Gillard that ‘this will probably be the most important broadcast of my daughter’s life.’ No pressure then!

There was another useful aspect to this exercise: When Gillard had perused the prepared script with the King and Queen, all were horrified by the ‘pompous platitudes’ expressed within it. They and Princess Elizabeth subsequently sat down together and spent two hours completely revising the text. Shortly after sundown, the Princess sat at a table with a large BBC microphone atop to pre-record the broadcast. Gillard remembers that she was ‘composed, confident and extremely cooperative.’ Within hours, the discs bearing the recording were being flown to London for use if required.

As it happened, the beam radio signal to London was working a treat on 21 April and a ‘live’ broadcast was possible from Government House, Cape Town. The words, ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong’ rang out over the airwaves and are remembered to this day, with great affection, by those listening. It is not surprising that South Africa has a special place in the Queen’s heart. It must also be remembered that she was the last monarch of the Union of South Africa prior to the country becoming a republic in May,1961. However, she returned to make two State Visits, in 1995 and 1999, the former at the invitation of President Mandela.

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