By Jeff Kofman
CEO and Founder of Trint
Not many cub reporters can say they had cocktails with the Queen aboard the royal yacht. I remember being more than a little awed to find myself talking to Her Majesty and sipping a drink aboard Britannia just a year into my reporting career.
It was 1984. I was a rookie reporter at Global News, the local TV superstation covering Toronto and broadcasting across Ontario. The Queen and Prince Philip were coming to Canada for a two week cross-country tour. I didn’t understand why the news director wanted a kid like me to cover the story, but wisely, I didn’t question the decision. I went along for the ride. Nervously.
Amidst all the tributes to Queen Elizabeth since her death on September 8th, one phrase rang true for me. Early in her life she was counseled never to forget that while she would meet a blur of thousands upon thousands of people, each of those people would remember the moment forever. It’s true. I was one of those people and almost 40 years later I can still remember it.
My introduction to reporting on the royals was a thick paperback handbook handed to every reporter covering the royal tour. Inside, every minute of the Queen’s waking hours was plotted out. In parallel, the movements of the “press bus” were also detailed to the second:
It read something like this:
12.05pm - Press bus leaves for Ontario legislature
12:14pm - Press bus arrives Ontario legislature
12:20pm - Press walk to secured position, set up TV cameras, attach audio to soundboard
12:32pm - Her Majesty’s motorcade arrives at front steps
12.34pm - Her Majesty accepts flowers from Jane Smith, age 8; mingles with crowd during walkabout
12.44pm - Her Majesty enters building.
That’s not from the actual handbook, mine disappeared years ago, but that’s the kind detail I remember from the tour. Advance teams had mapped out and timed her every movement with military precision. The palace and the Canadian government understood that media access was part of the equation. The pace of events was so hectic that the only way we could hopscotch ahead of the royal party to be in position for each arrival and each event was with police escorts halting traffic for the royal press bus as we roared through red lights.
These were the early days of video cameras. They were heavy and cumbersome and required two people to operate them. The tripods were made of wood. There was no wireless technology. It took time for camera crews and reporters to get everything set up so that the choreography of the royal party’s movement could be caught on camera and shared with the country and the world.
On October 4th, 1984, Her Majesty traveled by plane from Toronto to the northern mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, which calls itself The Nickel Capital of the World. The city’s claim to fame is a 30-foot high 1951 Canadian five-cent piece known as “The Big Nickel” with the Queen’s father, George VI, on one side.
The Queen accepted the invitation to Sudbury to officially open Science North, a gleaming new science center for the region. I remember watching her take particular interest in a display of a living beaver and its beaver lodge, with one side of the lodge in glass, so visitors could peek inside the beaver’s home. The beaver is featured on the Canadian five-cent piece, along with the Queen. The Queen looked at the beaver, the beaver looked at the Queen. In my news report that night I playfully noted that for perhaps the first time ever, the Queen looked face to face at the other side of the Canadian nickel.
I reached out to Global News this week. Miraculously, they found some of my stories in their archive. The boyish reporter with the staccato, earnest delivery is me. I’d liked to think I learned to relax a bit in the years that followed.
For a week of that tour the Queen and Prince Philip lived and traveled aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, making their way from eastern Ontario to Toronto harbor and living aboard the ship while it was berthed in Toronto. Before they left Toronto to fly north, they held a cocktail reception for the royal press corps. I pulled out my best suit for the occasion - my only suit. I remember scampering up the gangway to board the yacht with a sizzle of excitement, knowing that this was a rare privilege in life particularly for a kid just out of university. Reporters try hard not to be dazzled by power or wealth, but drinks with the Queen aboard her yacht are definitely an exception to that rule.
We were carefully counseled in advance about our deportment with Her Majesty. Men should bow, women curtsy. We were not to ask questions, only answer them. The entire conversation was off the record.
I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences by sharing with you the nature of our conversation. I was standing chatting with a reporter from CBC Radio, when the Queen’s aide brought her over to chat with us.
The first questions were about where we worked.
“Do people still listen to the radio with television being so popular?” her Majesty asked.
“Yes, your Majesty,” I volunteered. “A lot of people spend hours each day in their cars, so radio has a captive audience.”
“How interesting,” replied the Queen and on it went for another minute or two. It all felt a bit unreal, but it was never intimidating. True to her reputation she was engaged, smiling and warm.
It wasn’t a lengthy conversation. But just like all those others who met her over her 70 years on the throne, I never forgot.
*Jeff was a reporter, foreign correspondent and Emmy-winning war correspondent for 30 years. He started his career at Global News and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. He went on to report for CBS and ABC News from across the U.S. around the world. He left reporting to build and launch Trint in 2014.