'Diamond Jubilee' Marks 60 Years Of Queen Elizabeth

Monday marks 60 years since the death of King George VI and the ascendancy of a young Elizabeth to the throne. Her reign has been one of the longest in British history, second only to Queen Victoria.

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Every now and then, nations pause to reflect on their past. That's happening right now in Britain. Sixty years ago today, Elizabeth II became queen. The British have many jubilee festivities planned later in the year, but today, they're marking the anniversary by remembering the moment a reserved young woman became their monarch. NPR's Philip Reeves has that story.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is London. It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The government-run British Broadcasting Corporation broke the news.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was announced from Sandringham at 10:45 today, February 6, 1952, that the king, who retired to rest last night in his usual health, passed peacefully away in his sleep earlier this morning.

REEVES: The king was George VI, Elizabeth's father. He was 56 when he succumbed to cancer. It was the era of the Korean War, of Stalin, Churchill and Truman, the year Agatha Christie's play "The Mousetrap" opened in London's West End. That play is still running, by the way. On the night her father died, Elizabeth was on safari in Kenya in East Africa with her husband, the duke of Edinburgh. They were staying at a tree house, watching elephants at a watering hole. She was only 25. Covering the two was a famous BBC war correspondent.

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FRANK GILLARD: This is Frank Gillard speaking from Nairobi.

REEVES: Sixty years on, Frank Gillard's report of the events of that day perhaps seemed a little obsequious and stilted, but he does eloquently capture the moment.

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GILLARD: I saw our new queen shortly after 9 o'clock this morning. Then looking a little tired but very happy, she was driving away from the treetop's hut where she and the duke had spent the previous 19 hours, as I've described, removed from normal civilization as possible, even in Africa, watching wild game. How tragic to think that even though she was on the veranda at treetops, looking out on the wild animals of Africa, going about their strange ways in the moonlight, that at such a moment, she should become queen.

How tragic to think that even this morning, as she sat at breakfast, talking about her father and proudly describing how bravely he'd stood up to his illness and how well he'd recovered - sitting there in her yellow bush shirt and brown slacks - even at that moment, her father was lying dead, and she had succeeded to his vast responsibilities.

REEVES: Communications in 1952 were not what they are today. It took hours before the news reached the royal party.

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GILLARD: At about 2:45 local time, the truth was known. The duke went to the princess and broke it to her. In the words of a member of the household, she bore it like a queen.

REEVES: The 60 years that followed that day were not always easy for Elizabeth. After the death of Princess Diana, the British monarchy was in real danger. It since bounced back, and the queen seems popular again. There is still a significant minority of Britons who would rather have a republic. Yet, whatever you think of them, Elizabeth and the monarchy have rare survival skills, just like "The Mousetrap." Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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