Under the Influence

The four-word code that signalled the end of a long reign

When Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, 2022, one brief, simple phrase set off a monumental chain of events across Britain and the world.
The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign's sceptre, during the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, held at Westminster Abbey, London, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. (Gareth Fuller/The Associated Press)

When Queen Elizabeth died on September 8, 2022, a phone call was immediately placed from her private secretary, Sir Edward Young, to British Prime Minister Liz Truss. When Truss picked up the phone, Young uttered one sentence to her. He said, "London Bridge is down."

That was code. It meant the Queen had died. That sentence started a monumental chain of events.

After the Prime Minister was notified, news alerts were sent out to 15 governments where Queen Elizabeth II served as head of state. Including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Then the other 38 nations in the commonwealth were notified. A newsflash was sent to media organizations around the world. An unofficial transition of power quickly took place, with Charles becoming the oldest King in British history.

The Prime Minister and King Charles then issued statements regarding the Queen's passing and the "Official Notification" of the Queen's death was pinned to the gates of Buckingham Palace. With that, "Operation London Bridge" kicked into gear. That is the code for the succession rules and funeral plans that have long been in place for the Queen's passing.

Code names for the funeral plans of royal family members in the 20th and 21st centuries have all used the names of prominent bridges in the United Kingdom.

Operation Tay Bridge was the code used for the Queen Mother.

Operation Forth Bridge was used for Prince Philip's passing.

And Operation Menai Bridge will be the code for King Charles' funeral plans.

Newsrooms were well-prepared for the Queen's death. Pre-written obituaries were published immediately. After the announcement of the monarch's death, the BBC's logo immediately went to black and all anchors changed into black suits and ties. Then the network displayed a photo of the Queen and the national anthem was played.

The BBC also fired up its "Radio Alert Transmission System," or RATS for short. It is a Cold War-era alarm. While many of the BBC's staff was aware of it, they had never seen it in action. This alarm goes off in all BBC newsrooms in the event of a high-profile royal death. It beeps like an alarm clock.

In Britain's commercial radio stations, a blue light flashes, indicating either the death of a Royal or a national catastrophe. All major news outfits have had "Death Rehearsals" for decades, where staff practices formal procedures in the event of a Royal passing. It's taken quite seriously. As one high ranking BBC editor once said to a protegee, "There's a fine tradition in the BBC of someone losing their job at a time like this. Make sure it isn't you."

From that point on, all regular programming is suspended and constant news coverage of the Queen's passing takes over. With that, the UK, along with many Commonwealth countries around the world, mourn her passing and get set to implement the many changes that accompany the death of a Queen.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has wide-ranging implications, including in the world of marketing. The Queen has been a constant draw for UK tourism for over 70 years. The Royal family generates billions for the UK economy. And over 800 companies have been granted a Royal Warrant of Appointment – a kind of seal of approval from the Royal Family.

These 800 companies do business with the Royals and displaying the Royal Coat of Arms in their marketing is a powerful way to generate revenue. But now that the Queen has passed, over 600 of those Royal Warrants are about to be cancelled. Unless King Charles deems otherwise.

For more on How The Queen's Death Affects Marketing and other stories from Under the Influence, click or tap the play button above to hear the full episode. Find more episodes on the CBC Listen app or subscribe to the podcast.