The State Opening of Parliament

Wednesday, December 6, 2000 by

At primary school there were only two occasions when our normal lessons were abandoned for some unexpected viewing time in front of the Big Telly On The Trolley. One was the raising of the Mary Rose, an event that was deemed so significant that timetables across the country were abandoned for a shared national TV moment; the other was the State Opening of Parliament.

Almost 20 years on, this bizarre annual ritual still takes up a large chunk of BBC1′s morning schedules; but from what I could recall of those earlier ceremonies, nothing much had changed – which is of course the whole point. As with the Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph each November, so the Opening of Parliament appears on television every year without fail and with no shocking variations to long-established routines and conventions. And as with the Cenotaph ceremony, BBC commentary for this event was provided by the master of the civic occasion, David Dimbleby.

David seemed to pass into old age very suddenly when, about seven or eight years ago, he slipped out of that former Panorama/This Week Next Week image (slab of dark hair flopped resolutely over his round, beaming face, the terrible half-in-fashion suits) into the one he still sports now: grey wispy hair not so much flopping but grazing on the top of his wizened face; his suits more bland, inoffensive, silvery. His manner, however, remains the same – a pretender to the interviewer’s throne, never managing to master a tough discussion or debate and instead always seeming more at ease narrating and introducing grand events.

He was in his element here. Right from the programme’s opening – film of stables being prepared, coaches cleaned and horses groomed – there was plenty of time for David to come up with ever more fanciful descriptions. He marvelled at Cherie Blair’s “enormous blue hat”, the presentation of “The Cap of Maintenance”, and the beautiful morning – “We expected the most appalling weather,” he chuckled. Some of it was interesting – such as the scenes showing the Yeoman of the Guard searching the cellars looking for a modern-day Guy Fawkes (amusingly this is carried out every year). But the highlight was when someone fainted and had to be carried out of Westminster by a band of burly pensioners – “it must be the heat, it does get very hot,” reassured an anxious David.

I’d forgotten how relatively short the actual Queen’s Speech is – barely 10 minutes – in comparison with the enormously long procession to and from Parliament. It was startling to not only see the forced joviality – Tony Blair and William Hague giggling in the corridor like eager schoolboys – but all the rusty judges, archbishops and peeresses who turn out at this highlight of the social calendar. Even Lord Sir John Birt made the effort to show up, seated in a prominent position for the BBC cameras to pick him out.

But the coverage seemed to drag on and on. The dreadful Sian Williams hosted a pointless debate out on a street in Bristol which was supposed to reflect what Ordinary People were thinking. “Like many city centre estates, this one’s had real problems,” she generalised, before adopting a scary tone: “We came down here last night – and saw some people driving about quite fast!” Then the whole programme was actually extended by some 10 minutes – not to cover a breaking story, but to allow Anne Widdecombe to get to the studio in time. She rushed in, panting, hair and clothes awry, to be spoken to very brusquely by David as if telling her off for her lateness. The whole thing ended with the disturbing image of the joint Commons/Lords choir merrily carolling some of Handel’s Messiah.

Maybe it was down to the whim of a couple of our old crinkly teachers, but for at least two years running our morning classes were replaced with this hour of pomp and pageantry courtesy of the BBC. I guess it may have seemed mightily important to people of my teachers’ generation – especially the ceremonial dimension of it all, the appearance of the monarch, the grand costumes, and indeed the chance to see inside a building still pretty much out of bounds to the camera lens. What we as na├»ve stupid infants were supposed to take from it, I’ve still no idea. But like anything that was proscribed or force-fed back at primary school, it became an object of hate, of huge objection, and intense numbing boredom.

But it did get us out of creative writing.


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