The Queen at 80

Friday, April 21, 2006 by

“We’re told she doesn’t want much fuss,” confided Sophie Raworth from amidst a bewildering battery of cameras, arc lights, cables, microphones, scaffolding and cake. Judging the mood of the nation perfectly, the BBC had conspired to lay on a jamboree so big, so bold, there wasn’t even room for Sophie’s face. “We’re in a prime position here!” her voice boomed from somewhere out of shot. “We’re having a party of our own!”

Instead the screen was filled with faces of children. “Young people,” observed Sophie. “Youth groups,” she added, in case we hadn’t noticed the difference. A band of guardsmen struck up. “The Band of Irish Guards is about to strike up,” Sophie cried. But her voice was beginning to falter. She knew it. We knew it. It was already too late. The BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s 80th birthday walkabout had got off to the worst possible start: it was all about the Queen, and nothing about the BBC.

Radio Times had seemed uncertain over how to bill The Queen at 80. Sophie, it explained, was to be “reporting from Windsor Castle”, not presenting. It sounded like the 60-minute programme was going to be more like a colossal rolling news service rather than, say, a 60-minute programme. Sure enough, from the jumbled opening through to the jaundiced farewell (“A toast … goodbye … happy birthday … come on!”) nobody involved seemed clear whether they were commentating on, reflecting upon or hosting proceedings, let alone for whom they were doing it.

It was the small screen failing to engage with the supremely self-conscious extravaganza into which it had pitched itself. And if the history of royal outside broadcasts has amounted to anything, it’s that these kinds of events only work best on television when they are television events.

The 2002 Golden Jubilee coverage was just such an occasion, in that regardless of what you thought of the purpose of the event, how it was ultimately presented and packaged made for entertaining and enjoyable TV (if at points for less than obvious or intentional reasons). Here precious little thought had been given into rendering what was, in essence, the Queen taking 45 minutes to walk up a street into an incident for which it was worth staying glued to the box. It would have been wrong to anticipate, though perhaps not to secretly wish for, a bit of business on the scale of David Dimbleby’s Jubilee pod. But surely a few more pennies and a bit more forethought could have been scraped together to muster something more than just a paddock on a bit of grass with a few balloons stuck to a trellis.

Similarly the presenting, or rather reporting, team had been assembled with a distinct lack of focus on what and who would really be up to holding our attention for an hour of potentially dead air. Sophie was joined in her pen by three guests – “ferociously good company” – who had nothing in common other than they’d all been to see the Queen recently to collect MBEs, and that all were keen to remind each other of the fact as often as possible.

First up was Alan Titchmarsh, essaying the same slightly garbled but wholly partisan credentials as during his brief cameo in the Golden Jubilee coverage, this time insisting the Queen “offers stability to all our lives … you can be terribly intellectual and say who needs her, but she brings ‘special’, and we’re a bit short on ‘special’.” Equally underwhelming was the next along the corporation trestle table, Wendy Richard. Tissue in hand, she confessed to having already “had a cry … look at these people, they love her … that dress … a great colour.”

Third in line, however, was someone who was damned if he was going to let the opportunity pass for a bit of shameless old-time anecdotage. It was Rolf Harris, and better yet he was wearing a bright red suit. He waxed lyrical about shivering under a blanket in the rain while “playing the piano-accordion” waiting for the Coronation parade in 1953. He recalled having the butterflies for three hours before painting the Queen’s portrait. He revealed he’d spotted a girl in the crowd take a picture with her camera the wrong way round, so “she’d end up with a photo of her left nostril.” And he proceeded to get himself in shot as many times as possible, usually by peering over another guest’s shoulder or munching a slice of cake in the background.

As fun as this was, it jarred horribly with the tenor of the rest of the coverage, which was forever flip-flopping between reverent reportage, whimsical gossip and disorganised vox-poppery. The latter had been placed in the hands of Fearne Cotton, who sensed “an electric atmosphere” in the group of spectators around her – who promptly responded with the most feeble cheer of the day – and who declared she wanted to “hang here” to make sure she got a good photo of the Queen “on my camera phone”. Her chats with members of the public were nothing of the sort, Fearne choosing to ignore all that her interviewees were saying and press through her list of questions regardless. Later it turned out she’d messed up her photo as well, admitting it had turned out “rubbish – upside down and tiny.”

The one other element thrown into the mix was a discomfited-looking Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen, who promised “interesting women with stories” but instead produced Vivenne Westwood, ostensibly brought on to talk about the Queen’s fashion but who, with almost her first breath, announced “I hate talking about fashion”. Lawrence went on to hold up a series of giant Queen photos and randomly talk about what was in them, as if doing a hastily-organised royal show and tell. “Here’s one of the Queen from the ’40s,” he boomed, wielding a photo showing the monarch visiting the London Palladium to see “Norman Wisdom in The 1954 Gay Palladium Show”.

By the time the Queen had finished her walkabout, the crowd outside the BBC paddock was larger than that back on the high street. They’d also been joined by a profusion of wasps, just as keen to tuck into the patisseries as Rolf, and who flew frighteningly close to camera rendering themselves the same size as Sophie Raworth’s face. Which, finally, five minutes before the end, we had been allowed to see.

Everyone crammed into the pen to drink some champagne, Lawrence opening the bottle “in a Grand Prix stylee”. Nobody knew quite who or what to toast. It had been that sort of morning. Sophie signed off by looking into each and every one of the cameras except the right one. Nat King Cole bubbled up on the soundtrack, murmuring “Unforgettable”. At last: something that fitted the moment exactly. Albeit nothing to do with Her Majesty.


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