The Queen’s Golden Jubilee

Tuesday, June 4, 2002 by

Cocooned snugly in his Jubilee pod high above The Mall, David Dimbleby beamed a careful mixture of imperial indifference and stern-lipped authority. He was going to have a good time over the next 36 hours, and therefore so should we. But determined to decorate the festivities with reams of verbal garlands and bows, David’s undisguised relish at being challenged to stitch together a commentary that was to last for almost two days non-stop quickly became his own worst enemy. “Today’s the day the Jubilee’s having a party,” he announced rather confusingly, seconds after coming on air. A title sequence followed that matched David’s demeanour perfectly, in being at the same time both pointedly noble and uncomfortably avuncular. A clumsy combination of classical and rock, blessed with no discernible tune, accompanied various clips of the Queen applauding edited together to make it look like she was clapping in time to the music. “She has already opened a library,” David imparted breathlessly, “and rededicated a bridge!” We were off.

First up, some music. David set about explaining the history of popular song. “I dunno whether the Queen likes pop music,” he aimlessly wondered out loud, the first of many such gambits concerned with picking the mind of her majesty. “Bill Haley and his Comets – remember them?” he jibed, cueing in a viciously edited montage titled The Queen’s Rock’n'Roll Years. Footage of sporting heroes was accompanied by the useful caption “More sporting heroes”. A brave clip of The Sex Pistols was followed by a shot of Margaret Thatcher talking on a giant portable phone, and Michael Fish warning of a hurricane to the strains of Ghost Town. Later Windsor Castle burned to the tune of Parklife. Entire decades blurred into a whirling confection of random sights and sounds, resolving on the caption “September The 11th”, something of an all-time low in grammatically sane on-screen titles.

No time to dwell on this, though, as David had been joined by George Martin and Phil Ramone, twin organisers of the evening’s giant pop and rock concert. “Are you trying to show the whole 50 years of popular music?” David began. “No,” snapped George, “you can’t do that.” In fact none of them could decide upon a single definition of what said concert was actually about, partly because David kept interrupting, and partly because George was keen to let us know about “Cliff’s moves – fantastic.”

Cameras took us to Slough, where Philippa Forester had been assigned the task of introducing BBC Music Live: All You Need is Love. The pictures showed a drab town centre hiding behind stacks of grey cloud. Unlike David, who didn’t know what the Queen liked, Philippa not only knew what she liked, but what she thought as well. “The Queen doesn’t seem to be worried,” she revealed, and earnestly explained the means by which the monarch was to kick start this singalong – “it’s a very special metronome,” she emphasised, mysteriously. As the moment of truth approached, Philippa’s voice dropped to an almost inaudible whisper, as if afraid of disturbing the Queen’s concentration 100 metres away.

It started to rain. “Sadly it’s just started to rain,” Philippa noted. You could sense the adrenaline surging. Within a flash she was claiming to speak on behalf of “everyone in Slough”. As a giant egg appeared in the town square, the Queen took her seat. “Now the Queen is taking her seat,” Philippa continued. To the sound of a self-consciously “modern” school hymn, the egg began to hatch, and a huge representation of the cosmos emerged. We stayed with this surreal pageant for what felt like an age, with Philippa’s tottering scaffold of a voice-over rendering the song (thankfully) inaudible, but also draining the occasion of any significance.

Once the Queen ventured forth and tentatively prodded the special metronome into action, a tribal beat stirred. Then followed something only the Beeb can do, and only the Beeb can render such a spectacular mix of the ambitious and the amateurish. We went on a lightning journey round the country to a dozen venues where defiant-looking clumps of people had banded together for a chorus or two of the titular Beatles classic. They were supposed to “pass” the song, baton-like, around the regions, but were cursed by bad timing (the BBC’s fault) and a singular lack of an appreciation of pitch or rhythm (their fault). Rattling round the nation viewers saw Leeds drift slowly out of focus, and the sound of Birmingham accompany the sights of Plymouth Hoe. Back in the pod George Martin was overwhelmed. “All you need is bagpipes,” he spluttered. “It’s the most anthemic song of the last 50 years,” stated Phil Ramone. “Anthemic – anthem like?” qualified David, busy rifling through his mental dictionary, before venturing, “but do you believe it?” “Of course he does,” said Phil of George. “If we had a bit more of it,” added George himself, “we’d have a lot less trouble.” Hard to argue with that.

Later Jamie Theakston in a powdered suit flirted with an emotional Shirley Bassey. What did the Jubilee mean to her? “Well, it’s certainly not going to come round again – 50 years is a long time,” she deduced, before escorting Jamie “off to the tower”. Sir Cliff materialised. “I bashed into Paul when we were crossing one of the corridors,” he mumbled unprompted. “I didn’t actually see Rod, but I know he’s here.” Suitably reassured, Jamie positioned a rakish polythene hairnet at a jaunty angle atop his head and the heavens opened.

Celebrities continued to snarl up the coverage with incoherent tautological outbursts. Phil Collins bustled up to David to counter charges of there being too many “primadonnas” involved. “People arrive late because of traffic,” he carefully explained, “and people arrive late because, well, they don’t want to arrive early.” David seemed relieved to hand over to Birmingham for the Blue Peter Jubilee Party. Further technical problems including repeated loss of sound, plus a multitude of rain-smeared cameras, somewhat undermined the impact of this otherwise impressive carnival, though nothing could diminish the enthusiasm of Matt Baker, who was on top form. “A very big ‘how are you doing’ to Cardiff – in Wales!” he yelled, before adding, “It is raining here in Birmingham – but the Queen’s been reigning for 50 years!” Action switched between live musical acts and pre-filmed inserts of the team diligently “answering” 50 viewers’ queries about the monarch. It was a textbook line-up, typified by Matt trailing “Gareth Gates with a world exclusive, and Liz with some competition winners!” Shame about the unimaginative and unwelcome contributions of Saturday Show puppets Tiny and Mr Duk, though.

Ahead of the evening’s Party at the Palace came a brief but, in its own trivial way, memorable moment, when we went back to the pod and David personally introduced EastEnders. Brilliantly, we first saw it beginning on the Beeb’s giant screens in The Mall, before our picture faded to the episode proper. Dipping in and out of the ensuing musical cavalcade, it was obvious one hell of a significant event was going on and the million or so folk gathered in Central London weren’t there by chance or out taking the air. Impeccably staged by the BBC, the highlight for this reviewer was Paul McCartney’s solo rendition of Blackbird – an event worth tuning in for whatever the context. David appeared not a little overwhelmed as the night drew to a close, stumbling for either relevant or irrelevant words to describe the epic, climatic fireworks display.

Clocking on again at 9.25am the following morning, he’d recovered enough to continue his pluckish offensive on common sense and sensibility. Ahead was a virtual rerun of the events of the Silver Jubilee, including a church service, lunch at the Guildhall, and the “curious little ceremony” of the Touching of the Sword. Quite properly, BBC reporters had been sprinkled across the streets of London to dispatch colourful, emphatic accounts “from the ground”. Huw Edwards found himself as St Paul’s, where “the scene is set – more than set.” He detected “A sense of thanksgiving – of giving thanks.” It was a nice surprise to find Philippa Forrester back again, this time stationed on Northumberland Avenue – “One of the pink ones on the Monopoly board,” she giggled. A rather scruffy looking Wesley Kerr then sniffed his was a location “far too grand to be on any Monopoly board.” He was at Horseguards Parade. “With me,” he continued, “an amazing cavalcade.” It was Alan Titchmarsh. “We are bothered,” Alan raged, lapsing into a decidedly-regal third person. “We love it. You don’t have to be hugely right-wing.” Alan’s political insights were interrupted by Wesley talking about how he was going to be appearing on a float during the afternoon parade. So was Alan, it seemed – “I think I’m a cultivational icon,” was his tortuous explanation.

Trapped in his pod, David had to contend with “a load of old tat.” He looked at some Jubilee souvenir mugs and plates with Lars Harp from Antiques Roadshow. Trouble was, each object David proffered at Lars was dismissed for being, variously, “mass-produced”, “limited edition”, “too silly” or “not amusing”. Suitably humbled, all David had left to offer was an old tin tray left over from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. “It’s rather battered I’m afraid – from being in my garden shed.” A further exposition on why David had thought it fit to store precious heirlooms amongst piles of rakes and compost was unforthcoming, as Huw wanted us to see the Touching of the Sword. He’d also spotted some famous people going into St Paul’s. “I think that’s Lord Callaghan,” speculated David. “There’s Lord Callaghan,” countered Huw one minute later.

Later still a giant procession of several hours duration unspooled along the arteries of London. David reminded us of how lucky we were. “Look at that crowd down there – they can’t see a thing!” The “100 cameras” covering the occasion undoubtedly gave an appreciation of scale, but at times one that drifted almost into a rather sophomoric wash of images and sentiments it was difficult to unpick. Philippa surfaced occasionally, equipped with comical oversized microphone and headphones, accosting the marchers for a few seconds before vanishing. Despite a constant stream of guests and experts in his pod, David seemed rather disorientated during sections of the parade, disappearing off mike for long periods while calypso music thundered and a vast procession of dancers, floats and costumes crept by below.

Indeed, as the afternoon continued you lost track of how many times we’d been up and down The Mall, with or without the royals in tow. A particularly wearisome hour was spent in the company of Wayne Hemingway who’d been enlisted to “commentate” on a parade of floats representing each decade from the 1950s to present, but who ended up simply listing all the random cultural artefacts he could spot in as smug manner as possible. David commiserated if we felt that the march past, headed rather incongruously by some AA vans, “could go on forever and a day.” He was even prompted to start reflecting, somewhat wistfully, on his own career. “There’s St John Ambulance,” he observed, “not St John’s Ambulance, as they’re often wrongly called. If you say St John’s Ambulance you get 500 letters.”

Inevitably the coverage overran as we stayed at Buckingham Palace for multiple balcony appearances and a million fluttering flags. “We started this morning watching a duck and a little row of ducklings crossing the Mall – and we ended this evening watching the same thing,” sighed David, though in fact it was nothing of the sort, and what we actually watched was a fly past by Concorde and the Red Arrows. By now, though, both his eyes were on the clock and his mind somewhere amongst battered tin trays, Bill Haley and giant eggs. A truly mammoth televisual operation was at its end. A suitable summing up was needed. David grasped at a few random phrases – “… obvious she’s still held…” “… affection and respect…” It was too late. But you knew he knew there’d never be anything on telly like it again.


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