‘So, as the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines passes the Queen Victoria Memorial, the Daleks and the 90 mods and rockers will be approaching Admiralty Arch. Which means Dame Joan Collins and the other dames in convertibles will be followed by the rockabillies and cyberdolls sequence…”
With just a month to go until the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, excitement and scheduling is at fever pitch at Pageant HQ. The Jubilee Pageant is, numerically at least, the largest and most ambitious of the half-dozen set piece events celebrating Her Majesty’s 70-year reign, and the one with the highest prospect of things going drastically wrong.
For a start, there are 10,000 people involved, performers from every part of the country and Commonwealth – military and creatives, dancers and supermodels – all converging on the route leading to Buckingham Palace on Sunday, June 5. And, furthermore, the schedule allows for no dress rehearsal, despite being watched by an estimated one billion viewers around the world, and most of the Royal family.
What is a Jubilee Pageant? This royal pageant will be only the eighth in history – the first was put on for George III in 1809, then two for Queen Victoria – her Golden and Diamond – a Silver Jubilee for George V, and four for the present Queen: Silver, Golden, Diamond and now the Platinum. No monarch has ever earned a Platinum pageant before, since none has ruled for so long. It is a unique event.
Pageant is really a swanky term for procession, but with historical associations and elaborate costumes, held outdoors. Queen Victoria’s pageants were almost entirely military, with regiments from across the empire marching to salute the queen-empress.
Our pageant, in these more sensitive times, has a host of objectives: applauding the Queen, telling the story of her reign in a changing world, celebrating multicultural Britain in the aftermath of Covid, boosting the creative industries, raising national morale … the list goes on.
I was appointed co-chair along with Sir Michael Lockett, which felt like a definite honour but also a Herculean task, since there was barely a year until the event, which is a crazily short time for something this big. Michael is a veteran of previous jubilees, and soon a tiny core team of alumni from the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics’ opening ceremony was in station: Rosanna Machado, Adrian Evans and David Zolkwer. A feature of these great national events is that the funds are raised from generous individuals and companies, not paid for by the public purse, so I worked with a superb development expert, Phoebe Reith, on raising the dough at top speed. Looking around the pageant offices today, with at least 60 staff in headsets on perpetual Zoom calls, and scores more arriving every week, it is hard to recall those early months, conceiving plans.
Right from the off, we set about devising a particular cocktail: two parts pomp and ceremony, three parts history, two parts modernity and the future, and one part each of National Treasures, creative celebration and razzmatazz. It had to be fun, authentic, witty and life-enhancing. The children’s author Sir Michael Morpurgo was drafted in to help devise the royal weave of the narrative.
We have three sets of bosses at the Jubilee, all engaged, all with slightly different priorities. These are secretaries of state and ministers at the Department of Culture, keen to push creativity and the Union, always anxious that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are properly represented (they are); there are liaison and logistics courtiers at Buckingham Palace, representing the Queen’s private secretary Sir Edward Young; and then there’s the Cabinet Office and Downing Street, champions of levelling up, red walls and sustainability. Meanwhile, the excellent Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work to their own agendas of high commissioners, the stabling of overseas horses and the billeting of two thousand ceremonial troops.
While Adrian and David toured the nation from Plymouth to Cardiff, Wolverhampton to Glasgow, scouting for pageant talent, and Rosanna worked on the route, giant screens, stands, scaffolding, cashflow and everything else important, the search was on for National Treasures and philanthropists.
It is interesting raising funds for an event honouring the Queen; almost everyone will see you, and one in four people contributed after 230 pitches. Sometimes we did four pitches per day to rich individuals – breakfast, elevenses, lunch and drinks. There was a Groundhog Day vibe about it: greeted by a butler, ushered into a glorious drawing room, our well-polished spiel, plaudits to Her Majesty, and then the moment of truth. “Can I ask, who else is giving, and how much is normal?”
Me: “You will understand we can’t name names at this point, but you would be in very good company. I suspect you know at least a dozen who’ve kindly said yes so far. As for the amount, our most generous donors have given seven figures, others a fraction of that sum … but I can assure you that any donation at all would be very gratefully received, it really would. It all helps tremendously.”
Being British, I find it intensely embarrassing raising money, but it is surprising how much easier it becomes with practice. One night, I began muttering in my sleep, pitching the Jubilee Pageant to my wife. “I can assure you that any donation at all … etc.”
With commercial corporations, it was different, and took longer, with dozens of salient questions to field. Company chairmen responded well to the thought that HM has been executive chairman of the UK and Commonwealth for seven decades. “Seventy years,” they would muse. “She is living proof that a good chair can go on and on, whatever governance guidance suggests.”
When Burberry, JCB, Marks & Spencer and Lloyds Bank came through, along with Jaguar Land Rover, Charlotte Tilbury, Moët and Goldman Sachs, we knew the colossal task of raising £13 million in five months was gathering pace.
Meanwhile, helpful advice was pouring in from all sides, from past pageant chairs and directors who’d organised the Silver and Golden events. One said, “It’s vital it’s inclusive and diverse and reflects modern Britain; disastrous if not.”
Another opined, “Whatever else you do, don’t let it go all woke!”
The distinguished chair of the Silver Jubilee said, “I have only three words to say to you: toilets, toilets, toilets. There are never enough. I told the Secretary of State that this morning.”
Another said, “Most important to have regular meetings with the Queen’s private secretary, otherwise everything gets lost in translation and second-guessing.”
Lord Salisbury, who chaired the Queen’s Diamond river pageant, rang to say, with great cheer, “I hear you’ve accepted the poisoned chalice. Good luck!” There is a myth that all jubilees consume their organisers, but it isn’t exactly true. Exhaust, yes; consume, no.
Another volunteered, “The MoD is marvellous when it gets going, but needs cuddling.”
On the National Treasures desk, the list of potential faces to march in the pageant grew longer. We needed 200 of them, all recognisable, all beloved, from the pinnacle of high culture to mass TV ones. Olympian and Paralympian sporting heroes, celebrity chefs, fashion designers, actors and actresses, dames, rock stars, artists, disc jockeys … it was fascinating how these faces endure in our memories, sometimes 50 or more years later. From Ed Sheeran to Jilly Cooper, Sir Cliff Richard to Nandi Bushell, Sir Tim Berners Lee to Gary Lineker, Kate Moss to Heston Blumenthal, Naomi Campbell, Jeanette Winterson and Dame Vivienne Westwood, they define different eras. And yet the most enduringly recognisable face of all, by a long distance, is that of the Queen, who exists in a universe above the swerves of fashion and celebrity. How the National Treasures were chosen was by a complex alchemy – long lists, shortlists, vetos, incredulity, heated debate. Everyone had a view, not always the same view. But when the final list was compiled and the NTs invited, almost all said yes, generally by return.
Preparing the section on the decades – the Times of our Lives – you realise the United Kingdom is almost unrecognisable today from the country we were when HM inherited the throne. Cars, double-decker buses, motorcycles, police officers, everything looks different, and 500 examples of every iteration appear in the pageant from James Bond E-type Jags to Sinclair C5s.
Then there are the social tribes, the dozens of different subcultures which erupted at different moments during the Queen’s reign: roller-disco, glam rockers, space hoppers, Northern soulies, hippies, breakdancers, acid ravers, climate activists, Brit pop and girl power, garage and bhangra, emo, grime and e-boys; we have them all. It probably couldn’t be said that many of those looks made much impact on the dress sense of HM’s children and grandchildren, but they provide a glorious reprise of the second Elizabethan age.
There will be giant sculptures of dragons and the heraldic beast of the United Kingdom hauled down the Mall, a giant moving oak tree, and a towering wire effigy of the Queen, her purple and white Coronation robes formed by 80 dancers. There are sequences celebrating HM’s commitment to faith and nature, her horses and corgis.
And then there is the music, from Abba to the Beatles, Bowie to bhangra: all revenant in the pageant, along with gospel choirs, military bands from half a dozen regiments, 100-person steel bands, and singers of great renown playing at the finale before the National Anthem. There are at least three more surprises, not yet revealed, and to betray them in advance would mean a spell in the Tower.
At Mission Control, Team Pageant works with an animatic – the cleverest piece of digital kit – which enables you to plot the progress of each element in the two-mile-long parade, and the precise timing of every moving part. As the Royal Welsh Regiment and the Queen’s Colour Squadron reaches a precise point on the road, the Abba tribute section rolls into action three quarters of a mile away (singing Dancing Queen, of course) and the horse droppings pooper-scoopers, following the mounted detachments, set about their task. It makes you marvel at the ingenuity and precision of one’s Victorian predecessors, without the benefit of an animatic.
How best to watch the pageant? If past Jubilees are a guide, vast crowds will line the Mall and the rest of the route 10-deep, and spill into the surrounding parks. The BBC is broadcasting the whole thing for the world, and we are receiving reports from across the country of giant TV screens being carried onto village greens and into back gardens for Jubilee Pageant lunches. And, for those who prefer it this way, Meta Facebook, Bloomberg and TikTok are providing coverage in real time. I will be watching proceedings from the heart of the stands, hoping and praying.
Will it all come off on the day? The concept of sleepless nights was specifically invented for national occasions like this one. Will more than a hundred different groups of performers be capable of following each other, in the right order, without getting lost, when several of them have never visited London before in their lives?
Who knows? Anyone who has ever driven in a convoy of six or more cars to an English country pub will surely have concerns. But I think I can confidently predict one thing: the world will declare, “That was all so wonderfully, eccentrically British.”
Nicholas Coleridge CBE is co-chair of the Platinum Jubilee Pageant and chair of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Other jubilee events around the UK
The official Platinum Jubilee website lists every event taking place to celebrate the occasion (platinumjubilee.gov.uk/events), including nationwide beacon lightings on June 2. More than 2,000 events are listed – Jack Rear suggests some highlights
Afternoon Tea Aboard The Royal Yacht Britannia
(May 30-June 3) Ocean Drive, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 6JJ
Britannia served the Royal family from 1954 to 1997. For the Jubilee, 65 former crew members have been invited back to offer a special tour of the ship, and visitors can also enjoy afternoon teas and musical entertainment. royalyachtbritannia.co.uk/visit/platinum-jubilee-2022
Black Watch Castle & Museum Jubilee Festivities
(June 2-5) Balhousie Castle, Hay Street, Perth, PH1 5HR
The Jubilee celebrations at Black Watch Castle commence in style with a luxurious dinner on June 2, followed by a street party the next day featuring 1950s food, bunting, family crafts and traditional street games. On June 4-5, bring a picnic blanket and you can claim a food box to enjoy in the castle grounds. theblackwatch.co.uk/platinum-jubilee-at-the-castle
Cardiff Castle Jubilee Concert
(June 4) Cardiff Castle, Castle Street, Cardiff, CF10 3RB
Enjoy an outdoor performance from great Welsh talents including Aled Jones, Bonnie Tyler, the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir – and “drumming weatherman” Owain Wyn Evans. The concert will conclude with a “Singing in the Reign” programme celebrating Welsh hits from the past 70 years. liveunderthestars.wales/event/cardiff-castle-jubilee-celebration-concert
Platinum Jubilee Exhibition in Northern Ireland
(May 24-August 31) Coleraine Town Hall, 35 The Diamond, Coleraine, Londonderry, BT52 1DP
This new exhibition recalls all of the Queen’s visits to the province over the course of her reign – as well as her historic 2011 visit to Dublin – and focuses on the people who met her during her visits. causewaycoastandglens.gov.uk/see-do/celebrating-hm-the-queens-platinum-jubilee
Jubilee Flower Show in Manchester
(2-5 June) Manchester City Centre, Greater Manchester, M1
Experience an urban take on a traditional flower show, with a garden trail in the heart of Manchester. The horticultural route around the city features royal-themed displays, floral phone-boxes, pop-up gardens and green transformations.
Humber Estuary Platinum Flotilla
(June 2) Saint Andrew’s Quay, Hull, East Yorkshire, HU3 4SA
A flotilla of 70 vessels, comprising sloops, trawlers, tugs, patrol boats and more, will sail from Hull Marina to the Humber Bridge, ahead of the lighting of the Hessle beacon as buglers and pipers play. Visitors can watch from viewing points including Victoria Pier and Saint Andrew’s Quay in Hull, and Waters’ Edge Country Park in Barton-upon-Humber. humberjubilee.co.uk
Bradford Great Jubilee Tea Party
(June 2) City Park, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD1 1HY
International food producers will share their wares accompanied by music and entertainment at this celebration, which will also offer hungry attendees “the biggest cake stall in the North”. facebook.com/events/1681619408842748
Sandringham Platinum Jubilee party
(June 2-4) Sandringham Estate, Sandringham, Norfolk, PE35 6EN
The Queen’s much-loved Norfolk home is open to the public throughout the bank holiday. An outdoor performance from Katherine Jenkins and the Military Wives takes place on June 3, while on June 4 there’s a motoring pageant, aerial displays, live music, and an antiques market. That evening, the Platinum Party at the Palace concert at Buckingham Palace will be broadcast live onto a big screen in the Royal Parkland. sandringham estate.co.uk/platinum-jubilee
The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee at the Imperial War Museum Duxford
(May 27-January 8) Duxford Airfield, Building 425, Cambridge, CB22 4QR
To celebrate the Queen’s experience of war throughout her reign – in 1945 she became the first woman in the Royal family to enlist as a full-time member of the armed services – IWM Duxford explores the crown’s role in conflict. The IWM North in Salford will have its own exhibition on the subject. iwm.org.uk/events/queens-platinum-jubilee-iwm-duxford
The big jubilee picnic in Bath
(June 2-5) Bath City Centre, Bath, Somerset, BA1.
The city will illuminate its historic buildings from 9.30pm on June 2, followed by a weekend of music in public spaces. Parade Gardens bandstand will host live music throughout the day – visitors are encouraged to bring a picnic – while there will be performances in Bond Street and Kingsmead Square, too. facebook.com/bathnesparks
The Big Jubilee Lunch on College Green, Bristol
(June 5) College Green, Bristol, BS1 5TJ.
An all-day free jubilee event featuring food, fun and live music from Bristolian favourites Lady Nade, Phil King, Freddie Lewis and the City of Bristol Brass Band. bristol-cathedral.co.uk/whats-on/jubilee