In an unexpectedly timely piece of scheduling, Westminster Abbey: Behind Closed Doors began on Channel 5. The series was commissioned and produced before the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The voiceover had been rerecorded to make reference to recent events, and the programme was dedicated to her. But it still felt a little strange to hear someone referring to the Commonwealth Day service in March as “about as big as events get in the Abbey.”
Still, there was nothing here in bad taste. It is one of those jolly series that Channel 5 turns out with regularity – Inside the Tower of London was another, and Kensington Palace: Behind Closed Doors – in which we meet the good-natured, hard-working people who keep the wheels turning. Here they included Mantas Nemcausakas and his team, whose job involves laying out 2,000 chairs for the Abbey’s grandest services. At the late Queen’s funeral, we saw the guests seated in the Abbey, but I doubt it occurred to many of us to think about the vital backroom staff who had made the seating arrangements.
Also featured: the vergers, whose jobs seem to entail a lot of washing and ironing, and the Clerk of the Works, whose greatest fear is that a bit of crumbling masonry will fall from a great height onto a passing tourist. Perhaps the luckiest staff member is the security beadle, who gets to survey London from the roof each morning when he raises the flag on the north-west tower. “I look around me and think how fortunate I am,” he said.
The theme running through this and similar series is how the ancient coexists with modern concerns. The Abbey lost millions in tourist income during the pandemic, at one point to the tune of £1 million per month. It now needs to get people through the door. Visitors can pay extra for a ‘Hidden Highlights’ tour, although on the evidence shown here, one of the highlights is visiting a VIP loo. “Benedict Cumberbatch has used it,” said the guide, to oohs and aahs from the party she was leading.
A conservator with the rather fitting name of Krista Blessley cleaned the Coronation Chair, which involves lightly flicking the dust off it with a goat-hair brush, in the direction of the vacuum cleaner. How extraordinary that the chair is covered in 18th- and 19th-century graffiti from Westminster schoolboys and passing visitors. “P Abbot slept in this chair 5-6 July 1800,” reads one scrawled message.