How hard is it to come up with a kick-ass celebration of great Britishness? It can’t be that hard, right? The facts speak for themselves. We’re generally acknowledged to have the most diverse range of crisp flavours in the Western world. We take an artisanal approach to swearing. We invented a yeast extract that simultaneously acts as a metaphor for societal division. We can make anything socially acceptable by adding the prefix ‘cheeky’ to it first.
Alas, none of these things appear to be included in next week’s Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant – which is being billed as “an awe-inspiring festival of creativity” that will “bring to life iconic moments from The Queen’s reign as well as showcasing our changing society over the past 70 years”. That job sits with a wealthy and quite unusually rogue 65-year-old Etonian who has previously dressed as an Arab sheikh and publicly declared to have a crush on Samantha Cameron. He’s the reason I’m a bit concerned about this whole pageant malarkey – and that’s even before you get to plans involving a flotilla of “Dames in Jags” and a bus carrying TV presenter Matthew Kelly dressed like it’s the 1960s.
Back in the early 20th century, Britain was in the grip of what’s been called “pageantitis”. Visual spectacles which embodied national pride and related the past to the present were all the rage. The most successful pageant master of the age was a man called Frank Lascelles: a writer, painter, sculptor and actor, who masterminded the Pageant of London, with 15,000 performers, in 1910, and the Pageant of Empire in 1924. Fast forward to 2012 and another team of accomplished creatives (director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Underworld’s Rick Smith) did the impossible with the Olympic Opening Ceremony: bursting British cynicism with a theatrical spectacle offering a narrative for national pride that went far beyond the standard and reductive “two World Wars and one World Cup”.
Now consider the Jubilee Pageant, whose co-chair is Nicholas Coleridge – the son of a former chair of Lloyds of London and descendant of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Nicholas has lived life in the upper echelons of society for decades, be it as an executive at magazine publisher Condé Nast since 1989, a chair of the British Fashion Council and the Victoria and Albert Museum or as a contributor to Tatler, Harpers & Queen and others.
All these perches in high places – plus his innate self-assuredness (he has been known to use his own initials to describe himself in anecdotes) – might make him seem like the perfect chap to render the Queen Elizabeth brand in pageant form. But I feel there’s a really big problem. Where the Queen is famously a model of discretion, Coleridge seems as discreet as Rebekah Vardy.
He admitted in a Financial Times interview in 2017 that Princess Diana’s death meant he got a better table at a fancy London restaurant, Le Caprice. In his Penguin-published memoir, he recalls Diana telling him (after the press had run topless photos of her) how a then 14-year-old Prince William complained that his schoolmates had teased him that (in Coleridge’s words) his mum’s “t*** are too small”. After offering his own opinion about her body shape, she reportedly said: “Thank you, Nicholas… I feel better now.”
To say he’s from a different age would be an understatement. He’s admitted dressing as an Arab sheikh in the Eighties as part of what he called his “stunt journalism” for the Evening Standard. More recently, he told leaving sixth-formers at an all-girls private school they should “marry someone nice”. His class-obsessed novels (of course he writes class-obsessed novels) feature characters such as Ross Clegg, a socialist frozen-food supermarket owner and his pasty wife Dawn. And as recently as 2019, he was casually admitting in Daily Mail articles to keeping notes on women “whom I found most and least alluring” at work events he was hosting. Apparently, Cheryl Cole was “tiny, not much small talk”, while Lara Stone was “definitely sexy” and Pippa Middleton was simply “gorgeous”.
Back to the Pageant. While we don’t know much about content yet, to add to the sense of unease is, well, what we do know about content. Some things sound like the stuff of a medium-sized country fair. We’re told there will be marching bands, BMX riders, circus acts, a giant oak tree with Maypole dancers. That great British band, Abba, will be represented with a bus featuring the cast of the musical Mamma Mia! There’s a suitably uninspired, box-ticking nod to “kids” and “activism” via a thing called the River of Hope, where schoolchildren will carry 200 flags featuring their hopes and aspirations for the next 70 years. I really wish all the young people involved the best and that they make their mark as vociferously as possible, because pretty much the rest of the Pageant is dedicated to old, rich celebrities, the calibre of which I can only describe as “batshit”.
According to reports in The Telegraph, a series of open-topped buses marking each decade of the Queen’s reign will be on parade, each teeming with celebrities apparently dressed in the fashions of the era. The Sixties bus will feature Holly Willoughby, Kate Garraway, Stars in your Eyes’ Matthew Kelly and Alan Titchmarsh (who I’m sure will look lovely in a Mary Quant mini skirt). On the Seventies bus will be Debbie McGee, Chris Tarrant, Noddy Holder, Dame Esther Rantzen and chef Rick Stein, and for the Eighties Daley Thompson, Gary Lineker, Torvill and Dean plus Eammon Holmes.
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Near the end of the pageant, seven “Dames in Jags” will drive along the route: Dame Joan Collins, Dame Arlene Phillips, Dame Floella Benjamin, Dame Darcey Bussell, Dame Prue Leith, Dame Twiggy and Dame Zandra Rhodes. It’s worth noting the slightly myopic range of Dames. It’s a shame that honoured British scientists such as Dame Jane Goodall or Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell weren’t able to take the wheel.
Other names so far confirmed include Anthea Turner, Jeremy Irons, Gloria Hunniford, Tony Blackburn, Chris Eubank, Bonnie Langford and Newsround presenter John Craven. No word yet on whether Vernon Kay, Wagner from The X Factor or the GoCompare opera singer will be there. It’s reported that organisers expect a global audience of a billion viewers. Taking away a potential 67 million Brits, we could have a situation where 933,000,000 people worldwide ask themselves: “Who is Alan Titchmarsh?” Possibly the only person there with an actual global presence in entertainment right now will be Ed Sheeran, who will sing the National Anthem. Anyone else worried this could be really, really embarrassing?
I am British. I thus approach these sorts of events with a weary cynicism and expectations lower than the bottom of the River Clyde. We all do it, every time. Organisers of the 2012 Opening Ceremony deliberately toyed with the doom-laden assumption of failure beforehand by having the audience walk in to see some random sheep wandering around and a few people casually playing cricket – knowing full well they had a parachuting monarch in their back pocket. I’m not sure I trust the team behind the Platinum Jubilee Pageant to be quite so cunning or clever, however.
A small story from last week exemplifies why. Brave and dogged LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell was asked to be one of the “national treasures” on show. He refused, in a public reply to Coleridge, stating that he was both a lifelong Republican and that: “To my knowledge, [the Queen] has never publicly acknowledged that LGBT+ people exist.” A quick search online would have made Tatchell’s stance on monarchy clear. Coleridge recently described the scene at Pageant HQ as “60 staff in headsets on perpetual Zoom calls”. But what are they doing? Getting Eamonn Holmes on a bus? Not googling Peter Tatchell?
I actually had some sympathy for Coleridge and his team when the Pageant was announced. I knew it would be hard to walk the slim tightrope between depicting “our changing society over the past 70 years” while not being accused of creating a woke monstrosity by the jackals of the right-wing press. But having seen the state of what’s been announced so far, I just think the outcome will be inevitable: they won’t nod to modern Britain at all. Why bother? As a 1946 poster explaining “a typical Royal Pageant” tells readers: “These spectacles, no matter what official occasion they celebrate, are impressive reminders of the existence and significance of British institutions.” With the likes of Coleridge – aka the perfect cringe choice to organise a pageant for an increasingly cringe country – permanently straddling these British institutions, I have little choice than to remain a very British cynic.