How Not to Cover a Royal Occasion: the wasted opportunity of the Thames Pageant

“The River Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, detail of St Paul’s Cathedral, c-1747-48” by Canaletto, said to be the inspiration for the Diamond Jubilee Thames River Pageant

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,

Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes….

Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene II

Shakespeare would have been familiar with the sight of Elizabeth I travelling past Southwark in her royal barge, and it’s likely he drew on those memories in writing this famous speech about a monarch in a more forgiving climate. It’s history like this that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I thought about the potential of the Siver Jubilee Thames Pageant.

There are few things that England remains renowned for in these days of fading glory. Pageantry, history, royalty, London, the BBC. The Pageant was the ideal opportunity to showcase all these to a hopefully envious worldwide audience. So did it deliver? The weather was unco-operative, which was predictable in a British summer. Gilded magnificence was replaced by shots of crowds in plastic macs braving torrential rain and a faintly ridiculous choir singing Land of Hope and Glory, clearly soaked and frozen. Yet there were still visual delights – the scale of the event, the perfect setting, the unashamed and slightly vulgar opulence of the royal barge and Kate Middleton’s stunning outfit – the Firm definitely did the right thing snapping her up.

But the biggest disappointment, I felt, was the shallowness of the television coverage. In their defence, the technical problems of covering such a huge event in filthy weather must be considerable, but their lamentable efforts don’t auger well for the Olympics. From the moment the BBC referred to the monarch as “HRH the Queen” the coverage was a catalogue of inanities and inexcusable errors. Occasionally, as when Anneka Rice was rendered mute by some truly awful paintings, this was hilarious. But most of the time it was inexcusable. If you’re covering an unpredictable, enormous event that could be running late and you know it could be pissing down, do your research! Every boat on the river had a story behind it, and very few were told. There were numerous opportunities for background features that would have vastly enriched the audience’s understanding as we travelled through seven miles incomparably rich in history and spectacle. Overseas viewers, who might have been attracted to all that London has to offer, even in the worst of weather, were left ignorant of the event’s historical background and significance. (And before you say that sounds boring, how many times did we hear the same lines about how happy the Queen looked?)

This would have mattered less if the commentators had had enough material to keep their coverage interesting, but this was manifestly not the case. They were left increasingly uncomfortable, frustrated and devoid of intelligent things to say. A few pre-recorded inserts would have relieved the pressure on them and made watching the spectacle a much richer experience. Instead we got the usual shallow celebrity-driven twaddle.

Never before have I switched to Sky for coverage of a milestone royal occasion, and I felt like a bit of a media whore doing it. They weren’t as dismally bad as the BBC, but even so it could all have been done so much better. Have we really lost our sense of national identity to such an extent? Is the TV industry so crammed with cynicism and inverted snobbery these days that they are in danger of throwing away the chance to showcase our country’s last remaining export? I’m no great flag-waving monarchist but it seems that the grass-roots enthusiasm for the Jubilee celebrations has not been matched by the commitment of broadcasters, or even the minimal standard of professionalism viewers are entitled to expect. American TV isn’t known for its intellectual sophistication but their coverage of Obama’s inauguration was done to a far higher standard. Patriotism isn’t always an embarrassment or a dirty word.

I hope that by now the Queen is having a much-deserved break somewhere warm and comfy with a hot toddy at her elbow. She deserved better. Her Tudor namesake would probably have ordered “Off with their head!” for less. She knew a thing or two about image management, and I suspect she could spot a fawning twat from the opposite bank of the Thames.

Official Pageant Website (don’t miss the delightful animation)

Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames: exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

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