Jubilee pageant master plans triumph on Thames

The vision is to “reclaim the Thames” by staging a spectacular not witnessed on its waters since Charles II introduced his Queen, Catherine of Braganza, with the most extravagant of pageants in 1662.

Note: This article is from the Guardian.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Queen’s diamond jubilee pageant master plans triumph on Thames” was written by Caroline Davies, for The Guardian on Sunday 13th May 2012 20.39 UTC

The vision is to “reclaim the Thames” by staging a spectacular not witnessed on its waters since Charles II introduced his Queen, Catherine of Braganza, with the most extravagant of pageants in 1662.

The reality, in recession-hit Britain, has been a scrabbling for cash to meet the £12m bill for the Thames diamond jubilee pageant, with many of the UK’s leading banks and companies failing to open their wallets.

But after two years of planning and fundraising, on 3 June London should see a “water triumph” that, according to the pageant master, Adrian Evans, will stand “shoulder to shoulder” with previous floating royal extravaganzas. “The last one of these was in 1662, and I doubt there will be another for 300 years,” Evans said.

Back then, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about “the most magnificent triumph that ever floated on the Thames, considering the innumerable boates and vessells dress’d and adorn’d with all imaginable pomp” and with “musiq and peals of ordance from both ye vessels and the shore”.

And when Evans, who organises the annual Thames festival, touted the idea almost three years ago at a mayoral brainstorming meeting as a fitting diamond jubilee tribute, he drew inspiration from an era when the river truly was London’s theatrical arena.

He hopes that, an absence of thick fog and high winds permitting, the 1,000-vessel flotilla – rowed shallops, tall ships, dragon boats, steamers, Dunkirk little ships, tugs, cruisers, kayaks, watermen’s cutters, oyster smacks, and, of course, the Queen’s barge – will create the biggest spectacle “London has ever delivered”. Around 2 million people are expected to line the river, and Evans knows “if you don’t deliver, it’s at your peril”. When pyrotechnic effects from fireworks on buoys did not work during the second Thames festival – “the turbulence of the water tore out delicate control wires” – the public was “so merciless with its vitriol”, it almost killed off future festivals.

On water, “almost anything can go wrong”, said Evans, and the Thames has its own laws. “It’s a treacherous, tearing, ripping, dangerous environment. It’s dynamic, 350 metres across, waters rising seven metres every six hours.” The Thames barrier will be closed, so the water should be calm, but Evans is haunted by a fear: “What if the barrier malfunctions?” There is a contingency plan. And with a full dress-rehearsal impractical, there are contingency plans upon contingency plans.

What if, say, the 60-metre, 12-tonne floating belfry, whose eight newly cast bells will quarter-peal continuously, to be echoed by churches across the UK, were to topple over? “That ain’t going to happen,” he said. “The worry with that is how loud it’s going to be. We want it really loud.”

The music from the nine musical barges – orchestras, choirs, bagpipes, drums, trumpets, and a specially arranged version of Handel’s Water Music (the original premiered on the Thames in 1717 before George I) – all has to be loud, said Evans. “There’s a real exhilaration of hearing loud things from the river.” He has always been adamant that it will be a “logo-free” spectacle. “This is not an event for a succession of people trying to force their brands down the public throat. This is about majesty, a sense of pride, a country coming together to celebrate.”

But the lack of branding has contributed to some financial headaches. Lord Salisbury, chairman of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Foundation, which has been charged with fundraising, has criticised City firms and leading UK companies for snubbing appeals for sponsorship, leaving overseas money and private donations to fill the void.

“It’s a great shame many British companies have not felt able to contribute to the pageant despite so many of them hosting corporate events on the river during the day,” he said in a statement. But what was not wanted was “a Tesco pageant“, which made fundraising an “uphill struggle”, the peer has admitted.

“Raising the money really was a lot, lot tougher than anyone would have imagined two years ago,” Evans said. “There is the economic climate, as well as competition with the Olympics with a lot of companies choosing to put their money there.”

Extra money has had to be spent on beefing up “yellow jacket” security after disruption of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race by a campaigner, Trenton Oldfield. “That has cost, and that’s a shame. That kind of selfishness bumps up the bills.”

Evans is overseeing the rehearsals of key components. Many of the sailors participating, who come from throughout the UK and Commonwealth, are unfamiliar with the Thames. One in five vessels are being designated as “leaders” for others to follow.

Led by the Gloriana, a hand-built 27-metre rowbarge covered in gold leaf and inspired by the City livery barges of the Lord Mayor’s river processions two centuries ago, the flotilla will take 90 minutes to pass any given point on its journey from Putney to Tower Bridge, travelling under 14 bridges.

The centrepiece will be the royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, a converted cruise boat with a red and gold colour scheme, which will transport the Queen, Prince Philip, and other senior royals. “It’s a motorised boat. I think if I’d tried to put the Queen in anything with oars, I would have been dropped off at the Tower, and stayed there,” Evans joked.

The pageant is “the most complex thing I’ve ever done, and I’m no stranger to challenging environments or thinking big,” he said. “The only time it will take place to its fullest extent is on the day.” Was he nervous? “No, exhilarated.”

It is a chance, said Evans, to reinvent the Thames as London’s “liquid asset”.

“We have more access to the river than Paris, New York, than any city in the world. What would be a great legacy, I think, would be if this great pageant did revitalise people’s passion for their river.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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