For the past two years, Bruno Peek, official pageant master of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee beacons, has been working quietly out of his small office in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, setting the stage for the world’s biggest simulcast bonfire. The lighting ceremony (consisting of more than 2,000 beacons to be lit across the U.K. and the Commonwealth, including Canada) will occur on June 4, the penultimate night of jubilee weekend festivities—a grand finale to the concert at Buckingham Palace. At the Golden Jubilee 10 years ago, Peek served as torch-master, passing Her Majesty the fiery torch to light the national beacon, and he will be doing the same this year. There’s much more to it than simply passing the Queen a giant matchstick, but Peek says he can’t reveal all the plans. For the past several weeks he’s been attending closed meetings with palace staff at the Tower of London to discuss details (some of which involve the unveiling of the jubilee crystal diamond, which will be on display at the tower from May 1). “It’s tricky,” he says. “I can’t really talk about it, but there will be lots of elaborate ceremony and ritual. All the different elements are finally coming together. It’s starting to become real, and the adrenalin is starting to pump. This is when you have to concentrate, because people get excited and things can slip.”
Peek takes his job as royal torch-passer extremely seriously, and he is not alone. The planning that goes into an event like the jubilee is mind-boggling. The staffing, attention to detail, adherence to ritual and logistics of such an occasion—in particular, the series of events occurring on and around the four-day celebratory weekend in June—make last year’s royal wedding look like a casual picnic in the park by contrast. But unlike that event, which the royal household controlled completely, the Diamond Jubilee allows the palace to take a backstage role to private citizens and companies who are the real driving force behind the celebration.
“Unlike the Olympics, which has a working charter, the Diamond Jubilee has no strict blueprint,” says Robert Hardman, the Daily Mail’s royal correspondent and author of Our Queen. “It takes place over the entire year and comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s unclear exactly when it starts and when it ends, and the palace ends up being almost a liaison in the process. The celebration itself is very organic. It’s the public paying tribute, really.”
Earlier this spring, the Queen and Prince Philip started a gruelling jubilee tour of the U.K. with 50-plus stops that stretch from Sunderland to Salisbury. At the same time, foreign royal visits are being undertaken by other members of her family, including Charles and Camilla, who will visit Canada in late May.
But the real planning is in the grand parade of marquee events stretching from May through to the main holiday weekend in early June. The first major spectacle will be the Diamond Jubilee pageant at Windsor Castle in mid-May. This four-night performance features equestrian performances as well as singers and dancers from around the world.
The show, which involves more than 550 horses and 1,000 performers, is on the same scale as the Olympics opening ceremony, only much posher. In addition to the Queen’s own horses and ponies, which will be brought down from Balmoral, there will be performances by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (they’ll be flying over horses and officers to perform their famous Musical Ride) and mounted troops from Italy, Oman, Russia, India and Australia. And just in case you were worried that Canada wasn’t sufficiently represented, an Inuit group will perform throat singing and recreate a polar-bear hunt.
Jo Peck, the director of the Windsor pageant, is not a palace staffer but an executive at HPower, a London-based event-planning group. Most of the high-level jubilee organization is conducted by private companies and funded by corporate sponsors rather than the palace or the government. Peck’s company also organized all the equestrian events for the Golden Jubilee, and so when the time came to start planning (about 2? years ago), the company submitted a proposal, which was accepted. Since then, she says, there has been minimal interference from the royal staff. “It’s a not-for-profit event and no taxpayer money is used,” she adds. “Nearly all the displays are coming over under their own cost, including Canada’s.”
According to Peck, while the royal staff are known for their attention to detail, when it comes to an event like this one they tend to leave most of the planning to the experts. “We tell them what we’d like to do, and once we’ve proposed it they tweak, but they don’t really interfere.” Peck’s company has a staff of 12, but it has hired up to 40 outside consultants and contractors to help with the show, which will take place on the grounds of Windsor Castle and will be attended by the Queen and the royal family on Sunday, May 13. Later that month, Windsor Castle will also play host to a grand-scale military parade featuring a flypast of current and historic military aircraft put on for military personnel.
On the grassroots end of the spectrum is the “Big Jubilee Lunch”—essentially an enormous street party that will take place on Sunday, June 3, in neighbourhoods across the U.K. Peter Stewart, who has been organizing the Big Lunch weekend for the past four years, says linking this annual event with the Diamond Jubilee dovetailed nicely with Britain’s tradition of street parties to celebrate royal anniversaries. Moreover, he adds, it’s an excellent way for people to get out and meet the neighbours. “The idea was, what sort of positive change could we effect if we could stop the country for four hours and get everyone to sit down and break bread with their neighbours? It’s not proscriptive, it’s for people to do in whatever way they like.”
Stewart’s organization, which is also funded by corporate sponsors, provides a package for friendly neighbours wanting to organize a Big Lunch of their own. While two million people participated last year, this year there have been eight times as many requests for planning packs. “If we could get 10 per cent of the population—that’s six million people—participating, that would be just great,” he enthuses. The Big Lunch is also happy to provide packages to the Commonwealth countries (so far they’ve had a handful of international package requests, including a few from Canada), and the event is, he stresses, open to anyone. “Even if you’re not inclined toward royalty, this is a great event. It’s really about celebrating the commonality of people.”
While neighbours are munching on cress sandwiches and toasting with Pimm’s, nearly 1,000 boats from the U.K. and the Commonwealth will escort the Queen’s royal barge down the Thames River from Battersea to Tower Bridge as part of a water-borne pageant. Unlike most of the jubilee events, the enormous flotilla has no recent historical precedent—the organizers at Pagefield, the independent communications consultancy group in charge of the project, took their visual inspiration from a Canaletto painting dating from the reign of George II.
Pageant master Adrian Evans has long been obsessed with the Thames River and what it means to the history of London. Three years ago, his company proposed the idea of a great river procession, like the “water tributes” in honour of the monarchy centuries ago. The idea received “a rousing reception” from the Queen herself, which Evans describes as “a moment of deep pride.” Since then he has been organizing the floating extravaganza, which will consist of boats ranging from traditional shallops, cutters, riverboats and tiny tugs to one of the launches for the royal yacht Britannia (decommissioned but on public display in Leith, Scotland) floating down the river in what Evans describes as “a piece of theatre on water.” He and his staff of more than a dozen have been working full-time on the logistics of bridge and road closures as well as the challenges of water. “It’s not the same as doing a pageant on a road; it’s a moving environment,” he says. “There are treacherous eddies, currents and tides to think about. We’re working in five dimensions rather than the normal three.”
Later that evening, following a birthday serenade at the jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace (with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Annie Lennox and the inimitable Cliff Richard in the lineup), the Queen will light the national beacon—a giant bonfire once used as a military alert and now a ceremonial tradition.
While togetherness is certainly what the jubilee is about, Peek also wants to stress its more specific purpose: honouring the Queen herself. “This is about showing love and respect to a young woman who gave herself to duty and has never wavered since,” he says. “We won’t see another Diamond Jubilee in several lifetimes. You can do your math on that.”