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Queen Mother 100: A Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving

Tuesday, July 11, 2000 by

Unlike most people’s birthdays this year – which will last no longer than 24 hours – the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday seems to be running for a period of several months; and although it’s still a number of weeks till the big day itself, this solemn yet glossy church service was officially the highpoint of the whole festivities.

The BBC dropped most of its normal daytime morning schedule to broadcast it as a live simulcast with Radio 4, promoting it as the centrepiece of their “Queen Mother 100″ season – a title that sounds more like a chain store brand than a celebration of the royal great-grandmother’s life. Whatever, the Corporation appears to be trying to make up for its wise refusal to screen the Daily Mail endorsed birthday parade through London by going ahead and scheduling a raft of Queen Mum stuff anyway.

This morning’s jamboree was hosted by an old BBC double-act – Sue Lawley and Nicholas Witchell. Sue was holed up in a tiny Portakabin dumped on St. Paul’s Cathedral steps, while Nick was off-camera adding a few token voice-overs. But given that the actual service was barely 30 minutes long, the 90 minutes plus coverage felt ridiculously excessive, and there were plenty of prime examples of padding. Sue filled endless minutes waiting for the last of the aristocratic congregation to shut up and sit down by chatting inanely with one of the Queen Mother’s great nieces about Vera Lynn singalongs around the piano; then she roped in crusty old Lord Bill Deedes to bang on about how important the Queen Mother’s Scottish heritage was. “The Scots keep their bones so well,” he drawled, before concluding that to live to the age of 100 it is necessary to always have a good lunch. There were even some inevitable vox pops from Ordinary People, all of whom were strangely unanimous in testifying to the merits of the Queen Mother.

Lots of shots of celebrities were promised but never materialised, while the only real famous person inside St. Paul’s appeared to be Trevor McDonald. In fact there also seemed to be an amusingly large number of empty seats, and that the congregation had been ordered to sit bunched up at the front to make it look like there were more people than there really were. Finally, the grand entrance procession into St. Paul’s began – only to be somewhat undermined by the discovery that the Queen Mother had actually been seated inside the cathedral all the time, and then all she did was merely stand up, shuffle a few feet down the centre aisle, then sit down again.

Jennie Bond boomed her way through the service, announcing each item the second the exact same information appeared on screen. She claimed to not only know what the nation thinks (“The country remembers …”) but also the monarch (“The Queen thinks …”), her eldest son (“Prince Charles knows that …”) and the Queen Mum herself (“As she knows only too well …”)

Ironically, most of the shots of the Queen Mother were framed by a mural hanging from a pillar featuring the phrase “The meek will inherit the earth.” Coverage of the service relied on the usual clich├ęs and devices: lingering close-ups on untitled pieces of sacred-looking architecture during the slow, turgid hymns, coupled shots of row upon row of congregation uncomfortably mouthing the words, glancing at the camera while self-consciously straightening their extravagant hats and morning suits.

The choir then sang a number of squeaky pieces and fidgeted during the Bible readings. A call-and-response style psalm contained the mysterious line “The Lord shall praise thy going out and thy coming in.” The Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a sermon in which he kept referring to “Buckenum Palace” and the Queen Mother’s face. This bit was really the only relevant, specific part of the service; everything else seemed part and parcel of your average everyday church worship, down to the prayers and choral anthem. The whole thing was over very quickly and ended with the National Anthem (the Queen Mother singing while her daughter looked extremely pissed off) before another hobble down the aisle and painfully slow fumble down a few stone steps.

Afterwards, Sue and Sir Bill were in raptures, gushing about how marvellous the whole thing was; but in reality, for all the pomp and ceremony the coverage seemed to be a lot of fuss about very little at all – the build-up and aftermath were longer than the service itself.

Sue informed us we were privileged in that the Beeb had been allowed to take more shots of the Queen Mother than normally permitted – though this still didn’t feel to be very much, and overall there were more shots of St. Paul’s than its occupants. So in the end the most you were left with was an impression of how this ancient, historic, dusty crumbling edifice, which had somehow managed to survive two world wars, was actually looking even more creaky and worn than usual; and the Cathedral didn’t look that great either.

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