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  • Nothing half so much worth doing…

    as simply messing about in boats. Grahame's maxim was put to the test by thousands of boaters during the Queen's astonishing jubilee pageant, which marked the beginning of a fabulous long weekend of 60th anniversary celebrations.


    With minutely organised precision, and in temperatures far lower than expected, 1,000 boats were mustered at Putney: from single canoes to large passenger ships, including steam boats, livery company barges, fire launches, military vessels, and a flotilla of doughty Dunkirk small ships. There were Maoris performing the haka, Venetian gondolas, Dutch barges and narrowboats, RNLI rescue ships, naval craft and working trawlers. A whole panoply of waterborne life, some crewed professionally, many in the charge of amateurs, some of whom had been in training for months.


    All this was conceived by the Queen's pageant master Adrian Evans, who was inspired by Giovanni Antonio Canal's 'River Thames with St. Paul's Cathedral on Lord Mayor's Day' of c.1747. The detail above is from the privately owned original in the Lobkovicz Palace Museum, in Prague. A copy is on show at Greenwich. It is one of two Canalaletto views bought in 1748 by 24-year-old Prince Lobkowicz, then in exile in London. Canaletto excelled at the production of highly saleable, gorgeously tinted souvenirs for his well-to-patrons and might have been a director of lavish historical spectaculars or even a Disney theme park designer today. Could the 21st century pageant possibly deliver the same 'wow' factor?

    The republicans made their protest, and doubting commentators described the whole event as a meaningless house of cards, or the emperor's new clothes. Others saw it as a waste of money (altho that was all from private donations) and an ordeal for the Queen and for Prince Phillip, who spent hours gamely waving whilst standing behind the specially provided red thrones which seemed to be bearing the brunt of the foul weather, atop what seemed to be a kind of floating garden centre with added golden bling.

    My practice sessions with the Goring Gap Rowing Club were not needed. I was to have been rowing on what was once the footballer Jack Charlton's Yorkshire Coble, but after a last minute change of plan cut the crew down to minimum numbers for safety reasons and I was fortunate to be able to transfer to Christobel, "a teak hulled 'gentleman's launch' built in 1911 on an oak frame".

    We waited (and lunched) in the middle of historic squadron which was split into four neat lines, each boat numbered and in the precise formation it was to follow for the whole day.


    We saw little of the events described in the hours of television coverage, complete with many meaningless inserts including an unamusing broadcast from Pete Townsend's former cruiser Zephyr just in front of us, where Sandy Toksvig marshalled Omid Djalili, Grif Rhys-Jones and Maureen Lipman who had earlier bantered with the boat to the right of us about her lack of booze. On camera she lamely commented that they had been much funnier earlier.


    There was a constant flutter of red, white and blue from the cheering thousands mustered all along the banks, with many more craning their necks for a sight of the river or of the huge screens which provided technicolor views of what was in reality a very grey day.


    More crowds waved and cheered from every boat we passed and from each of the 14 bridges we passed beneath. Bugler Ben blew his horn and ships around us and people on the bank called back.




    Assorted Middletons struck appropriate poses as we passed by. Good-humoured spirits made the day, even as we finally got under Tower Bridge to the royal barge and the sky darkened and the rain tipped down. There was grit and pluck by the dank bucket load. From high above, the royal family even had a wave for us.



    I had imagined a retired admiral preparing almost 85 pages of passage plan and general instructions which every skipper was required to absorb, long before the finally scutiny session minutes before the start where he was finally awarded the pageant flag. The text contained such helpful aperçus as "there may be some exciting moments generated by misjudgements and momentary loss of situational awareness" and "be aware of the majesty of the occasion and that profane language and inappropriate or indecent behaviour is not acceptable".

    There were these aplenty on board Christobel when after an uneasy night on board and more than seven hours of travelling, her skipper had to attempt to maintain a fixed position in a jostling and chaotic melée of ships of all sizes waiting to get into the lock of the West India Dock. Strong winds and the impossibilty of steering to starboard whilst going astern only added to the difficulty, but somehow we eventually got to the calm waters of the lock and to a safe mooring beyond.

    The great procession was led off by a peal of bells named after senior royals. It ended with a soggy chorale from the Philharmonic Choir on a ship held midstream before the queen. As the great bascules of Tower Bridge were finally lowered, there was a rain-washed firework salute followed (one might imagine) by a hasty dash for royal warmth.

    Nicolotta in Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on 3.06.12.jpg

    A friend who was amongst the mighty gondoliers reported afterwards that they met with mixed fortunes, and that with just four oars in his boat against eighteen in another, they were hard-pressed to keep up in the poor conditions once past Tower Bridge, and soon after gratefully accepted a tow. Poor Jack Charlton broke an oarlock and took a tow from halfway, with oarsmen suffering from hypothermia in Hiawatha, the owner's other boat.


    As the rain pelted down, even the supposedly man-powered barge Gloriana seemed to be dashing for shelter with almost unseemly haste. For this particular participant, the day may have been a little short of longed-for 'wow' moments, but it was a uniquely British spectacular I shall long remember.

    More pictures here.

  • Operatic times

    It's been an operatic sort of month. First a highly ritzy and very gay take on Mozart's Don Giovanni at the nightclub Heaven and then the pick of the crop at Garsington Opera's pre-opening show. And sandwiched in between, my own moment under the lights, lip-syncing incompetently along to scenes from pieces including the Marriage of Figaro for a very brief video insert into be show during the Garsington production.

    To begin, the Don's trip to Heaven. First performed in 1787 with the subtitle 'the rake punished' Don Giovanni is ranked the seventh most popular opera in the world, with any number of productions running concurrently, each with their own light to shed on this sleazy tale of a sexually rapcious man-about-town.

    A little gender-bending did the Don no harm at all. At Heaven all his conquests were male, and the set-piece catalogue aria chronicled his victories not around Europe but in the gay cruising grounds of London of the 1980s.

    The lyrics by Ranjit Bolt were scatalogically hilarious, and economical too, what with the cuts that pared the opera down from almost 3 hours to 90 minutes:

    Listen Eddie, I have drawn up this list here -
    And I’m not talking merely the gist here -
    Not a shag he has had has been missed here –

    ...Bankers, beggars, losers, winnners
    All supply this prince of sinners
    He has no time for the ladies
    Takes the back door into Hades
    Any size or shape of sha-ade
    Indiscriminately laid!

    He needs a lock
    Put on his cock!

    ...People fall for this seducer
    Just like fruit into a juicer
    Those who call upon this lecher
    Will be brought out on a stretcher 


    As the lead, the improbably named Australian Duncan Rock held the show together, with a powerful baritone voice shaped by his experience at ENO and Glyndebourne. His enviable physique was more than enough distraction for at least half of the grinning audience of around 400, which had to cope with poor acoustics and a slightly disorganised promenade performance. Also outstanding was Mark Dugdale as 'Zac'.

    The orchestra of 10 were crisp and elegantly communicative. Even the Village People and Maggie herself put in a (distinctly dubious) appearance.

    What then would all this have in common with a top flight production at Garsington Opera, in its second year at the Getty's Wormsley Park, just off the M40 near Watlington and what was your correspondent doing making a video for the show?


    The trite answer is cocaine, since both shows featured enthusiastic use of the drug. With its achingly trendy set and snappy modern dress, Garsington's production is almost as far from 'straight' as was the Stephen Fry and Paul Gambaccini sponsored production at Heaven. Both feature imaginative takes on the catalogue aria, with a printer at Garsington spewing out an improbable 50' of conquests' names.


    The auditorium at Wormsley is a wonderfully contemporary-looking semi-permanent structure by Snell Associates with completely clear sides and a back wall of exposed timber. It is set at the foot of the estate's home farm, close to a lake, and reached by a two and a half mile drive through private parkland.

    The singing in this wonderfully upbeat and elegant show never wavered, with some magnificent performances in a room with a terrific acoustic (even if at this final rehearsal it occasionally got ahead of the energetic orchestra). Grant Doyle was a convincing and wittily engaging Don, with particularly noteworthy singing by Callum Thorpe as Masetto and Sophie Bevan as Donna Elvira.
    The murdered Commendatore is usually depicted as a menacing statue that returns from the dead to drag Don Giovanni down to hell. In this show he is a corpse that walks from a hospital mortuary, with the same marble white skin and ice cold touch. He also appeared from a hospital bed positioned in a niche set high in the back wall, which had a bizzarely misbehaving sliding door the night we saw the show.
    The final moments of the opera became a grimly menacing scene from Bedlam, with the wicked Don injected into a comatose state by some of his gloating victims, dressed as masked-up nurses. A terrific show, enthusiastically appreciated by a foot-stamping audience of 600.

    So just what were a bunch of amateurs doing contributing to this glittering evening? Thankfully little more than a couple of minutes of footage was shown on of us on a TV screen, as Don Givanni channel-hopped by iPad through opera videos, whilst waiting for his dinner.

    The joke in the opera is that a snatch of Mozart's own Marriage of Figaro is played by the orchestra. The joke in the filming is that he catches glimpses of a series of extremely varied takes on opera production, from a creaky Dröttnignholm style full-wig 'Cosa Rara', to a completely deconstructed and very grimy 'regietheater' modern dress interpretation of the Marriage of Figaro, complete with vodka bottle, pills and porn magazine.

    2012-04-29 18.48.19.jpg

    We got to work for a whole day with the full show's director, Daniel Slater and its designer, Leslie Travers, and they proved to be models of patience in spite of being confronted with complete amateurs. Several of my fellow cast members shone, and I lost count of the number of times I slid my hand up the thigh of my unfortunate victim, and had a gun thrust into my mouth by her jealous boyfriend. That particular moment thankfully ended up on the cutting room floor.

    All three experiences proved the ability of outstanding art to withstand almost any treatment, and taken together they have made for a particularly memorable month.