Monday, 4 June 2012

It's a Royal Washout

Why was the BBC's coverage of the Jubilee boat pageant quite so godawful?

But let's be fair for a moment. Almost all the coverage, on television and in print, has been pretty dire. Too many pictures of the Queen, too few pictures of the other boats, too much saccharine forelock-tugging, above all a central, contaminating untruth. That being, of course, that the whole thing was not ruined by the weather. The conspiracy of denial about this obvious fact, the deluded consensus of commentators, of people sitting at home, even of the drenched spectators themselves, that the monsoon-like downpour didn't "dampen spirits" or spoil the spectacle in any meaningful way, was worthy of Hans Christian Andersen.

So let me be the small boy. The Thames Jubilee pageant, a thousand (plus or minus) boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing along the river through London, as though in recreation of a canvas by Canaletto, was a charming idea. To turn the Thames for an afternoon into a musical and nautical spectacle, a Venetian-style regatta worthy of some renaissance potentate but with a democratic twist and a nod to Britain's own maritime heritage, might have proved a stroke of dramaturgic genius. On the one hand a specially-created Royal Barge, like a burnished throne or a quinquerime of Nineveh (or, let's be frank, like an overdone corporate hospitality tent); on the other narrowboats, tugboats and dirty British coasters. Peals of bells, renditions of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and, needless to say, Handel, gaily strung flags and bunting, all of London en fete... what could possibly go wrong?

In a word, of course, the rain. In dim light it was difficult to make out the boats. Most of the music would have wasted its sweetness on the aurally polluted London air even had the sun been shining; but in the pouring rain it was all but inaudible. Why was the whole thing not cancelled, or at least postponed till a finer day? I lost count of how many times we were reminded that (this being almost the only thing that the British genuinely do better, or at least more punctiliously, than anyone else in the world) stringent health-and-safety checks had been applied to all the boats taking part. But what of the health-and-safety of the spectators? How many cases of pneumonia or even death will have been brought on by all that standing in the rain?

Yet how typically British that we should celebrate the longevity of an 86 year old woman and her 91 year old husband by making them stand for five hours, in inadequate clothing, getting wet. How even more typically British that no-one is allowed to suggest that the soggy spectacle was anything other than a triumph. I suppose this is what is meant when people praise the Queen's sense of "duty". It means standing in the rain, peering through the mist at a whole lot of boats passing by, affecting enjoyment. (At least we were told that she was enjoying it; she looked pretty grim-faced to me most of the time, but not being a BBC commentator I wouldn't know.) It means reinforcing the self-delusion of the crowd that this was a sensible way of spending an afternoon.

Queen Victoria, an altogether more self-interested monarch, would surely have stayed at home.

Oh for a monarch who is less dutiful, less passively compliant. If Brenda had said, "sod it, I'm not going out in this weather" the whole show would have been rescheduled and a gorgeous pageant might have been played out some other time, in glorious sunshine, as it was supposed to be, as it needed. Instead it was a washout. And the worst of it is that no-one is allowed to say so. Instead the fact that it rained, and that the populace from the monarch downwards contrived to pretend that nothing was in any way spoiled by this, is seen as proof that the event was a "quintessentially British" triumph. Even as an enhancement. "The rain, far from ruining the event, made it even more memorable" writes Fraser Nelson. Absurd.

But to return to my opening question. Why was the BBC's coverage, in particular, quite so godawful? I couldn't bear to watch more than a few minutes. Sky News managed to be far more restrained, less sycophantic and altogether better judged. You also got to see some of the other boats. On the BBC all you got was endless shots of the Queen looking at what the viewers weren't being allowed to see, alternating with grinning, smarmy presenters talking with each other in the studio.

Jan Moir contends that the BBC's "reputation as a peerless television broadcaster of royal events" might have been fatally undermined by yesterday's drivel. But was that reputation ever truly deserved? The faux solemnity we used to get from the Dimblebys or Tom Fleming was certainly preferable to today's inane commentary but it fulfilled essentially the same function, which was to instill in the audience the conviction that whatever royal event was happening was uniquely thrilling and marvellous, not just when it occasionally was but when it more often wasn't. In 2002, the same buttoned up style that was a perfect match for the profound and moving spectacle of the Queen Mother's funeral was applied a few weeks later to the embarrassingly naff and insubstantial celebrations for the Golden Jubilee, which culminated in Brian May prostituting his talent on the roof of Buck House.

I suspect that the BBC increasingly loses the plot when it comes to royal events, though, because of a sort of cognitive dissonance. At times like this it feels most heavily its responsibility as a national broadcaster, yet many of its personnel, signed up to a particular liberal consensus, are instinctively repelled by the monarchy and all it stands for. The result is wild overcompensation. Naturally ironic of mind, BBC presenters have to fake sincerity. Naturally metropolitan, they have to address a provincial audience which they hold in deep contempt. To BBC journalists, the monarchy's popularity with ordinary people renders both it and the general public objects of suspicion, a suspicion that manifests itself in talking down. Assuming that people who want to watch royal pageants are dumb, they respond by treating the audience like educationally subnormal infants.

But let's be realistic. Yesterday's sodden fiasco on the Thames didn't call for a Dimbleby. It called for Graham Norton. Or, better still, Terry Wogan.