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As the curtain rises on Jubilee long weekend, ROBERT HARDMAN's homage

Long after we are gone, it will be said of us – We were lucky… We knew one of the greats: As the curtain rises on a glorious Jubilee long weekend, ROBERT HARDMAN’s stirring homage to a monarch for the ages

 When dawn broke on the first day of the Queen’s 2002 Golden Jubilee tour of Britain, royal officials were nervous.

The previews had not been encouraging. The Times, for example, had warned of a general dearth of public interest, as reflected in the number of applications to hold a street party. Not a patch on the Silver Jubilee of 1977, it noted sniffily.

Come that very first official engagement, the initial signs were not promising. I remember it vividly. We had gathered outside the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Cornwall, where the Queen would cut a ribbon and the Golden Jubilee bandwagon would start rolling.

So where was everyone? A tiny crowd, one-deep, gathered behind a barrier very obviously surplus to requirements. Perhaps the battering which the monarchy had received all through the 1990s had left a deeper mark than we had realised. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh duly did their bit and moved on to their next engagement in the centre of Falmouth. At which point, all became clear.

Some of the Queen’s most trying years have fallen on the big anniversaries of her reign

The town centre was rammed. Everyone had gone there instead. When the Queen moved on to Truro to visit the cathedral, it seemed as if the entire county had turned out. It was the same story in neighbouring Devon. Exeter came to a standstill. Next stop, Somerset. By the time we got to that central Jubilee weekend in June, with Brian May belting out the national anthem on his electric guitar on the Palace roof and Concorde swooping over the Palace flanked by the Red Arrows, no one could be in the slightest doubt about Britain’s deep, uncomplicated love for and pride in its monarchy.

And I believe history is about to repeat itself.

Just three years after those scenes in 2002, Sebastian Coe, the Princess Royal and Tony Blair were making their final pitch to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Singapore, where the IOC was about to choose the venue for the 2012 Olympic Games. The London delegation played their final card. It was a video showing how London could put on a dazzling, exuberant, multicultural world party.

They had no need for the sort of computer-generated images which rival bidders, like Paris, had prepared. No, the London team already had their film. They simply cut and pasted shots of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Moments later, the envelope was opened to reveal the winner . . .

We all know the rest. It meant that the London Olympics followed hot on the heels of Her Majesty’s 60th anniversary on the throne to produce that stupendous summer of royal and sporting brilliance. The monarchy, still glowing from the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, merged seamlessly and brilliantly into that global festival of sport.

Many of us may well look back on that Jubilee/Olympic summer as a sunlit idyll before the storm clouds descended; a last hurrah for Britain before those toxic referenda — on Scottish independence and Brexit —ushered in an era of furious culture wars, cyber lunacy and fresh royal scandals. In many ways, it was the calm before the storm.

For all these years, in this country at least, we have taken the Queen for granted — in the nicest possible way

So can the Platinum Jubilee come close to replicating — or even eclipsing — the buzz of 2012?

I believe it will. The signs are there already. As the Mail has reported, there has been a glorious burst of street party preparations all over the country — not to mention countless examples of the new 21st-century off-street version, the Jubilee ‘Big Lunch’.

Look, too, at the profusion of flags in High Streets and schools around the country. Last week, I found myself at the Oxford Union opposing a motion that the monarchy is now a ‘mere celebrity’ irrelevance. The motion failed by a margin of ten to one. Perhaps, for a few days at least, we might also leave the ongoing sagas of the Sussexes and the Duke of York where they belong: in the margins.

Some of the Queen’s most trying years have fallen on the big anniversaries of her reign. Her 30th, in 1982, coincided with the Falklands War, the shock of finding an intruder, Michael Fagan, at the end of her bed and the twin IRA London bombs which slaughtered her Household Cavalry and her Royal Green Jackets.

Her annus horribilis — the year of marital and financial crises plus the Windsor fire — coincided with her 40th anniversary in 1992.

A decade on, her Golden Jubilee year had only just started when the Queen lost her sister, Princess Margaret. Two months later, she lost her mother. Yet she refused to cancel a single Jubilee engagement. That summer proved to be the turning point after all the royal turmoil of the 1990s and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

By the time of the Diamond Jubilee of 2012, royal spirits were back to a Coronation-era high. Indeed, the Queen might have reworded her famous Latin phrase to describe the period from the spring of 2011 to the summer of 2012 as an annus mirabilis.

First, she was thrilled to see the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey. Less than a month later, the Queen was visiting Britain’s closest neighbour for the very first time. Her state visit to the Republic of Ireland still stands as the high-water mark of UK-Irish relations. And at the end of May 2011, Barack and Michelle Obama came to stay at Buckingham Palace for one of the most cordial and successful state visits of modern times.

By the summer of 2012, however, the gloomsters were at it again, predicting a Diamond Jubilee flop. Once again, it exceeded all expectations. The million-plus crowd who happily turned out in the most appalling weather to watch the great river pageant down the Thames were illustrative of that bedrock of deep royalist sentiment which so perplexes and baffles republicans.

The vast majority of people in this country are entirely content to be represented by a benign, unifying institution.

It’s not something they feel a need to shout (or even think) about every day. But, periodically, when big moments like this come around, they are damned well going to celebrate.

Yesterday, I spoke to the man who organised the last Jubilee pageant, as well as the great VE Day party at the Palace in 1995.

Queen Elizabeth II poses for a silver jubilee portrait in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace, 6th February 1977

‘There were people worrying about the numbers. Come the day, there were these vast crowds cheering their heads off,’ the Marquess of Salisbury told me. ‘What you have to remember is that, especially in times of uncertainty, people like continuity and they love something to hang on to.’

The Diamond Jubilee celebrations covered every corner of the kingdom, starting in Britain’s most diverse city, Leicester, where there were tumultuous scenes.

They reached a climax in July as the whole world was glued to the opening ceremony of those London Olympics. The lights dimmed and a video revealed James Bond going into Buckingham Palace. There, he found himself staring at the back of a figure busy at her desk. As the Queen of Denmark told me later, she was transfixed, not quite believing that this might really be Cousin Lilibet herself. ‘Could it be? Could it be?’ Queen Margrethe said, recounting her mounting excitement. ‘And it was!’

The sight of Britain’s two most famous human institutions climbing into (and jumping out of) a helicopter is still a magical moment. In just a couple of minutes, it managed to encapsulate everything great about modern Britain — originality, humour, tradition and a judicious dollop of self-deprecation.

As an antidote to the joyless, synchronised triumphalism of the 2008 Beijing Games, it was near perfect. I was sitting amid the world’s Press in the stadium that night and the response was one of disbelief and delight. That set the tone for the whole Olympics.

So how will the events of the days ahead top all that? The answer is that they will be entirely different. This Jubilee comes not with a giant sporting festival attached. Instead, it comes with a sense of both awe and poignancy. We have never marked 70 years of one monarch before. We are covering entirely new ground.

Given Her Majesty’s advancing years, we accept that she cannot play the sort of part she did at previous anniversaries. Yet that makes her achievements and sense of duty all the more worthy of celebration.

The nation loved Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. However, the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 was on an altogether different scale with much stronger emotions in play. Victorian Britain was in no doubt that here was a unique moment in our national story and they wanted to honour it.

No matter that Victoria was so frail that when she attended her service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s she was unable to get out of the carriage. The clergy processed outside and down the steps to her instead.

I have every confidence that we will see Her Majesty inside St Paul’s tomorrow (after all, she can now arrive through the new step-free entrance and Covid memorial Remember Me portico, supported by generous Mail readers).

My only concern is the numbers who will decide, on the spur of the moment, that they want to be part of this show, too. Because this Jubilee is going to be phenomenal.

This Jubilee is going to be phenomenal

For all these years, in this country at least, we have taken the Queen for granted — in the nicest possible way.

We have always known that she will be there on time — and looking the part — be it the Olympic Games or just Dundee on a wet Wednesday; we have always known that the rest of the world is fascinated by her and we don’t regard it as odd that we share her with hundreds of millions of people around the globe proud to call her their head of state, too.

For years, we have regarded her as a timeless, indestructible part of our national fabric — like Big Ben, red telephone boxes, scones and bagpipes.

Now, all of a sudden, we are coming to terms with the fact that she cannot keep on in the way we have come to expect. She will always do her best because she took an oath before the Almighty and her people.

She will adapt, of course. It would be polite if, rather than always concentrating on the things she can no longer do, we marvelled at all the things she continues to do, long into her tenth decade.

The events of the next few days will be our way of acknowledging that we have something very special and very precious, and that we really need to make the most of her.

Because, for many years hence, we will, all of us, be able to say: ‘We were lucky. We knew one of the greats.’ 

Queen Of Our Times — The Life Of Elizabeth II by Robert Hardman is published by Macmillan.

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