The French, in their resignedly insouciant way, say "Plus ca change" and, when it comes to television coverage of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee over recent days, they've got a point.
OPINION: The last time something this stonkingly big happened on the Thames, it was up to Canaletto to cover it – producing a magnificently detailed painting in his matchless style. But it was generally only seen by the wealthy. You didn't get your peasantry visiting art galleries.
This time, the load was rather more widely shared, with the stunning 1000-boat flotilla covered by the world's television media. But in this country, again, only the better off got to see it, because only pay channel UKTV, on Sky, carried all the footage live – or even a meaningful amount of it.
It's still hard, as a viewer, to get used to the idea that TVNZ is now only nominally our state broadcaster and, more often than not, either cannot afford or does not choose to run live coverage of major events. Even live coverage of local disasters can necessitate a trip to NZ On Air with the collection plate.
TV One screens the concert tonight, and it's well worth watching this delayed version.
But the lack of generally available live access was a pity because, for once, even the most ferocious of republicans could not help but be awed and thrilled through several hours of royal spectacle – not just by the sight of all those ships and boats, but by the vast sweep of history the flotilla represented. Sky's BBC-sourced coverage was meticulous and comprehensive as you'd expect, and punctuated with lots of jolly historians and other experts who could paint a picture – supplementary to Canaletto – of past such demonstrations of imperial and military might. The Thames used to be a lot wider, but quite a lot shallower; its banks spanned for a long time by just a single bridge. But even in past centuries, when communications and transport were glacial, and both beyond the means of your average Briton, a royal flotilla brought a staggering turnout.
The most churlish viewer would have to mark it high as a celebration of mankind's stewardship with boating. From the stately, garlanded royal barge, to the single-skullers, it was an inspiring sight. One would have to be extremely jaded with life not to be impressed by all those multi-oared craft, powered with equal effectiveness by Olympians and physically disabled folk.
Britain is up to its gills in recession, yet through a combination of private donations and a variant of Dunkirk spirit, managed to pull off a stunning show of strength and pride, nicely tempered with eccentricity and anachronism. (And the inevitable bloody-minded quantities of rain, which only served further to typify the British can-do spirit at its best). Arguably the whole thing – royalty, flotillas, bunting – is one giant anachronism, but what a magnificent one.
The BBC took its usual "oooh, aren't they scary?" approach to our waka crew's haka, and referred to "the New Zealand Prime Minister John Kay". But it was clear the Maori contingent was regarded as a highlight.
And then there was the concert. Again, the Brits struck the perfect tone, which could best be summed up by Kylie Minogue performing dressed as a Pearly Queen. Wit, charm, cheek and talent – a bit of affectionate subversion was a feature in every item in the show. There was Grace Jones, the 80s pop harridan, reprising her act with terrifying dignity, despite being dressed like a fungal version of Superwoman, and while whirling a hula-hoop around her waist. There was Tom Jones, still in great, knicker-magnet voice; Robbie Williams, Annie Lennox, Sir Paul, Sir Elton, Sir Cliff and – there's always a place for a silly in-joke – Sir Rolf. Royal Variety shows can be a chore, but this was a crowd-pleaser from start to finish, replete with corny but jolly song choices: Shirley Bassey doing Diamonds Are Forever and Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely? Even the notoriously irascible Duke of Edinburgh might be sorry he was too poorly to see it live.
The Prince of Wales, whose awkward PR history may well have made it his private nightmare to have to follow all these terrific acts, nevertheless charmed – although also rather surprised – the audience by referring to the Queen as "Mummy". If the royals go in for corporal punishment, he may get a clip across the ear for that, as she did not look terribly amused.
But a further fascination in these telecasts was a prolonged view of this elderly woman, and her even older husband, with the chance to marvel at how little, proportionate to their ages, they have slowed down. To stand about for hours, and to deal with being the focus of such intense attention for such a marathon bash, is quite remarkable.
- The Dominion Post