Greenwich Night Pageant (2) Act 1


I’ve been waiting here for ages and my backside’s going to sleep. I mean it’s all very festive and the atmosphere’s fantastic, but it’s costing me a fortune. I guess it’s my own fault. I paid 10/6 for a front row seat, (couldn’t really stretch to a guinea for a place next to the Royal Box) so I decided I might as well have a total blowout. I parked the Phantom Motorcycle in the temporary car park in Greenwich Park for a shilling, then scoffed a whitebait dinner at 5/6 in the Dining Hall of the Royal Hospital Building and washed it down with a glass or two of Seagers Gin. Who says programme advertising doesn’t work?

I should have lingered longer over the whitebait as I’ve been sitting on this bench for hours now. I’ve read my programme (1/-) so many times I could recite the occupants of the Royal Box on the separate nights from memory. In fact, I will:

!6th June – His Majesty’s Government.
17th June – The President and Council of the Royal Society
19th June – HRH The Princess Royal
2oth June – HRH Prince George
21st June – The Board of the Admiralty
22nd June – The Lord Mayor of London and other Civic Dignitaries
23rd June – HRH The Prince of Wales
24th June – Past Presidents of the RNC

I bet their sixpenny cushions are thicker than mine…
A man behind me asks me to remove my tricorn hat. I stash it under my seat next to a giant bag of boiled sweets bought specially for the show.

Hold on – there’s twitching behind the curtain. The orchestra has stopped warming up and the shuffling and rustling comes to an expectant halt. I check my pocket watch, and look up at the sky. Yes. Ten of the clock and all is dusk…

A rousing overture of Naval Might heralds The Prelude. Then, in the almost-darkness, a little group shuffles onstage. Huzzah! It’s the Naval Pensioners, played by elderly gentlemen of the town. I’ve heard that at least one of them’s totally blind, but this isn’t going to stop him from hobbling around on one leg, crutch under arm, chewing, spitting and smoking with the rest of them. After wandering around the stage for a bit, they all sit on benches by the stage and fall asleep. The rest of the Pageant will be their dream.

A mighty fanfare blasts, then twinkles into the sweet strains of Greensleeves. We are being transported back to the days of Good King Hal. Anne Boleyn has just given birth to a bouncing baby girl. Sundry citizens, ushers, City & Guilds men, merchants, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen all troop onstage and are joined by the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, “wrapped in a mantle of purple velvet and carried beneath a canopy of gold upheld by Earls.” This is more like it. The Announcer is very excited.

“This Royal Infant
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand blessings….” etc. etc.

The drums roll, and gunfire bursts from behind us – beyond the river, even. We all look round, so are actually surprised by a torchlit procession coming from the left colonnade instead. The Yeomen of the Guard are here to escort the parade of gifts brought to the tiny princess.

A splendid speech wishing the princess well is greeted by trumpets and “the crowd, with a great shout, leap up cheering.” I can’t help joining in. Cor. This is my kind of show. The man behind me asks me to sit down.

Then there’s a boring bit where the announcer tells us that lots goes on and the princess is growing up and turning into a queen. I unwrap myself a boiled sweet and pass them down the row. The man behind me tells me to ‘ssh.’ I tell him to ‘ssh’ himself and it nearly comes to blows.

Oh – but hold on- I’ve been waiting for this next bit. In the programme it promises me that I’ll get Merry Merry Milkmaids, but it just turns out to be the name of the tune the band’s playing. No matter – we’re getting to see the Golden Hind in silhouette. It’s a model ship on a track behind a giant curtain, lit from behind, so that it looks enormous.
Everyone onstage cheers – there’s a lot of cheering – and Francis Drake swaggers onstage, He kneels before the Queen (played by Olive Greig. There’s been all kinds of ribald rumours going round as to how she landed the best part in the show, but one look at her now explains it all. She’s scary. No one was brave enough to say ‘no…’) She takes the Chamberlain’s sword “with which she knights her kneeling pirate Admiral.” More cheers.

There’s a whole section about the Armada, which in this case means bowls-and-beacons-a-go-go. It’s all fantastic, especially when the place fills with smoke and the sounds of battle rage about us. Then the Queen allows Sir Walter Raleigh to lay his cloak down for her in the mud, makes a short speech and “all pass out together.”

Blimey. I’m exhausted. And it’s only the end of Act I. There’s no interval, but I’ve run out of boiled sweets. I’m going to slip out now and get some more from the usherette, while they change the scenes backstage. See you tomorrow for Act II…

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