It's showtime in London again. Last year, it was the royal wedding that drew all eyes to Prince William and Kate Middleton. This weekend, it's the Diamond Jubilee, and all eyes will be on Queen Elizabeth II—and Will and Kate.
"It doesn't get bigger than this," says Ben Weston, executive editor of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee for the BBC, which is broadcasting the London celebrations, plus producing a star-packed concert (Paul McCartney and Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Renée Fleming, Tom Jones and Andrew Lloyd Webber) in front of Buckingham Palace.
"Even for us, it is a massive challenge," Weston says. "What we're doing here is the equivalent of staging and capturing three or four royal weddings in a row."
But the prince and his bride, now known as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, will be trying not to overshadow the queen, even as they take their place beside her for four days of royal pageantry that starts Saturday and continues through Tuesday.
It is expected to be a jolly good show, broadcast globally by the BBC (parts of which will be available in the USA on cable's BBC America, CNN and the major broadcast networks' news shows) to remind the world that the British may have lost their empire, but they still have their talent for colorful and moving ceremony.
Plus, they have something everyone wants to see: Will and Kate, the future king and queen, on whom the hopes of the Windsor dynasty rest. The rollout of the jubilee shows how the royal family hopes to keep the monarchy as vibrant and popular as it is now, thanks to these young royals, says Sally Bedell Smith, American author of the best-selling biography Elizabeththe Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. "It's a kind of template for how the queen will share her duties in the years ahead with the next generation of royals, especially Will and Kate," Smith says.
The queen's grandson and the duchess, who wed last year in another example of British ceremonial savvy, are international superstars whose every move is followed, especially in America. They helped make the British monarchy relevant, even cool, once again, but they and their advisers are making it clear: This is the queen's show, unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes.
It has been 115 years since the United Kingdom last celebrated a royal Diamond Jubilee of 60 years on the throne, and it may be another century or more before there's another. Given that rarity, the British are serving up massive events over multiple days to honor one of the longest-serving world leaders.
They'll be ringing bells, lighting signal beacons, planting trees and saying prayers across the land. The gilded coaches are rolling out, the cannons are set, and the oars on the royal barge are ready to dip into the River Thames at the head of a flotilla of 1,000 flag-flying ships.
The Diamond Jubilee River Pageant on Sunday will be the signature spectacle of the weekend, a piece of theater harking to centuries past.
The queen and her family will sail 7 miles down the river on a decorated royal barge leading the flotilla, including tiny kayaks and tall ships, a Venetian gondola and Chinese dragon boats, a Hawaiian war canoe and dozens of boats from the famous WWII-era Dunkirk boat rescue. Eight newly forged jubilee bells will ring out from the belfry ship, gun batteries will fire, and millions on the riverbanks or watching TV at home will cheer and wave flags.
"It's a moment to be patriotic and to cheer everything that's great and good about this country and about the queen," says Adrian Evans, the pageant master and river advocate who had the idea and spent the past two years organizing it.
"We are celebrating an extraordinary commitment to duty and service," says John Hall, the dean of Westminster Abbey, who officiated at Will and Kate's wedding and is author of Queen Elizabeth II and Her Church. "I think everyone is immensely proud to be part of a nation which has her as head of state."
When the strains of God Save the Queen are heard this weekend, Brits can be expected to leap to their feet and sing, maybe with tears in their eyes. "There's a sense simultaneously of celebration and also a kind of poignancy because people know they're not going to see anything like this again," Smith says.
The British are prepared to party like they haven't since, well, 10 years ago when the queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee of 50 years on the throne. But Golden Jubilees are not so rare: four other monarchs also made it to 50 years.
It was the queen's great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who in 1897 became the first sovereign in 1,000 years to reign for 60 years. She came to the throne at 18; Elizabeth II was 25. Prince Charles is 63, and Prince William will be 30 next month, so it will be a while before a future monarch is crowned young enough to make it to six decades on the throne.
Victoria, 78 at the time of her Diamond Jubilee, was too frail to participate much. The queen is in good health at 86 and will be seen in London and throughout the U.K. for most of this year.
Values that nations share
Why should Americans care?
Because she represents continuity and the democratic values that Britain and America share, say Lord Alan Watson, a former BBC broadcaster, advertising executive and member of the British establishment elite, and Edward "Chip" Mann, an American and official at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who have published a book on the topic, The Queen and the USA.
"Over these past 60 years, the tectonic plates have shifted everywhere, and as the dust settles, we and you (Americans) look at the queen and see that she's been amazingly consistent," Watson says. "She is reassuring to people because she believes in certain values, and yet … she could not have stood for continuity without changing."
Adds Mann: "When she comes here, she represents these ideals — she tells us about ourselves and what we have in common."
"Besides," Smith says with a laugh, "Americans love to watch the pomp and ceremony."
There will be plenty of that: Besides the flotilla, the weekend will feature horse races, music, a picnic in the palace garden and the lighting of a national signal beacon Monday. The ceremonial last day, Tuesday, will feature a cathedral service, a procession of royal carriages and horse-mounted troops, and a final appearance on the palace balcony.
This will be a busy summer in London thanks to the jubilee and the Olympics opening in July. Economists at the Bank of England warned that the jubilee might hurt the economy by a smidgen because Monday and Tuesday are bank holidays. But that would be offset by a 10-billion-pound injection from sales of things such as hotel rooms, alcohol and souvenirs.
Some Londoners are renting their homes and leaving town during the jubilee. A poll conducted for a British travel agent association found that 6 million Brits would be taking a holiday during the celebrations, and about a quarter-million would actually go abroad on vacation.
Emmajane and Simon Albertini (she's an employee recruiter, he heads the Albertini Group sports agency) have retreated to their Wales home and are renting their house (via onefinestay ) in Kensington for the jubilee, and the Olympics later. But they plan to throw a jubilee party in Wales and watch on TV.
"We're not at all anti-royal," she says. "The royals have the highest positive feelings in the country than they've had for a long time. It's a new generation, and people appreciate the way they are trying to change."
And in 10 years, get ready for the Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne. It could happen: The queen, already the oldest British monarch ever, would be nearly 96. And her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, lived to nearly 102.