Staging pomp on a major scale

SUN JOURNAL

Ceremony: After staging 70 `national occasions' in Britain, pageant producer Maj. Michael Parker hopes to go out with a bang today for the queen mother's 100th birthday celebration.

July 19, 2000|By Bill Glauber | By Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Whom do you call when you want to stage a 100th Birthday Pageant for a beloved royal figure, or engage in a march through 1,000 years of British military history?

Maj. Michael Parker.

He's the man who puts the pageantry into British pomp and circumstance, who can stage-manage royals and recruits, helicopters and horses, camels and children.

With ideas often thought up in a bathtub, this maestro of the British flypast and grand national spectacle has been gently orchestrating royal and ceremonial military moments for years.

"I'm a producer of large-scale events, I suppose," he says, his modesty belying the fact that since leaving the army in 1971 he has produced what he labels 70 "national occasions."

When he hits, he hits big, like the time Britain and the world watched in wonder in 1995 at the 50th anniversary celebrations of V-E Day when Queen Elizabeth II, her sister, Princess Margaret, and their mom, Queen Mother Elizabeth, ventured onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace, creating a scene that had a few hundred thousand people roaring, singing and weeping.

Even when he misses, he goes out with a bang, as at the 1977 Silver Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth, when a beacon prematurely ignited. The embarrassed Parker told his sovereign, "It's quite obvious everything is going wrong." She turned around and, with a big smile on her face, said, "Oh, good."

Most recently, Parker has prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle on Horse Guards Parade, today's 100th Birthday Pageant for Britain's queen mum.

The queen mother turns 100 on Aug. 4, and Britain has been celebrating the landmark birthday all summer.

Parker has decided to whip up a show that displays the full breadth of the queen mother's interests and her support of hundreds of organizations.

So, there is a planned parade, Parker says, featuring, among other things, bulls, chickens and the Household Cavalry, with the festivities topped off by a huge cake that includes children as dancing marzipan.

"When I said we're going to have an Aberdeen Angus bull on parade, they said I couldn't possibly, because it would keep out of step with the music," Parker says, recalling a conversation with some unnamed organizer.

"I said, that's ridiculous," he says. "I don't think the camels will be in step. I don't think the sheep will be in step, or the corgis. And there was this slight sucking of teeth, saying how we can't possibly have the Household Cavalry and the King's Troops on parade with bulls, camels, chickens and, for that matter, lots of little children dressed up as bits of cake.

"But that was the whole point," he says. "It totally typified the queen mother's interests, which are partly ceremonial, partly regimental."

So the bull stays. So do the camels, sheep, dogs, soldiers and kids.

Same with the cake, although Parker doesn't advise anyone to actually eat the thing.

"We're having trouble with the candles at the moment," he says. "There are 100 of them, and they keep falling over."

A few weeks before the big event, the clip-voiced, immaculately dressed, 58-year-old Parker was a picture of calm, sitting on a red leather chair in his cozy office, his walls lined with a greatest hits of pictures of past events, from royal fireworks to military shows, from a picture of the queen mother to a signed photo of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.

He said of the queen mother, "She seems to be in cracking good form tiring out her helpers."

He discussed the big productions planned for this month, not only the birthday parade but a six-day Royal Military Tattoo that surveyed British military history from King Alfred to Kosovo.

Of the sprint through British history, the normally sober Economist magazine said: "For those fed up with American filmmakers traducing Britain's role in winning every war that has ever been fought, or just sick of the country's continuing failure to win a football match, the Royal Military Tattoo ... has been just the thing to restore morale. And, indeed, a lot of morale was needed as thousands braved arctic weather conditions to watch the (very) edited highlights of the country's great military history unfurl before them."

Sure, there were problems with the weather, but as Parker says, "If it's a 100 percent sure thing it's going to work, then you're doing the wrong thing. If it's not fun, it's not worth doing. You've got to enthuse thousands of people into doing something rather quickly that they haven't done before.

"It has to be very light. It has to be amusing," he says.

"Everything is a controlled failure," he adds. "You just have to try and recover. It's a very masochistic sport."

A retired regular army officer in the Queen's Own Hussars, now called the Queen's Royal Hussars, Parker has been staging spectaculars from Hong Kong to Jordan, Germany to Gibraltar.

He learned in the military that he had a knack for staging big events. Besides, there were perks such as ordering around higher-ranked officers.

"We burned Moscow a bunch of times," he says of one of his early successes, a 1965 British Military Tattoo in front of 100,000 people at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

This is a man who clearly likes a good parade, and who knows the British secret for ceremony.

"We are very good at it, because we take it very seriously," he says.

How does he dream up the spectaculars?

In the bath, he says.

"You need a hook," he says. "What's the event for? Once you've got the hook, then you just talk yourself around it and all the various angles. I think you need to be quite military about this. In the military, you're always told you must have an aim. You must define your aim."

Parker says the queen mother's celebration will be his "last hurrah," claiming he's ready to retire from the royal extravaganza business.

"I think I shall be quite pleased to go out on the Queen Mum," he says. "It will be such a cross-section of things. And it will be so typical of Britain, the real Britain."

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