Of course, it rained. It almost always does, sending guests at the Queen’s annual garden party at Buckingham Palace scurrying—or at least discreetly shuffling—to the shelter of the tea tents and the handsome trees that dot Her Majesty’s spacious back yard. But a mere midsummer drizzle could not spoil last week’s scene; 8,000 guests, self-conscious in their new hats and rented morning suits, craning for a glimpse of the royals while juggling tea cups and plates of finger sandwiches. Two military bands played inoffensive tunes as the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles made their choreographed way through the crowd. It could have been a July afternoon in 1973 or even 1953: an unchanging tableau of deference, tradition and continuity.
Not quite. This year’s garden parties (there are three of them) marked a minor revolution in royal etiquette. For the first time, guests were allowed to bring “companions” instead of only spouses, a change the Daily Telegraph described as “an elegant nod in the direction of political correctness.” Then there was the lineup of royals who appear, traditionally, on the terrace of Buckingham Palace on the dot of 4 p.m. as the band strikes up “God Save the Queen.” This year, the turnout, which royal watchers study with the intensity of old-time Kremlinologists, was distinctly thin, a reflection of the ravages that the traumatic past year has made in their ranks. The Queen Mother, who at 92 is one of the stars of these affairs, has been ill and made only one appearance. Princess Diana turned up just once for an awkward appearance beside her estranged husband. And the disgraced Duchess of York was nowhere to be seen, a reflection of her new status as a royal unperson.
The biggest change, however, is still to come. Until this year, guests at the garden party ritual could bask in the knowledge that they were among the relatively few to have glimpsed the interior and strolled the lawns of one of the world’s best-known, but most secretive, buildings. The party itself might not be much, but the snob value of breezing past the hordes of tourists, with their noses pressed against the famous gates, and being waved into the inner sanctum was definitely worth the trip. But no more. On Aug. 7, Buckingham Palace will take its place alongside Madame Tussaud’s and the Tower of London as just one more stop on the city’s tourist route. For eight weeks, anyone with the equivalent of $16 will be able to buy a ticket for the first-ever tour of the Queen’s official residence.
It is already the hottest ticket in London. Palace officials predict that, by the time the doors close on Sept. 30, some 400,000 people will have gawked their way through the 18 major state rooms included in the tour. There is the Throne Room, the State Dining-Room, the State Ballroom and the Music Room, not to mention the 120-footlong Picture Gallery where part of the Queen’s private art collection will be on display. Visitors, however, will still see only a fraction of the palace (it has a staggering 600 rooms) and of the Queen’s collection (she has 10,000 paintings alone). Nor will they be allowed to wander into Her Majesty’s private apartments in the north wing—or bump into the Queen herself. She’ll be vacationing in Scotland.
All this is not, of course, just a gesture of openness by a monarch eager to move with the times. The Queen needs to raise cash to help pay for the restoration of Windsor Castle following the fire there last November. The repair bill will total at least $80 million and, in the wake of last year’s embarrassing spate of royal scandals, British taxpayers made it clear that they resented having to foot the bill. While allowing tourists to rubberneck their way through the building, palace officials promise what they call “tasteful” souvenirs; they’re already pushing a $25 video of the royal collection, complete with an introduction by Prince Charles himself. Freelance operators, though, threaten to produce more questionable products, One enterprising Londoner has already test-marketed T-shirts with the slogans “I’ve paid the bill for Liz and Phil” and “I’ve sat on the throne at Buckingham Palace,” the latter featuring a picture of an elegant toilet. The palace, needless to say, was not amused.
The question for the royals is whether this latest move will slow their seemingly inexorable slide towards irrelevance, and possible extinction. Republicanism, once the preserve of a few British eccentrics, is now debated with great seriousness in the columns of The Times and on the airwaves of the BBC. A poll published last week shows that less than four in 10 Britons think that Charles is fit to be king. And the titles of the newest crop of books jostling for space in the Royalty sections of London’s bookshops tell their own sorry story: The Tarnished Crown, The End of the House of Windsor, Diana v. Charles and Behind Palace Doors. In the meantime, though, there is always solace in the garden party; the chocolate cake and iced coffee, I can report, are particularly good.
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