Sixty years celebrated on the BBC boat? It felt even longer

By Maureen Lipman, June 7, 2012
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I'm up to my earrings in suspicion, filming Midsomer Murders, when the offer comes to join the Jubilee flotilla, alongside Sandi Toksvig, Omid Djalili, Griff Rhys Jones and Frank Skinner. I'm flattered. I'm fond of Her Majesty, and, now I have a grandchild, I fancy one day bragging to her about it all.

I balk at the BBC's requested 8.15 pick-up, given that we don't start recording until 1.30. It doesn't bode well, organisationally. I'm to do my own make-up, bring my passport for identification, a kagoul and flat shoes. Still, it'll be amazing to be part of it, instead of watching on a Bush 12 inch like for the coronation. As it happens, I wake up at 6.20, dress in as much red, white, and blue as my wardrobe can regurgitate, don a rakish Panama and leave my passport at home. If I take it, it will end up in the drink, found years later by a 22nd-century Mudlarker.

At Putney Pier before the camera crew, I stare incomprehensibly at dinghy ropes and sail clamps. In the words of Jackie Mason: "There is no greater anomaly than a Jew on a boat.'' The runner brings me a polystyrene cup of coffee and runs to Pret for porridge, returning later with several bags of baps. "Lunch?" I ask. It is.

Griff arrives with a nautical cap and a tan, having cut short his holiday. Next, Omid, bleary from nightly West End shows. Frank sends apologies. I'm beginning to wish I had, too. I'm cold and there's a massive queue for the water taxis.

There isn't even a bottle of Blue Nun on board

A friendly, possibly corrupt, official is found and we are ushered by muttering "sorry, BBC," as though on a life-saving mission. We reach our boat, "The Zephyr", which is packed with BBC equipment, another 50 Pret baps and Sandi, who sees my face and offers to lend me her vest.

We embark, and wait. For hours. There's nothing to look at save a warehouse on one side and a pub on the other. The comics yawn and talk shop. We are offered more coffee. Griff and Omid eat their salad lunches. I eat beetroot crisps.

Suddenly the skiffs start passing us, portside. It's rather touching to see it all in action. I'm particularly cheered by the Maori skiff, with semi-naked guys brandishing oars like spears and doing a fear-inducing Haka, and by the Venetian gondola. Elsewhere, boating afficionadas pop fizz over plates of smoked salmon. I eat a flapjack. There isn't so much as a bottle of Blue Nun on the BBC boat. At 1.30, we are miked up and arranged on the deck. We clump up together so the camera can get us all in. The boat judders into movement and we wave at the few damp rubberneckers on the bank. Half an hour later, we dry off without having been on air.

We are told we'll be on at three. At three, we repeat the procedure, agreeing that Sandi will do the intro and each of us will say one line about the Queen. We rack our brains. I produce a gas-fired heated brush and attempt frizz repair. Down an earpiece we are told "they are cutting to a bloke in a pub talking to Anneka Rice". We go back in, drink tepid tea and read the papers.

It occurs to me we will never get on screen because we are merely "cover" in case of rain. We eat biscuits. I call the head of outside broadcast an eight-letter word. The rain intensifies as we are again hurried out and re-miked, this time to be interviewed as we pass the National Theatre. There must be something that four actors can contribute to a day of British pageantry.

"So-so sorry" groans Elliot, the director, throwing down his cans in frustration. "They've decided to cut to one of the puppets from War Horse."

Her Majesty, in a wrap but no coat, is struggling to muster another wave but the horse seems to cheer her up. At 5.15, with the river looking rather bedraggled and after the TV commentator has said "the atmosphere here is amazing'' for the 60th time, Sandi finally introduces us.

The most powerful weapon on telly is silence and I consider just glowering at the screen and raising one finger, but it might be misinterpreted as a Republican stance. Instead, I burble something about Hull and the whole thing looking better on the telly and we are off air again.

When they next want us, we're too far down or maybe up river - out of camera range. Can we go home, then? No. At 6.30 we'll be allowed to head back. No we cannot get off nearer our homes because we'd be arrested by the river police.

I spend the rest of the journey, listening to Griff's tales of weekends at Sandringham and lengthy impersonations of Prince Charles. A cynical part of me says hats off to Prince Philip for possibly saying; "Dammit, Liz, I am not spending another bloody six hours frozen to my gatkes, watching Elton Bloody John and Shirley Bassey murdering your wretched anthem. Book me a night in hospital and get sharp about it."

Last updated: 2:07pm, June 7 2012