Meet the son of a mensch behind the Queen's Jubilee Pageant

David Zolkwer has directed some of the world's biggest events, and his next one is no different


It’s the moment when the entire nation will come together to celebrate Her Majesty’s historic reign.

But behind the pizzazz of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant next month is a director and producer whose Jewish upbringing and values have shaped his vision.

Next month’s event will be like nothing else, David Zolkwer told the JC. “It’s not necessarily about it being the shiniest, blingiest, slickest,” he said. “But it will be human and authentic, passionate and smiley. And bonkers.”

The 56-year-old, who is originally from Salford, is no stranger to the global stage. His career highlights already include the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, shows at four Commonwealth Games, and the historic 1997 handover ceremony in Hong Kong.

What Zolkwer calls the “People’s Pageant” next month will feature more than 10,000 performers, giant hot air balloons, a colossal oak tree flanked with maypole dancers, a towering dragon, and much more.

Explaining his role as show director, he said: “On the one hand, I’m kind of like the creative and production lead of the project. I’m also responsible for conceiving and inventing elements of it, but the vast part of it is about commissioning and curating contributions from people all over the country.

“Most of it is about commissioning and giving the stage to people, and my job is to bring cohesion to that.”

There will be no rehearsal for the show — the first time that the performers will come together will be for the pageant. Lesser souls might be terrified, but Zolkwer relishes the live element.

“It’s because of that madness, and the eccentricity and the creativity and the passion and the stories that will unfold — that’s where the heart and soul of the event is,” he said.

Looking back on his upbringing with his parents, Deana and Stanley, he added: “Judaism for the family was a cultural thing, rather than a religious thing. It was family, it was tradition, it was everyone looking out for each other. ”

His parents were embedded in the local Jewish community. They sent him to the King David Primary School in Manchester. He then went to the local comprehensive in Salford. “I’m grateful that my parents made that call because it was about opening my eyes to a broader community and a broader picture of what society is like,” he said.

Going from there to the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama in London, he found what he said was “not a very Jewish world... it was like the rug was pulled from under me and I was in a completely different social context... That whole Jewish network — which is either wonderful or suffocating, or both at the same time — just disappeared.”

Yet he feels that the Jewish values imparted and practised throughout his early life are a core element to who he is. “My father was an immensely sentimental man, as I think I am. He was a mensch. I’ve only used that word twice: once in relation to my father and once to describe my sons who are both mensches. That is the only word: they are good men who want to do good things, who want to be of service, who want to leave people and places better for their experience and their encounter.

“And my father was never happier than when he was giving, when he was being of service, when he was contributing, when he was hosting. I never heard him ever say ‘I want’.

“As I’ve matured and I’ve become more confident and maybe felt like I had more authority in the work I was doing, I really made it a mission to find meaning in the work that I do and to find a contribution.”

He remembers one example from when he was working on the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. “We established a partnership with UNICEF and we turned that event into a fundraising exercise that was criticised by many, but loved by many, and it was a reflection of Glasgow and it made everyone proud.

“And we raised millions for kids across the world, and I thought, ‘Okay, now I’m using this job to contribute to giving and making something better,’ as opposed to ‘Oh, that was a great party’. I hope on a good day I am a storyteller, and I hope that the themes that preoccupy me these days, which again, kind of goes back to the question of religion, is that in the biggest stuff that I’ve worked on, traditionally were about selling a host city and telling the world how great it is, and I came to a mindset that started to say actually, they’re called a host city, so how does a host behave? How does a generous host behave?

“You listen, you involve, you make people feel at home. And you don’t tell them I brought you into my house to tell you how fantastic I am.

“And I kind of extrapolated that to start looking at what we have in common, not what makes us different. I’m all for the distinction and celebrating cultures and generating pride.”

At the heart of the pageant on Sunday 5 June will be a segment celebrating the Queen as the defender of faith. “It is being developed by schools in London, and all the faiths will be represented, and representatives will participate and own their contribution, so it’s a multi-faith sequence,” he said. “It’s being done with youngsters that learn about the faiths and learn to respect the various stories and the narratives and their values, as well as celebrating how they all coexist, or should coexist.

“You give voice to these stories through children because they’re untainted. They haven’t learned to hate or to distinguish, and so on.”Zolkwer said he would be disappointed if the day after the pageant, people said it had been what they had been expecting. “It would feel like a wasted opportunity to me,” he said.

“I feel more of a responsibility that if the world is leaning in, especially as the world becomes more fractured and frightened and intolerant and so on, as it always has been, I feel that, surely, we want to say something. To say, ‘I see you, we’re not so different.’”

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