The Royal Variety Performance is a cherished tradition in the UK, where people know that if there is one thing better than variety, it is variety performed in front of royalty. Whether the Queen herself enjoys all the multifarious acts is uncertain: one gets a sneaking suspicion she thinks it’s all been going downhill since John Lennon asked the audience to rattle their jewellery, and that suspicion must only be confirmed by the fact that this year she didn’t even turn up. Possibly preoccupied with her middle child’s travails, possibly not wanting to leave Philip home alone with the oven, Elizabeth gave the Variety a miss, instead sending her grandson William and his wife Kate along to represent her.
It’s a shame, because Liz probably would’ve really dug 2019’s offering, particularly the performance by the winner of the most recent series of Britain’s Got Talent: 89-year-old Korean War veteran Colin Thackeray sang I Vow To Thee, My Country in front of a backdrop of the Royal Hospital Chelsea retirement home. That seems like exactly the kind of act to get the blue blood pumping through royal veins and inspire the Queen to start throwing her weight around. Maybe she had to be kept away for fear that the sheer patriotism of Old Colin’s performance would cause her to start threatening France. Which would be pretty much in keeping with the spirit of Brexit anyway.
Thackeray’s rise to stardom is emblematic of Britain in 2019: old, tired, and completely inexplicable to anyone watching from the outside, yet still proud and defiant for reasons that are not immediately clear. The Royal Variety Performance celebrates that best of the UK’s peculiar mixture of pomp and circumstance and awkward embarrassment at all the fuss. It’s moved with the times to a certain extent: this year’s edition was hosted by comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan, a pair whose presence as emcees at a royal event would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago, when non-whites and working class accents were things that the nation tried at all costs to prevent the royal family from finding out about. But funny is funny, and the sharpness of the hosts’ banter sends the welcome message that just because the show has “royal” in the title, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a celebration of grotesque unearned privilege. On the other hand, the cast of the stage production of Mary Poppins show up, and their West End run hasn’t even started yet, so let’s not pretend it’s a strict meritocracy either.
But in all seriousness the show features a reasonably high-calibre line-up of modern-day jesters, and the pleasure in their performances is soured only to a minute degree by having to watch them genuflect to a couple of bludgers who’ve never done anything half as impressive as the performers themselves. Robbie Williams and Jamie Cullum duetting is a particular highlight, along with Harry Connick Jr, who, being American, on a night like this qualifies as practically exotic. The musical acts are interwoven with comedy, and besides hosts Beckett and Ranganathan, Britcom fans will be chuffed to see Frank Skinner and Kerry Godliman strutting their stuff.
It’s all good clean fun – indeed, if it wasn’t it probably wouldn’t be allowed, though Will and Kate probably have a slightly higher tolerance for a saucy gag than Will’s nan. A welcome reminder that though the sun has set on the British Empire, they’re still capable of putting on a good old knees-up.
Royal Variety Performance 2019 is on ABC, Wednesday 7.30pm.