All the considerable pomp and circumstance the British monarchy is capable of is polished up and paraded at State banquets. Wendy Holden on how the Queen entertains.
A State Banquet is about to begin. All day the Palace staff have been preparing. At lunchtime, footmen in stockinged feet slid about the surface of the mahogany dining table, placing the candelabra and the ornamental plate. The Yeoman of the Gold and Silver Pantry made his selection from over 2000 pieces of solid gold cutlery. The Yeoman of the Glass and China Pantry chose one of the many sets of priceless Minton. Each place setting was measured with a ruler not for pedantic reasons but to ensure the 170 guests all fit on the table.
There are 300 staff on duty. Wine butlers, under butlers, pages, wine pages, pantry assistants, footmen; even Beefeaters. The Beefeaters, who stand guard throughout the banquet, are the only servants not wearing State Livery – black breeches, stockings, buckled pumps and gold braided coats. Powdered wigs, at least, have been dispensed with by the Queen who considered them an outmoded custom. The sets of livery, however, are hardly modern; many are over a century old and new palace servants are chosen with an eye to how they will fit into them.
Half an hour before the banquet begins, the staff are given the traditional 22-point briefing. The Under Butlers are reminded that they only serve potatoes and that gravy is served by the Wine Butlers. Below stairs, everything runs with military precision. One step out of line, one slip, and the unfortunate servant knows to look elsewhere for employment
Upstairs among the guests, all is colour, light and glitter. Dress is full evening dress, and every rock in the book has been brought forth from the bank vaults. Family jewels vie sparkling with the candelabras. Chests sport row after row of military ribbon. Diplomats and foreign visitors are colourful in the rich embroidered silks of their national dress; bright butterflies against the cream and gold Palace walls.
Royalty, aristocracy, diplomats, eminent clerics, the judiciary and the armed forces make up the basic guest list. Stir in a few politicians, academics and newspaper editors for colour and flavour. To complete, sprinkle on a selection of guests who complement the State Visitor’s own interests. If the State Visitor is a keen birdwatcher, the President of the RSPB may well be invited. If he is interested in art, the President of the Royal Academy may be there.
Whilst the guests sip aperitifs and admire the pictures and each other, in a separate room The Queen has joined the Royal Family for her customary weak gin and tonic. The Duke has a dry sherry and Princess Diana, if she is there, a glass of champagne. If Princess Anne is there, she enjoys a glass of Coke whilst Princess Margaret, whisky in hand, may well have a cigarette too.
The guests eventually go through to the State Ballroom, where the banquet is to be held, via the Queen’s receiving line. When everyone is seated, The Queen, the Royal Family, the State Visitor and the principal guests form a Royal Procession into the Ballroom.
The band from the Household Division plays ‘God Save The Queen’ as her Majesty enters. The National Anthem must be timed to finish exactly as the Queen reaches her seat. The challenge this presents to the band varies with the venue. At Buckingham (seating 170 for dinner) the distance between the entrance and the Queen’ s chair is further than at Windsor (seating -162). So it’s ‘Send Her Victorious’ twice over at the Palace and just once at Windsor
The National Anthem over, the band proceeds with its programme of discreet during-dinner music. The programme, selected by Her Majesty, is a stirring mixture of light classics, songs from the shows and Highland Flings. Juxtaposed, they can surprise; President Mubarak for example, was treated to Tchaikovksy’s 6th Symphony followed immediately by ‘Swing O’ The Kilt’.
Royal banquets are tense times for the Lord Chamberlain, head of the Royal Household, and the Palace Steward, the head servant. It is their task to walk backwards in front of the Queen as she makes her way to her place. Frequent practice is the only way of getting this right, although there are certain artificial aids. Following the seams in the carpet is one. Yet Her Majesty does her best to help. “If I started to wobble a bit”, recalls one former Lord Chamberlain, “she would gently motion with her eyes left or right, to put me back on the right track”.
Albeit backwards, the Lord Chamberlain and Lord Steward are at least allowed to walk side by side at Buckingham Palace. At Windsor they have to walk backwards either side of the longest single mahogany table in the world, which can present the inevitable problem. Leading the Royal procession at a banquet for President Reagan, the Queen noticed the Lord Chamberlain in front of her was slightly in advance of the Lord Steward on the other side. Her Majesty acted swiftly. “You’re going to win by a short head”, she whispered.
For those able, in the midst of the glamour and the glitter, to turn their attention to the food, they’ll find it to be of the best. Several weeks before the banquet is to take place, the Head Chef presents his suggestions to The Queen. Her Majesty, however, often has ideas of her own. Her simple tastes are legendary – good plain food well cooked and no fussy sauces. A great fan of lamb, particularly the home-grown Windsor variety, she is less keen on puddings. All the stops, however, are pulled out for State Banquets.
President Cossiga of Italy was treated to fillet of sole Balmoral followed by Poussin and chocolate mousse. President Lech Walesa enjoyed quails eggs followed by quenelles of Turbot followed by veal with wild mushrooms. Pudding was peaches Toscane washed down with Moet & Chandon 1985. And, like any hostess, Her Majesty is not above serving the same dish twice. President Mubarak was also served quenelles of Turbot and his pudding (raspberry bombe) rounded off with the self-same Moet ’85.
Repetition of the menu however acceptable within Palace walls is strongly discouraged elsewhere. When the food for a State Banquet is decided the menu is promptly sent to Mansion House and No. 10 Downing Street. The Lord Mayor of London and the Prime Minister also entertain State Visitors and it would not do for them to duplicate the Queen’s dinner.
The courses are cleared and new ones brought in by the 76 serving footmen. Their perfect timing is more than instinct. Concealed in the larger arrangements are the ‘traffic lights’ These coloured lamps, operated by the Palace Steward from his position behind the Queen’s chair, indicate to the waiting footmen what to do and when to do it. Amber tells them to take their positions. Green means start serving or clearing.
After the dessert of fruit, served on gilded china, port is handed round. Cheese, for no obvious reason, never appears. The Queen makes a speech and proposes a toast; the Principal Guest replies and the banquet is over. The Queen and the Principal Guest leave the ballroom and gradually, the other guests follow them back to the State Apartments for coffee. Eventually, the guest retires, followed by the Queen and the Duke. Only after the last member of the Royal Family leaves (The Queen Mother stays until well after midnight) do the other guests start to go.
Looking back as they – bowl down the Mall, they see the Palace still ablaze with light. The footmen are still clearing up in the Ballroom. Below stairs the washing up, jealously-guarded privilege of the Fulham Road branch of the Royal British Legion, is in full swing. The putting-away goes on hours after the last guest has left. Only when the last piece of gold cutlery has been safely returned to its padded leather case and the last of the 800 cut crystal glasses counted back in can the Yeomen of the Gold and Silver and Glass and China Pantries go home.