'Knees up' Queen's historic Platinum Jubilee bash arrives amid elation, anxiety - and miles of bunting

Maria Puente
USA TODAY
  • Brits are celebrating Queen Elizabeth's unprecedented 70 years on the throne, and hopeful the 96-year-old monarch will attend events.
  • "People are looking at what the future is going to be ... Are people going to believe in monarchy with the next generation (of royals)?" asks Nicoletta Gullace, a professor who studies British history.
  • Americans can watch the BBC's coverage on ABC, which will provide live event coverage on all platforms, especially its morning shows.

Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee is here and a good time is predicted for all during the four-day holiday this weekend – most especially, Brits hope, by the increasingly frail 96-year-old monarch herself.

But they're a bit worried she might not be fully ready for a "knees up," as the British call a party. Her knees aren't what they used to be thanks to what Buckingham Palace vaguely called "episodic mobility problems." She herself recently told visitors, while holding a cane, that she "can't move."

So the British are facing this historic celebration, marking her unprecedented 70 years on the throne, with a mixture of elation – let the good times roll! – and some anxiety: Will Her Majesty appear for this possibly last chance to thank her for her long service?

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The official Platinum Jubilee portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, photographed at Windsor Castle in May 2022, released by Buckingham Palace on June 1, 2022.

And beyond that: Will it be as much fun without her, not just during this jubilee but in the future stretching before them? Will the British embrace her son and heir, King Charles III, and will the monarchy continue? 

Jubilees are not uncommon in British royal history but Elizabeth has celebrated more than any other monarch.  The 2012 Diamond Jubilee, the most recent national party, celebrated her 60 years on the throne. 

"It's a unique moment in British history because, although there were earlier jubilees, this is the first time we're celebrating a 70-year reign so it's a significant moment for the monarchy," says Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine who's been watching the queen all his professional life.

Sally Bedell Smith, the acclaimed American biographer of the queen who is in London for the Platinum Jubilee, was at the Diamond celebration in 2012 when it poured rain. She says people marveled at the fortitude of the queen and royal family as they sailed down the Thames amidst a flotilla of a thousand boats in an impressive if soggy spectacle. Smith was watching from a jubilee party in a friend’s flat overlooking the river, she told USA TODAY.

Prince Charles, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II, Duchess Camilla of Cornwall, Duchess Kate of Cambridge, Prince William and Prince Harry on the Spirit of Chartwell during the Diamond Jubilee Thames River Pageant on June 3, 2012 in London. The river pageant featured a flotilla of a 1,000 boats accompanying the royals down The Thames.

"When the queen, Philip, Charles, and Camilla emerged from under the Battersea Bridge, it was a teary moment as the queen and Philip smiled and waved at the cheering crowds standing ten deep along the riverbanks," Smith recalled. "Everyone with us on the balcony burst into choruses of 'God Save the Queen.' I think there will be some comparably emotional moments in the days ahead."  

The backdrop for this jubilee is the uncertainty of the queen's public appearances, which have waxed and waned since she tested positive for COVID-19 in February: She made it to the memorial service at Westminster Abbey for her late husband, Prince Philip, in March but missed the May 10 State Opening of Parliament , one of her most high-profile roles as head of state (Prince Charles filled in).  

Then she appeared at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, looking delighted as usual about one of her favorite annual events, featuring hundreds of equines on show. She also turned up for the beloved Chelsea Flower Show, arriving in a fancy six-seater golf cart (with a liveried chauffer) to tour the sprawling plant paean to the British love of gardening. 

Images of Queen Elizabeth II from each decade of her reign are projected on to Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England to mark her Platinum Jubilee.

Will the people embrace the next generation of royals?

"All royal coverage is inflected by an ominous sense of the queen's decline; it's clear she is frail and vulnerable," says Nicoletta Gullace, an associate professor of British history at the University of New Hampshire. "People are looking at what the future is going to be ... Are people going to believe in monarchy with the next generation (of royals)?

"She is the last of a great line of kings and queens and it's almost as if (jubilee organizers) are trying to convince the public it's going to be OK. And the public is not necessarily sure it's going to be OK."

The British, almost all of whom have never known another monarch, are "facing the undoubted fact that, though robust all her life, the queen who guided the nation so brilliantly through the (COVID-19) pandemic has had health issues since October, and her difficulties make her ability to move unpredictable," says royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams.  

Little points out that most nonagenarians have "good days and not-so-good days."

A chalk illustration of Queen Elizabeth II is seen outside a greeting card store on May 30, 2022 in London, in advance of her four-day Platinum Jubilee celebration beginning June 2, to mark the 70th anniversary of her reign.

"There is no need for her to be at every occasion – she can watch from the comfort of home since it's all going to be televised (by the BBC)," says Little. "The question we ask ourselves is after the jubilee, how much will we see her (in public)? "

The official jubilee celebration – four days of pageantry, parades and dancing puppets, street parties and heavenly puddings, pop music and solemn religious services – starts Thursday. Nowadays, the palace announces her appearances only at the last minute depending on how she feels, and it's going to be the same for the jubilee. 

"It will be disappointing if she is not there, thinking of the millions of pounds invested in this and the size of the crowds expected," says Gullace. "It might be seen (by the public) as kind of an empty celebration if she misses significant events."

Red London buses and taxis pass beneath British flags celebrating Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee, in Regent Street in central London on May 27, 2022.

Will the queen appear at jubilee events?

For the first time in 70 years, it's expected she won't take part in one aspect of an annual ritual: "Taking the salute" Thursday at Horse Guards Parade during the Trooping the Colour parade by ranks of horse-mounted members of her personal guard. Prince Charles, his son, Prince William, and the queen's daughter, Princess Anne, will stand in, and other members of the family, including grandson Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan of Sussex, will be watching from the nearby Major General's Office.  

In most of the years of her reign, the queen, a skilled horsewoman, took the salute dressed in a scarlet-and-navy uniform and on one of her own horses; in recent years she has climbed into a royal carriage to travel down The Mall from the palace to Horse Guards. But an antique carriage is uncomfortable in best of times and climbing in and out is tricky for even the most nimble.  

But the queen is expected to appear at the end of the Trooping parade when she gathers with her family – limited this time to just the "working" royals, so Harry and Meghan and son Prince Andrew aren't invited – on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to bask in the cheers and watch a flyover by the Royal Air Force. 

Prince William, Colonel of the Irish Guards, leads The Colonel's Review at Horse Guards Parade on May 28, 2022 in London, in the final rehearsal for the Trooping the Colour parade on June 2 in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee.

Will Harry and Meghan attend jubilee events?

Another ceremony she will want to attend, Little says, is the Service of Thanksgiving in St. Paul's Cathedral on Friday, which will feature all the members of her family, including Harry and Meghan and Andrew. The queen is very devout and, as the supreme head of the Church of England, the conflation of church and state is embodied in her. But she won't be going up the cathedral's steep front steps. 

"She has tended to make religious services, even when she's bowed out of state duties," Gullace says. "The people who are producing this jubilee must be on pins and needles, not knowing if the star will show up."

It's also expected she will miss another annual event she has rarely missed: the Epsom Derby horse-racing meet on Saturday . Instead, she's expected to meet Lilibet, the great-grandchild named for her by parents Harry and Meghan. The baby turns 1 year old on Saturday and is making her first visit to her father's home country since her birth in California, where the couple moved after stepping away from their royal roles in 2020.

The jubilee celebration is not without controversy thanks to media preoccupation with Harry, Meghan and Andrew and when and where they will be seen. All three are widely disliked in the U.K, according to polls, and the tabloids remain preoccupied with whether the Sussex "sideshow" will "overshadow" the queen, cause resentment in the family, and damage the monarchy and its future monarch. 

But new polling suggests the these worries may be overblown: An Ipsos poll released Sunday shows 86% of those polled approve of the queen's job performance, while 68% are in favor of Britain remaining a monarchy – up 8 percentage points since November. Also, a respectable majority (65%) are satisfied with Prince Charles' job performance as the Prince of Wales.

A May YouGov poll released Tuesday showed that 81% of Britons have a positive opinion of the queen, including 60% of those aged 18 to 24. By contrast, 63% of those polled hold a negative view of Harry and Meghan, a record low in YouGov royal polling.  

Even at a May 26 debate by the famous Oxford Union, monarchy won the day, says Fitzwilliams, who was one of four debaters who argued against the proposition that "monarchy is mere celebrity." The vote was 9 for, 88 against the proposition, he said.

"On the eve of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, this motion was an opportunity for students to send an anti-monarchy message and they chose not to do so, which is highly significant," he says.  

Robert Lacey, the journalist, historian, royal biographer and adviser on Netflix's "The Crown," says one way to measure public opinion on the monarchy is to watch celebrations like the jubilee. If few turn out to cheer, that's a definitive judgment, he says. 

"The monarchy is not elected, so the only way in which a monarch can demonstrate consent is not through the ballot box, but through people turning out on the streets," Lacey told the Associated Press. "Well, when it comes to Elizabeth ... people can't wait to mass and cheer together." 

So Britain is dressed and ready to party: Patriotic bunting and Union Jacks drape over streets and the pictures of the queen are everywhere. Beacons are set to be lighted throughout the kingdom, church bells will ring out and people will feast at huge street lunches on Sunday.

Will celebrities attend the Jubilee festivities?

Stars performers, including Elton John and Ed Sheeran, will shine at the Platinum Party at the Palace concert on Saturday night. At the Platinum Jubilee Pageant on Sunday night some 5,000 artists, dancers, musicians and other performers will parade down The Mall telling the story of the queen's reign in a colorful festival:

Dancers dressed as zebras and giraffes will recall how, in 1952, then-Princess Elizabeth learned she had become queen while visiting a game park in Kenya. Another group of performers will replay the queen's 1947 marriage to Prince Philip with Bollywood-style dancingGiant puppets of corgis, swans and the queen's favorite horses will form a playful procession led by a giant model of Lady Godiva.

Documentaries, films and palace exhibits focused on the queen's gowns and jewels are among the fare: "Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s), a somewhat quirky film that premiered on May 27 in the U.K., is airing on Showtime in the U.S. "Elizabeth: Unseen Queen," a collection of private, family film footage covering her childhood to her 1953 coronation, aired on the BBC on Sunday  and can be seen on YouTube.

How can we watch the jubilee in the U.S.?

In the U.S., Americans can watch the BBC's official coverage of the jubilee on ABC, which announced Tuesday it has partnered with the U.K.'s national broadcaster to provide live reports of events daily on all its platforms but especially on royals-loving morning programs. "Good Morning America" will feature a special edition on Thursday, as the festivities begin.

The other major news networks also are planning extensive coverage and content, such as CBS' "Her Majesty the Queen: A CBS Special with Gayle King," airing on Friday.  PBS and cable channels, such as The Smithsonian Channel, will also be airing hours of content.

Back in the U.K., English Heritage, which oversees the landmark 5,000-year-old Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, arranged to project some of the queen's many portraits on the ancient stones. "We've brought two British icons together to mark the #PlatinumJubilee! We’ve projected eight portraits of Queen Elizabeth II onto Stonehenge," English Heritage said in a statement on Twitter.

English Heritage also partnered with the National Portrait Gallery, a London arts organization and a business improvement district to project a reel of six famous portraits of the queen from the gallery's collection on to the Marble Arch, illuminating the iconic gateway on the northeast corner of Hyde Park near Buckingham Palace.

Two portraits of Queen Elizabeth II from the collection of London's National Portrait Gallery are among a reel of six projected on the Marble Arch in Hyde Park to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee.

More royal portraits and some dazzling tiaras went on display at Sotheby's in London, featuring artworks such as a famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Andy Warhol's 1985 painting of Elizabeth II, plus depictions of other female monarchs such as Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria.

Amidst the hoopla, Gullace wonders if an apt metaphor for the jubilee is the official Platinum Jubilee Pudding, a trifle of lemon and Swiss roll amaretti, selected from 5,000 entries in a nationwide competition. Created by a Merseyside baker inspired by the lemon dessert served at the queen's wedding, it's made with layers of lemon curd, Swiss roll, custard, jelly, a mandarin coulis and almond cookies; In another words, a sweet-and-sour pudding.

"The two things (jubilee organizers) are not able to control are the queen's health or the actions of Harry and Meghan and their effects," she says. "There's got to be anxiety because people know what jubilees should be like because of the Golden and Diamond jubilees. But they don't know if this one will go like that."