Actress Jean Boht talks to Alison Jones about her celebration concert for the 60th anniversary of the Queen's Coronation.
When it comes to royal events, we British pride ourselves on showing the world how it is done.
When circumstances demand it, we can put on the pomp.
Whether it is a prince getting wed, silver, golden or diamond jubilees or colours being trooped, it comes together in a mix of military pageantry and flag waving fervour.
However, according to actress Jean Boht’s research, such events haven’t always run smoothly. In fact accounts of George VI’s coronation indicate that it had the poise of an up-ended swan.
“It was an absolute shambles,” chortles Jean. “They didn’t rehearse it much.”
She has been brushing up on her knowledge of such things ready for her role in We’ll Meet Again – A 60th Anniversary Coronation Tribute, which is being staged at Symphony Hall on Sunday.
Presented by Raymond Gubbay, it is a programme of wartime and post wartime sing-along songs, classical anthems and anecdotes about the coronation related by Jean, who has been earnestly ploughing through books about the royals and the day itself.
“It has been a great pleasure for me to do research for the concert. It has been very interesting to uncover all the information about it,” says Jean.
She found the Queen, who was 11 at the time her father was crowned, was determined that organisational lessons should be learnt, particularly as this would be the first coronation to be televised.
“She said nobody knew what they were supposed to do. It was very informal.
“At first they were very reluctant to allow (hers) to be filmed because they knew how easily it could go wrong.
“She wanted to make sure that as little as possible did. She rehearsed it all and made sure everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do.”
There were still mishaps, albeit minor, such as a lord stepping on his robes and tearing them, a bow to the altar that was forgotten and the Queen struggling to start walking as her train dragged on the carpet.
In spite of the solemnity of the day, there was still an atmosphere that this was something of a jolly day out.
“They had coffee bars and canteens and everything,” says Jean. “People bought sandwiches and picnics to the Abbey because it went on for five or six hours. One Bishop stuck his sandwiches in his mitre then took them out and offered them round.
“There were many anterooms and dining rooms and toilets that were built.”
Jean, who was a young woman at the time, watched it at home, like half of the nation.
“My father had bought a television for the wedding (in 1947) and all the ladies came round for that. The coronation was some years later but it was still the same black and white set in the corner.
“All the neighbours came back in. One of them was quite old and a little bit incontinent. I said to my mum ‘What’ll we do if she wants to go to the toilet? We’ll have to carry her upstairs and she’s huge’.
“But I found out in Georgian times they always had a potty to carry round, they stuck it under their hooped skirt I suppose. So I said ‘we’ll put a potty in the kitchen and if she wants to she can pee in there’. But she was fine.”
Adding to Jean’s pleasure at being asked to do this coronation concert is the fact she will be reunited with “my Joey” – the actor and singer Graham Bickley, who took over from Peter Howitt as the oldest of Nellie Boswell’s (Jean) five children in the hit 80s sitcom Bread.
Though a family of ne’er do wells who made a living wringing cash out of the benefits system would be a comedic lead balloon today, back in Thatcher’s Britain the series about Scouse scallywags drew audiences of more than 20 million at its peak.
“I’d done theatre most of my life then Bread came along. Nobody expected it to work but it did,” recalls Jean, who sounds far plummier than the heavily accented Liverpudlian matriarch she played.
“We had the brilliant genius writer in Carla Lane and the boys in it made the show.”
Now in her late 70s, Jean’s commitment to work remains unstinting. Married to the composer Carl Davis, the pair run a record company and, when she is not on stage, Jean is there to support him.
“I am married to a very busy man. We are due in America next year. He does all these big silent film scores and concerts. He has written ballets for David Bintley at the Hippodrome
“I come up to Birmingham to all the concerts. It is a wonderful hall. It has a very nice cafe.
“I am never part of his shows because he talks himself, except for when he wrote some pieces for the Liverpool Philharmonic and I read with the orchestra. This is something new to me.”
Part of the reasons she feels that the popularity of the Queen has endured is that ordinary people can feel a kinship with her. That, sorely tested by her children and foot-in-mouth husband Philip, she is not a million miles from Ma Boswell, hanging onto her dignity while all about her are losing theirs.
“She is wonderful. She has been through such terrible times with her family but she has survived. The things that have happened to her have happened to every family.
“The royals used to be quite excluded from the world but the war and her reign changed everything. They became like any ordinary broke family, which a lot of us are at the moment, and they have had to forgo a lot of things that the royal family might expect to include in their lives.
“So come along to the concert, bring a flag and say ‘Thank you your Majesty for being the Queen you are’.”
* We’ll Meet Again – A 60th Anniversary Coronation Tribute is at Symphony Hall on Sunday, May 12, at 3pm. For details call the box office on 0121 345 0603.