It’s a token of the waning power of the British monarchy that Adele and Harry Styles aren’t apprehensively contemplating Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London and plotting emergency escape routes to France. at the Coronation Concert. The call went out from king and country, but Britain’s top pop stars apparently had other pressing engagements. Perhaps with shampoo and conditioner.
It wouldn’t have happened in Henry VIII’s day. However, the Carolean accession of 2023 must reckon with the diminished tools of command at modern royalty’s disposal. Which is a fancy way of saying that the pop concert in celebration of King Charles III’s coronation was several gems short of the full diadem.
The event was organized and broadcast live by the BBC and took place at Windsor Castle, the longest-occupied royal palace in Europe. Never before had so many subjects gathered within its regal precinct. Twenty thousand people were present, a dressed-down mix of ages and ethnicities. There was the odd bowler hat with Union Jack fluttering from its dome, but tourist-postcard displays of sartorial royalism were otherwise scarce among this cheerful cross-section of High Street Britain, winners of a ticket lottery.
“The sun is out and we have a king!” cried the warm-up DJ, BBC Radio 1’s Scott Mills. The orb in question sank behind the castle, which in turn stood behind the stage, a spectacular setting. Thousands of little Union Jacks were waved, a plasticky sea of red, white and blue. All heads swung round to the Royal Box when King Charles and Queen Camilla entered with other members of the royal family. Swapping the obscure ceremonial vestments of his previous day’s coronation at Westminster Abbey , the new monarch was more casually attired in a dark blue suit.
Rave reviews had been received for the music at the Abbey, handpicked by the King. Handel trended on Twitter, while Zadok is bound to join Noah and Olivia among Britain’s most popular baby names in nine months’ time. An opening salvo of kettle drums and trumpet fanfares suggested more of the same from the stage at Windsor Castle. But then the conductor of the Household Division Regimental Bands waved the baton as though possessed, and ranks of orchestral violinists started sawing away like carpenters. Dance music DJ Pete Tong beamed from behind his console as two singers belted out an orchestral version of his Ibiza anthem “Feel the Love”.
So began a concert that was closer in spirit to the cheesy inanity of the annual Royal Variety Performance than a magnificent inflection point in British pomp and flummery. Downton Abbey actor Hugh Bonneville was the compère, cracking unfunny jokes scripted by the national-occasion wing of the BBC’s light entertainment department. Some stilted banter with Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy of The Muppets was particularly dire: Windsor Castle’s gardeners will have a lot of tumbleweed to clear away.
There were video messages from honorific-bearing British stars of stage and screen, the likes of Dame Joan Collins and Sir Tom Jones, sharing little known facts about the King and Queen, a litany of trivia about cello-playing and rescue dogs. Tom Cruise was filmed waving from the cockpit of an airborne plane, promising Charles that “You can be my wingman anytime.” The fluttering of Union Jacks momentarily stopped as all present rubbed their eyes and gaped.
The new King rules over a global set of countries with a vast expanse of musical styles. Strangely, the singing acts on the bill hardly reflected this. Nigerian Afrobeats singer Tiwa Savage performed an over-orchestrated version of her song “Keys to the Kingdom” A Commonwealth choir appeared with veteran British rocker Steve Winwood for his hit “Higher Love”. English acts featured heavily, including drably middle-of-the-road types such as Olly Murs and Paloma Faith. The other countries of the UK were under -represented.
Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel did a thunderous duet of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, both roaring away like the aircraft overhead on the flight path to Heathrow. Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang tinkled the ivories in accompaniment with Nicole Scherzinger, former leader of Los Angeles girl group The Pussycat Dolls. She did a cut-price Céline Dion impression on the Disney ballad “Reflection”, all clenched fists and grappling-hook high notes.
In a sign of the evening’s undazzling star-wattage, a susurration of excitement went through the audience at the announcement of “international superstar” Lionel Richie. The old stager played it like a pro, propelling himself upright from piano stool to lip of stage with microphone during the big key change in The Commodores’ “Easy”. The Royal Box clambered to its feet and jiggled decorously.
“Global pop icon” Katy Perry was fresh from her scene-stealing cameo at the coronation ceremony involving an impractical fascinator the size of a UFO. Hatless tonight in a big golden frock and dispensing regal US showbiz greetings (“I’m so happy to be here with all you people”), she brought 1,200 years of monarchy to some sort of a culminating point with a huge singalong to “Roar”. Covertly subversive rendition of “Firework”, a hit inspired by US independence celebrations, neutralized on this occasion by sappy orchestral arrangements.
The highlight was a breathtaking display of drone lighting technology that created images of the natural world in the night sky during a section of eco-messaging. Next to that, the evening’s headliners were distinctly underwhelming: “British pop royalty” Take That, or rather the three remaining members, without their most famous ex-colleague, Robbie Williams. They ended the night with ponderous anthem “Never Forget”, accompanied by military drummers.
No sooner had it ended than all present swivelled around to applaud King Charles III fiddling with his cufflinks in the Royal Box. Perhaps a sly Machiavellian stratagem had taken place. Majesty’s luster couldn’t help but outshine that of showbiz at the Coronation Concert.