Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: Pop kettle on for Queen's 90th tribute

Queen Elizabeth II observes her 90th birthday festivities. Photo / AP
Queen Elizabeth II observes her 90th birthday festivities. Photo / AP

Many happy returns and thanks for the day off work on Monday to Her Majesty the Queen who, at 90 years old, remains possibly the only person in the world famous enough to have their birthday party broadcast on TV.

The celebrations were held at Windsor Castle's Home Park last month, but the extended highlights were saved until Sunday afternoon for us, right in the middle of the long weekend. The perfect time to brew a pot of Twinings in the Royal Doulton and settle in for an hour and a half of pomp and ceremony so far removed from real life that at times it was like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.

A reported 900 horses took part in the spectacle, and the equine theme was even carried through to the choice of two jockey-sized men as the event's MCs. Ant and Dec kicked the party off by introducing "one of Britain's finest singer-songwriters", Gary Barlow from Take That, who pulled off a pitch-perfect pastiche of a mid-70s Elton John piano stomper while stunt drivers in Union Jack-painted convertibles carefully rarked up the Home Park sand.

The Queen watched on from her box, where she was joined by a cast of royals both popular (Wills and Kate!) and wonderfully obscure (Donatus, Landgrave of Hesse). To her left sat Prince Philip; to her right, the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Behind her, Princess Beatrice and a man who looked like Victor Meldrew from One Foot In the Grave.

For a moment, it seemed as if the whole extravaganza might follow a strictly This is Your Life trajectory as Dame Helen Mirren narrated a passage fondly evoking Great Britain's "Keep Calm and Carry On" wartime spirit before "superstar tenor" Alfie Boe crooned A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square to a scene performed by a World War II re-enactment society.

Fortunately, any further attempts at an overarching narrative were abandoned - at least in the TV highlights version - in favour of a procession of horses from around the world doing cool tricks. The Omani riders stood up on their horses to play Happy Birthday on what sounded like bagpipes; the riders from Azerbaijan got their horses to sit down. Chilean huasos led their horses in a dance.

Nine hundred horses and their riders from around the world were among the highlights of the Queen's 90th birthday extravaganza. Photo / AP
Nine hundred horses and their riders from around the world were among the highlights of the Queen's 90th birthday extravaganza. Photo / AP

None of these were any match for French horse whisperer Jean-Francois Pignon, who performed a special duet with Kylie Minogue in what was the night's most surreal event. While she sang I Believe in You, he dramatically whispered to a mob of horses on the ground below, encouraging a Shetland pony to walk delightfully on its hind legs.

New Zealand's time to shine came during a military march-off between bands from across the Commonwealth. After the South Australian Police Band's sickeningly patriotic medley of Waltzing Matilda, I Should Be So Lucky and The Loco-motion, the New Zealand Army Band went one better with a comedy set featuring a slow-motion Chariots of Fire homage. It earned a generous chuckle from Prince Harry, and a barely perceptible twitch at the edges of Her Majesty's mouth.

For a moment, it seemed as if the whole extravaganza might follow a strictly 'This is Your Life' trajectory.

Frequent cutaways to the Queen throughout the show revealed a monarch characteristically unmoved by the majority of her 90th birthday celebrations. The one exception came during a parade showcasing her various residences, full of polo stuff and dogs in charming regimental outfits, with a couple of cattle thrown in for good measure. At the sight of these Her Majesty's eyes lit up, she nudged Prince Philip and excitedly exclaimed: "Cows!"

After a volley of fireworks, which probably gave half the 900 horses in the stables heart attacks, the soothing voice of the royal commentator, which had been absent for much of the show, returned to commentate its closing moments.

The Queen shook hands with assembled celebrities - "Kylie Minogue, all the way from Australia. James Blunt. Nina Wadia from Eastenders. Martin Clunes, President of the British Horse Society ... " - then hopped in the royal motorcade and gapped it.

- NZ Herald

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Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

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