'I don't want it to be boring': Former circus producer reveals plans for Diamond Jubilee river parade

Ian Burrell meets Adrian Evans, the man sticking an oar into the Thames Pageant.
  • @iburrell

There was a time during his circus days when Adrian Evans was more than happy to test the boundaries of health and safety with a couple of chainsaws or a motorcycle wall of death. He needs to be a little more cautious now the Queen has been entrusted into his care.

Evans is Pageant Master for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, taking place on 3 June. He's presiding over the most ambitious event ever staged on the River Thames. Security is a key concern but he has another fear. "You don't want it to be boring," he says.

He wants this pageant to be more memorable than any of the previous great processions down London's aquatic thoroughfare, from Churchill's state funeral to George I being serenaded by Handel's Water Music in 1717. Evans even plans to overshadow the extravagant unveiling by Charles II of his new wife Catherine of Braganza in a procession witnessed by Samuel Pepys from the riverbank in 1662. "The most magnificent triumph that ever floated on the Thames, considering the innumerable boates and vessells dress'd and adorn'd with all imaginable pomp," was the diarist's verdict.

Evans, 54, has dedicated his working life to creating spectacles. For years he produced the anarchic French circus troupe Archaos, and he has overseen many music festivals, including London's Millennium celebrations. He has also "immersed" himself in the history and cultural importance of London's great river, having directed the Mayor's Thames Festival since founding the event 15 years ago.

But the pressure of this occasion still weighs heavily. "I am trying to relish and enjoy every second of it because I know that it is a one-off but there's an enormous pressure that this goes well," he says. "Because you are always in a crowded room when things go well but if it doesn't, everyone disappears out the side doors and you are left on your lonely own-some to face the music."

There are likely to be more than one million people lining the river when the pageant takes place on 3 June. The first thing that they will hear as the flotilla approaches from the west will be the peel of eight mighty church bells cast especially for the event at a foundry in Whitechapel, east London, which has been going since the 16th-century. In their immediate wake will be a mass of man-powered boats, including an 18th- century craft brought up from Mount St Michael in Cornwall, the oldest vessel in the pageant.

Evans is determined the 75-minute event will be "exciting theatrically" and has told the skippers to "cluster" in close proximity. "They are navigating at one boat's distance which takes an extraordinary confidence," he says. Only sailors with experience of tidal waters have been permitted to take part.

"It's a really treacherous environment. On the tides you can get a wave which is more than a metre high at London Bridge. 1,000 vessels on the Thames is a mega challenge. If even one person goes into the river and drowns that is what this event is going to be known for, not for having transported the other 29,999 safely," Evans says.

He is working from an office close to the Oxo Tower at Blackfriars. As part of the first Thames Festival he organised a tightrope to be stretched from the tower to a point on the north side of the river. Two of his Archaos daredevils then walked towards each other from opposite riverbanks. "One of the guys laid down on his back and the other walked over him [when they met]. It was an astonishing thing to happen in London, and with the most beautiful sunset and a low tide," he recalls.

Evans was born by the river, at Woolwich, and grew up on the coast in Poole in a military family. He studied history of art at Edinburgh but indulged his loves of theatre and music by founding the Bedlam theatre company and working in a jazz club.

He has commissioned 11 of Britain's finest composers (including Gavin Greenaway, who wrote the score for the film Gladiator, and Anne Dudley, who won an Oscar for The Full Monty score) to provide music for the "New Water Music" boat. Evans hopes one of these pieces will "topple Handel from his position of supremacy", after 300 years in which the Baroque composer's music has been associated with the Thames. The original Water Music will be played by the Academy of Ancient Music on period instruments, sailing ahead of the Royal Squadron.

Evans faces particular challenges in making the Queen a focal point. "I want the royal barge to fulfil the same role as the gold coach does on these state pageants. But on land you have this jewel of a gold coach and this phalanx of cavalry behind which magnifies the royal presence and adds grandeur and drama. So I issued a challenge to the Navy to come up with a water equivalent." Consequently a number of Offshore Raiding Craft will accompany the barge.

The Pageant Master thought long and hard about whether he should have a "Brian May moment", referring to the Queen guitarist's solo of "God Save The Queen" from the roof of the Party at the Palace in 2002. "The star is her, not a pop star who is trying to shift some more records. It is in recognition of her 60 years and you don't get a bigger star than her," he says. "When I stopped thinking about should I get X or Y rock band, it was a liberating step to make. There's so much baggage that surrounds the celebrity mob that it's much better to have one big celebrity than a bunch of others – they can watch."

Similarly he has shunned commercial sponsorship. "I didn't want any commercial branding on the river. There is no McDonald's boat and just no branded boat because I think that diminishes it. And that of course is a great challenge to those raising money because these days the way you get money for this sort of thing is by forcing brands down people's throats."

A £10m budget has been raised mostly by personal donations. But despite such goodwill, Evans remains nervous that riverside householders might still try to cash in on the event. "The message should go out to people to do this right as a city and a country," he says, by way of an appeal. "It's a moment to be proud and putting a product banner down the side of a building doesn't seem to me to be setting the right tone."

The protest drama at this year's Boat Race has prompted a further review of security. "It forced us to go back and ask 'Are we robust enough?' I suspect there will be more crowd management and policing which is unfortunate because it just means that the bill will go up because Trenton Oldfield has done his thing."

But Evans will not be short of support, not least from the watermen and the rest of the working river community which has grown since the clean-up of the Thames and the increased congestion in the city's streets. They want to see the procession of the 50 Dunkirk little ships, the 16 Chinese dragon boats, the sea kayaks, the tugboats and the fireboats spouting water jets 70 feet into the air.

"This is one of the biggest events that London will ever have put on," Evans says. "The estimation is that we will have a congested city centre from Putney right down to Greenwich and you want people to be excited by what they see."