The Queen's Speech: The Sketch - Chocolate box occasion pleases the soft centre

`The peasants might have been wearing their Sunday best but they had come armed with legislative pitch-forks and were looking for blue blood'
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The Independent Online
THERE HAD been talk of a less ceremonial Queen's Speech this year but evidence of a new informality wasn't easy to spot on the refulgent terraces of the House of Lords. True, one of the Slavic ambassadors turned up in a white felt jerkin complete with cartridge pouches, a garment better suited to stalking elk across the taiga than observing the most endangered species in Britain in their natural habitat. But his ethnic flourish offered no insult to protocol. Ambassadors can elect to turn up in full court dress, complete with sashes, stars and gold frogging, or to dress as if they are competing in the national dress section of a beauty pageant. The resulting selection box of dignitaries offers a peculiarly Hollywood vision of cosmopolitan splendour, a great swathe of scarlet-robed extras providing the scene's dominant colour note and here and there some foreign bodies for the cutaways: a Papal nuncio, perhaps, caught in conversation with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem; a sheikh conversing with a nawab; here a dashiki, there a ceremonial kimono.

In the unlikely event of Ferrero-Rocher getting a royal warrant of approval for their nubbly chocolates, the new advert should look a lot like this. Oooh, your majesty, with this pageantry you are spoiling us.

AND, IN a presentation box kind of way, it is impressive not least for its demonstration that a single woman can command the respectful attention of a room crammed with the great, the good and the lucky. Of course, when the Queen eventually arrived Jamie Lee Curtis (here as Lady Haden-Guest) had to share the limelight, but then the Queen has a speaking role, even if she doesn't get script approval, and that's bound to give her an edge with the audience. But before she begins she has to wait for the arrival of the Commons, summoned by Black Rod in a venerable pantomime of loyal subjection. There is a profound silence and then you can hear them advancing through the lobby, the murmur of a mob slowly rising in volume as they approach.

HER MAJESTY looked mildly apprehensive. She was probably concentrating on keeping her head upright, but this year the faint suggestion of insurrection this moment always brings had some justification. The peasants might have been wearing their Sunday best but they had come armed with legislative pitchforks and were looking for a splash of blue blood. What's more the Queen had to read out the warrant of execution herself and endure the innovation that followed - an unprecedented interruption which began as the rising moo of a parliamentary "hear, hear" and then modulated, somewhere over the peers' benches, into an indignant groan of disapproval. It was an ambiguous noise, but a reminiscent one too - as out of place as that susurration which rolled up the aisles of Westminster Abbey during Diana's funeral, and just as charged with implication.

In the Commons, later, there were no equivalent breaches of tradition. Two Labour backbenchers welcomed the Government's programme and the opening speeches from William Hague and the Prime Minister matched them almost exactly in tone. Mr Hague, like Joe Ashton, offered a lot of excellent jokes with almost no connective tissue, while Tony Blair echoed Lynda Carter, with a speech which drearily insisted on reciting the facts. The merits of their arguments is a matter of debate itself, but in terms of entertainment there was no competition. Mr Hague so infuriated John Prescott with jibes about his political potency that it seemed possible that the Deputy Prime Minister's eyebrows might actually meet his lower lip at one point, as he scowled away like a temple demon. Mr Blair, on the other hand, could barely secure the attention of the Opposition, let alone provoke genuine indignation in them (as opposed to the synthetic kind, which is always on hand). He scarcely needs to worry about this now but one does wonder what he might do without that large - and largely silent - majority behind him.