Arts diary: The Queen may invite the artists to her place, but will they come?

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I MUST confess to feeling somewhat smug as I sat in a long line of traffic one evening last week. The queue of cars was waiting along a private drive of about a mile long. At the top of the drive was Windsor Castle. With the Royal Ensign flying from its faux-battlements. I looked at the Ensign and considered that, in a very very small way, the flag was flying because of me, since the Queen was At Home for a drinks party to which I was invited.

The Queen's first ever party for the creative mob was heralded a few months ago, in fairly traditional style. A gilt-edged invitation, post- marked Buckingham Palace had announced in flowing script that one had been invited by her Majesty's Command to an "evening for the arts". Altogether, it had a sort of nonchalance about it. As if this was the sort of event which happened all the time between the Queen and her creative subjects.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Queen is not, and has never been, noted for her interest in the arts, no matter how many institutions she is Patron of. It appears she doesn't even like to sit through a full-length drama either. When she declared the Globe Theatre open last year an evening of "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" was performed, rather than a whole play. Windsor Castle had never declared itself At Home to the arts establishment before. Equally, arts people have never been arch Royalists.

Perhaps, before the tumultuous events of 1997, the monarchy never needed to concern itself with the arts. But as much as last year was about Diana, so it was also about the pre-eminence and importance of modern British culture, both around the world and at home. The Queen had clearly been advised it is time to get to know Cool Britannia, perhaps she and Tony had even discussed the guest list.

Arriving at the car park I sensed a distinct air of hysterical excitement amongst the guests. We all boarded a small Royal Coach, possibly one normally used by the Royals, which was to take us from car park to Castle. A saucy Danielle Steele novel was discovered lying on the back seat. More hysteria when the name "Andrew" was found inscribed on the fly-leaf.

We walked in under ceilings encrusted with shameless amounts of gold and were handed glasses of gin and tonic by red-jacketed flunkies. I sort of almost bumped into Michael Caine. This was going to be a good night.

Yet there were plenty in the arts world who did not respond positively to the splendid invitation. Everyone knew who the refuseniks were, for as well as the drinks, we were also each handed a ring-bound booklet containing the Guest List. Interestingly - and bravely - at the back of the book was a list of Refusees. Whether those under the category of "Also Invited" had declined because of their republican beliefs or a diary clash was unclear, but the two lists made a fascinating comparison.

Eight hundred or so were invited. Those who turned up included: Beryl Bainbridge, Lord Gowrie, Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham-Carter, Coronation Street's Ken Barlow, Richard Stilgoe, the war artists Peter Howson and John Keane, and the conceptual artist Mark Wallinger (presumably a Royal favourite because he once bought a working racehorse and exhibited it as a Real Work Of Art).

Not a bad crowd at all, but all the same, not terribly surprising. Helena Bonham-Carter, for one, greeted Princess Margaret with kisses on both cheeks as if she had seen her only last week for lunch.

However, there were over three hundred in the arts world who had turned down the invitation to hobnob with the Windsors. Among these were: Alan Bennett, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread, the painter Gary Hume, Richard E. Grant, radical architect Daniel Libeskind, Sir Richard Eyre, Sir Ian McKellen, Elton John (as if), and Gary Oldham (ditto).

Was it a question of one Cool Britannia bash too many? A symptom of the recent froideur between the arts crowd and Tony Blair? Or just a coincidence that many of the people who didn't come were Artists With Attitude.

Obviously, this was not the case with every refusal. I'm sure Cliff Richard and Welsh craft specialist Geraint Jenkins, to name just two, do not believe that artists should be distant from the monarchy. I learnt that Neil Macgregor, the charming director of the National Gallery, was away in Scotland. Lenny Henry was hardly staying away on principle, given that his wife Dawn French was there in full flow, hugging everyone in sight. The Queen's own Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, wasn't in evidence, but then he never gives TV interviews either.

However, I feel sure some people declined because they felt they should. For likes of film-maker Mike Leigh, director Deborah Warner and Lucien Freud, attending drinkies with the Queen would probably seem like hypocrisy. These are people whose work has remained true to the classical ideal of art. Although lauded by the establishment, their art is a baying presence outside it. They produce difficult stuff; they are not entertainers, but thorns in society's smug mediocrity.

To see them parading in smart clothes at Windsor Castle would have been awful. It would be cynical. It would be capitulation. How much better to bump into Michael Caine at Windsor Castle, than to actually bump into Mike Leigh.

So if serious artists stayed away, why were we there? Firstly, flattery. It was jolly nice to be invited. Secondly, curiosity. To see the Windsors' circular lawn, nail-scissored to perfection, and the flunkies close up, was surreally exciting. To get within sniffing distance of inconceivable wealth. To feel, for once, part of the club.

And thirdly, because the evening provided a truly communal experience for artists, arts administrators and arts journalists from across the country. Rather than squabbling over Arts Council grants, here we were talking to each other over sausages on sticks and mini-pizzas (such ironically hip canapes), and from time to time, gawping at the Queen. She might not be an arts buff, but she seemed to be having an amusing evening.

My most cherished moment came when I witnessed Joan Collins introduce Shirley "Goldfinger" Bassey to Trevor Nunn, the new director of the National Theatre. The Queen of Sequins meets the King of Distressed Concrete. The worry of a resultant co-production has been on my mind ever since.

Rosie Millard is arts correspondent of the BBC.

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