On Tuesday, May 15, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited St Mark’s Academy in Merton. As two-time winner of Entrepreneur of the Year in the borough and one of its most well-known photographers, I was asked by Merton Council to capture the event to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee.
The last time the Queen made an official visit to Merton was 35 years ago (aside from a visit to the tennis in 2010 when Andy Murray was playing). Before Henry VIII demolished all the abbeys, kings and queens were actually crowned in Merton Abbey – yes, just next to where Julia Boggio Studios is located.
Now the remains of the Abbey lie underneath a dual carriageway. Merton has quite a royal history – and, of course, one of the biggest tennis championships in the world – so it’s understandable why it would secure a place on the Diamond Jubilee tour.
James, my assistant Marte, and I made our way to the school early on Tuesday morning to clear security and start photographing the details of the event. So many people had put in their time and skills to make the day go off without a hitch; florists, caterers, organisers, and the school children all worked hard to make sure it was a special day for Merton and the Queen. And my duty was to record it all, so that our studio could design and produce a beautiful commemorative album to celebrate the occasion. No pressure!
As the Queen’s arrival time drew near, everybody looked to the stormy sky, willing it to clear up. Personally, I had two camera bodies slung around my neck and I spent ages on my hair that morning. Thankfully, the skies did clear, just as the students were coming out to take their places.
The excitement ran high. Teachers handed out British flags to the children, who in turn flicked them in the wind so much that I feared they’d develop carpal tunnel syndrome. Marte created a Mexican Wave of flapping flags as she ran down the line with her camera held above her head. Local councilors adorned in their chains of office were just as keyed up as the kids, smiling broadly for the camera. A student samba band beat their drums with gusto, mirroring the pounding of thousands of enthusiastic heartbeats.
Inside, where James was waiting in a reception room of lucky people who would get to meet the royal pair, they thought every cheer from the crowd outside meant they’d arrived. But frankly the crowd was cheering for everything. First, some of the Queen’s party pulled up. They got a cheer.
Tense minutes went by as we all listened for the tell tale chop chop of the royal vanguard, a helicopter. When it was spotted, that also got a cheer. Then finally, the car arrived. A fanfare, composed specifically for this moment, was played by a row of trumpeters.
At this point, I could feel some tears of emotion gathering in the corner of my eyes. I was about to see and photograph the Queen. THE QUEEN! The last time I had seen her was from a looooong distance outside of Buckingham Palace. I was about to be feet – inches even – from her. It was so cold that I was shaking a bit. That’s my story, anyway.
Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness Prince Philip stepped from the car. The crowd went wild. Forgetting instantly how cold my fingers were, I snapped into action, alternating between my two cameras with the biggest, goofiest smile on my face. First impression? She’s so cute! She looked resplendent in blue, matching her eyes perfectly. Prince Philip followed behind, doing pretty well for a man of his age.
Before heading into the reception, where James and many others were waiting to meet her, she conversed briefly with the mayor, head teacher, head boy and girl, then she disappeared to freshen up; after all, she had just come from an event in Bromley and was heading off to another one in Richmond afterwards, where she was going to have tea with couples celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Marte and I went to the reception marquee to wait for her.
The room was pin-drop silent. A few nervous giggles crept through from people surely thinking, “Oh my god, I’m about to meet the Queen!”, including James who has been practically been sleeping with the invitation under his pillow. The marquee was full of about 100 people, who were notable citizens of Merton.
In a carefully choreographed figure 8, the Queen and Prince Philip divided the room, shaking hands and giving each person full attention. Even as I was photographing I was struck by how genuinely interested and friendly they both were. Prince Philip laughed along with some of the guests; the Queen smiled and was amused.
As one might expect, I had the usual slew of worry dreams the night before, centered around two things: 1) that my camera wouldn’t work and 2) that I wouldn’t get the photo of my husband meeting the Queen. So when it came time for James’ big moment, I was poised and ready. Everybody knew I had to get that shot, even the Queen’s Press Secretary.
James had prepared a few words to say to the Queen. He chose to speak about how we’d been commissioned to capture the event and design a commemorative album for Merton. She said, “How nice.” And then he says, “And my wife is photographing the event. In fact, here she is.” At which point, the whole party turns to look at me. Caught completely off guard, I lowered my camera, waved awkwardly, and said “hi!” Then I quickly put the camera back to my eye and kept shooting. Not exactly what I would have liked to say to THE QUEEN and, when I replay the moment in my head, I come up with much better things to utter than “hi!” But she smiled indulgently. Well, I’m a colonial, after all. That’s my excuse.
Next on the schedule was the Chefs Adopt-a-School session, which is part of the Academy of Culinary Arts and is a charity supported by the Prince of Wales. The room was full of school children and Chef Idras Caldora was leading them in a colourful exploration of taste; for example, there was a red jelly that tasted like mint. My favourite was when the kids had to suck on some lemon. Their faces were hilarious! We gave some lemon to the baby the other day (come on – all parents do it at some point) and, after the initial surprise, she actually really liked it.
The Queen and Prince Philip stopped to say hello and find out more about the programme, as well as chat gently with one of the children (he won’t forget that day soon). They then disappeared into a room where they were having lunch with about 120 guests. We weren’t allowed to cover this part, as no one can photograph the Royals while they eat. Who can blame them?
At this point we were on the home stretch. It felt strangely like a wedding day and all the guests had just sat down for the wedding breakfast. All we had left to shoot were the speeches, the cake cutting and the first dance, so to speak.
After the lunch, the Mayor made a short speech. One of the students, who later presented the Queen with some flowers, made a very touching speech when she thanked the Queen on behalf of all the mothers and grandmothers of the nation, as she plays both of these roles, as well as Queen. For some reason, this really made me well up.
Finally, the Queen got up and thanked a receiving line made up of the wait staff. Prince Philip and she retired for another five minutes to freshen up and then she unveiled a plaque commemorating the visit.
I absolutely love this photo that my assistant captured of the school student who is obviously so over-awed by standing next to the Queen that his jaw dropped open in excitement. Classic.
Done with her official duty, the Queen graciously turned to greet the crowd (who, of course, went wild).
Before I knew it, she had climbed into her car and was doing the infamous royal wave. I love this photo that I captured of her leaving the event as it really epitomises her for me. She made a lot of people very happy on this day.
It was a genuinely exciting occasion and my American heart thrilled at the opportunity and experience of photographing the Queen. Now we just have to work on organising that portrait sitting…