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Wednesday, 5 June, 2002, 22:29 GMT 23:29 UK
Jubilee tour diary: Calm before the fire
Nick Higham on the Queens Jubilee tour
Nick Higham is following the Queen's Jubilee tour
The BBC's arts and media correspondent Nick Higham is following the Queen on her Jubilee tour of the UK.

This is the eighth in a series of dispatches from around the country.

Sunday 2 June

After last night's spectacular classical concert at Buckingham Palace there is a sense of deflation.

The Royal Family have fled London for quieter spots. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are at Windsor, attending a service at St George's Chapel.

The Prince of Wales, with William and Harry, is at church in Swansea.

Unusually all three flew together from London this morning, with the Queen's permission - normally they must travel separately for fear of a crash.

William and Harry are said to have wanted to watch the England-Sweden match instead, but were over-ruled by their father.

The local bishop comes to their rescue by slipping the score into his sermon.

No news - apparently

Your correspondent has been sent, grumbling loudly about the ruin of his Sunday, to Canada Gate opposite Buckingham Palace, where the world's broadcasters are encamped but nothing is actually happening.

Buckingham Palace
TV crews covering the Jubilee concert spot smoke
This does not deter BBC News 24, which has 24 hours a day to fill, even when there's no news.

Standing on the specially-constructed scaffolding we offer a couple of "two-ways" with the presenters at Television Centre, previewing the events of the rest of the weekend, and watch the desultory preparations underway for Tuesday's big procession down the Mall.

A consignment of Portaloos comes down Constitution Hill - with a police motorcycle escort - and turns into the palace.

Just about the only complaint about last night's concert was a shortage of ladies' toilets.

A coastguard helicopter comes along on the back of a low-loader (with a second low-loader behind just for the rotor blades).

It will evidently form part of the procession devoted to the "services" on Tuesday.


A fire engine with a turntable ladder comes slowly down the hill, presumably destined for the same procession.

Fire crews
Fire officers evacuated entertainers and staff from the palace
Foolishly the driver takes a wrong turn and drives towards the gates of the palace itself, where it hovers briefly.

Then the phone rings. Someone at Television Centre has been watching a video feed of the rehearsals for tomorrow's pop concert and has noticed smoke coming out of the palace roof.

A camera perched high above the palace on a nearby office block is trained on a glass-roofed section of the roof.

Thick white smoke is indeed pouring out and, as we watch, firemen in breathing apparatus clamber into shot. That fire engine was for real.

The next two hours pass in a blur. Suddenly Buckingham Palace seems absolutely the right place for a television reporter to find himself, with a potentially enormous story unfolding around him - and all live on television.

Cameras keep rolling

Though most of the technicians and performers rehearsing on the huge temporary stage are quickly moved away to the far end of the palace gardens, the cameras keep broadcasting.

The giant screens beside the stage are switched off - until the firemen ask for them to be switched on again, because the pictures help them to see where the fire is located. More fire engines rapidly arrive, this time with flashing lights and sirens blaring. I count 12 in all, but more may have gone in the back way.

The streets around the palace have been closed to traffic and to begin with hundreds of sightseers are milling about in the sun: one fire engine nearly collides with two girls on roller skates.

Windsor Castle
Thoughts turned to 1992's disastrous fire at Windsor
Eventually the police move the people away, herding them down the Mall, leaving the space in front of the palace eerily empty.

At one stage everyone starts thinking of the disastrous Windsor Castle fire 10 years ago, when flames leapt hundreds of feet into the night sky and a tenth of the castle rooms were gutted.

If this blaze gets out of hand what could it mean for the Jubilee celebrations?

Could 2002 turn into another annus horribilis, like 1992, in which the deaths of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother combine with the fire at the palace to overshadow the Jubilee completely?

Thankfully this fire, never serious, is quickly under control.

No-one is injured, no artworks are damaged, and the three tons of fireworks in place on the palace roof for tomorrow night's display are untouched.

The blaze apparently started in an empty flat, high above the state apartments.

Anyone writing the script for the Jubilee weekend would have taken "fire at Buckingham Palace" out after the first draft as simply too far-fetched.

Yet real life is sometimes stranger even than scriptwriters' imaginings.

The palace's brush with disaster adds piquancy to what is rapidly becoming an extraordinary weekend.

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