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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 13:21 GMT

UK Politics

What a performance

The Queen arriving at Parliament for the ceremony

The kidnapping of a government whip during a parliamentary ceremony headed by the Queen may sound like the plot of a Hollywood thriller.

But due to the arcane ritual behind the state opening of Parliament the temporary detention of the vice chamberlain remains an integral part of the annual event.

The Queen's Speech
And the Los Angeles-based movie producer who leads the royal procession is there because he is the Lord Great Chamberlain, one of two hereditary peers who will remain the upper house in perpetuity because of their royal duties.

Since Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605, the day has begun with a search of the building's cellars.

By the time the Queen's procession travels the short distance from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, at around 1100 GMT, security checks will be complete. The Queen's crown makes the journey separately from the monarch - the two are reunited inside the House of Lords.

[ image: Her crown travels separately]
Her crown travels separately
As the Queen arrives, the vice chamberlain's kidnapping ordeal begins. This year, Graham Allen is the victim of palace officials who hold him to guarantee safe return of Her Majesty.

Shortly after, the members of the House of Commons are told they are requested to attend the Lords, where the Queen's Speech is read.

Once they have traipsed from one side to the other of Parliament, the pomp and ceremony begins in earnest.

Traditions surrounding the Queen's Speech can be traced back to 1536, but its modern form dates from the opening of the present Palace of Westminster in 1852.

Last year the government gave the process a tweak, scrapping some of the more elaborate and time-consuming aspects of the performance.

But the bulk of the ceremony escaped the modernisers. At their own insistence, the great officers of state - the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshall - continue to walk backwards to show respect to the Queen as they lead her procession into the House of Lords.

[ image: The Black Rod ceremony in the Commons]
The Black Rod ceremony in the Commons
MPs are still summonsed to the Lords by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod who gives the Commons' door three whacks with a black ebony stick to request their presence.

And year after year, Black Rod then has to endure the indignity of having the door slammed in his face before the honourable members relent and decide they will attend the ceremony after all.

A few rebels have in the past remained in the Commons throughout, but the House of Lords is always full for the event, although this year 666 fewer hereditary peers will turn up as they lost their right to do so in a bill first announced in last year's Queen's Speech.

The kidnapped vice chamberlain misses it all, however, as he is only freed after the monarch has made a safe return to Buckingham Palace.

After a break for lunch, events are shifted to the House of Commons where a heated debate on the elements of the legislative programme can be expected after the "loyal address", traditionally a humorous speech by a government backbencher.

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