A celebration fit for a queen

Rowing boats begin to gather on the River Thames, London, during the Diamond Jubilee river pageant, Sunday, June 3, 2012.
Anthony Devlin/Press Association via AP Images

(CBS News) It's a historic sight that's fit for a queen. Some are calling it the biggest gathering along the banks of the River Thames in 350 years, as both royals and dignitaries prepare for this morning's Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Queen Elizabeth II is the the pageant's honoree . . . and the subject of this morning's Cover Story reported by Mark Phillips:

It's a royal story. Cue the trumpets! (It's hard not to start a story about Queen Elizabeth without a fanfare.)

Let's face it: After 60 years of the same monarch - and the same ceremonies - it does all start to look a bit familiar.

Yet, familiarity is a large part of what queens are all about - especially one who's been around this long.

"Prime ministers may come and go," said society magazine editor Rachel Johnson, "and princesses may come and go. But she is there.

"Being there for 60 years, not changing," said Johnson. "Still doing the wave, still doing the screwing-in=the-light bulb motion in the glass coach. Just doing the same thing year in, year out, taking the bouquet from the little girl in bobby socks, wearing the hat, wearing those square heeled shoes ...

"This has given us all an incredible sense of reassurance in these turbulent times."

So, how do you celebrate a milestone of this significance? Yet another royal carriage procession just wouldn't do.

The answer lay in an old painting. ,/P>

Canaletto's "The Thames on Lord Mayor's Day," dating from before 1752 - a grand tableau of a royal river pageant organized for the then-King George II. CBS News

An evocative image, ticking all the mythological boxes of royal grandness and British maritime power.

Elizabeth II, too, could become the Queen who launched a thousand ships.

Historian David Starkey consulted on the river's royal past: "I think it's a kind of throwback to the great glory days of Elizabethan buccaneers, the glory days of the British Navy - there always in the background, the queen's sentimental longing for the royal yacht Britannia, or whatever."

So from the great rivers and backwaters of the realm, boats are on the move to join The Queen in the Diamond Jubilee Royal River Pageant.

One, The Collie, has a history of service as a Navy tender going back to the 1890s.

She was sunk in 1942, but happily refloated. It's now owned by Paul Woodhead, who goes back a long way with the Queen, too. He was there at the coronation - singing as a choir boy at Westminster Abbey. "Born under a lucky star," he said.

"I was there at the beginning with the Queen, very small, sort of very focused and apprehensive, walking up the Abbey," he recalled.

And this weekend? "She will be up front on a boat somewhere and I'll be behind with all my flags flying."

"She really couldn't have done it without you, could she?" asked Phillips.

"Probably not!" Woodhead laughed.

A lot of people feel that way - that the Queen has been part of their lives, that she's not just a ceremonial head of state, not just a living link with Britain's past glory, but the embodiment of the British carry-on-regardless spirit.

"Now, with this jubilee celebration, I really feel that the country is suddenly, is actually recognizing the amazing job she's done," Woodhead said.

"I think there's a general sense that she's done her job well - no one is quite sure what her job is, but whatever the job is she's done it well," said historian David Starkey. "There's what is a very English characteristic in regard to people who stick at something that they don't necessary like very much, and curiously enough we have a lot of evidence the queen doesn't really like ceremony. She already has expressed, perhaps incautiously and unwisely, doubts about that whole boat thing, if we may quote it. And I'm sure it's absolutely true she's stuck at it, she's done it.

"And the sight of, you know, a game - that wonderful English word! - a game, 86-year-old lady, going through this kind of thing is rather heartwarming, and that I think goes a long way."

It's gone a long way for a long time. It was 55 years ago that the Queen first embraced TV as a way of reaching out to her people:

"It's inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you, a successor to the kings and queens of history," she told a broadcast audience in 1957. "Someone whose face may seem familiar from newspapers and films but who never really touches your personal lives. But now, at least for a few minutes, I welcome you to the peace of my own home."

And with the help of TV, she's become probably the most well-known woman in the world - a person whose voyage through life has mirrored our own, becoming a mother and a grandmother . . . enjoying the highs . . . living through the lows.

None lower than the death of Princess Diana, when the royal family was too slow to tune into the national sense of loss.