TOM UTLEY: I can't join the chorus of abuse on Phil and Holly

TOM UTLEY: I can’t join the chorus heaping abuse on Phil and Holly… after all, I jumped the queue to see Winston Churchill lying in state

Today I can only throw myself on readers’ mercy as I confess that, aged 11, I jumped the queue for Sir Winston Churchill’s lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. What’s more, I would eagerly have done the same thing again last week, had I been lucky enough to be handed a press pass to witness the same state occasion for our beloved late Queen.

Then again, perhaps I should be grateful that, this time, nobody thought to offer me priority. Otherwise, internet trolls might even now be heaping foul abuse on my head, as they’ve been doing all week to poor Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield.

But more of them in a moment. First, I must tell you how I came to jump the queue back in 1965.

It happened that a fellow pupil at my posh boarding prep school was the son of a Peer, who had agreed very kindly to take his boy, plus a friend, to Sir Winston’s lying-in-state.

View of the coffin of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s lying in state in Westminster Hall surrounded by Guards in January 1965

I was the plus-one in question. I remember, with a twinge of shame, that I was not selected for the honour by the Peer’s son himself, but by the headmaster’s wife, who had a soft spot for me since she and my mother had served together as nurses in the Voluntary Aid Detachment during World War II.

Anyway, our noble host treated us to lunch (or was it tea?) in the House of Lords, after which we walked from the dining room into Westminster Hall through a side door, thereby avoiding a queue that stretched for many hours along the embankments on both sides of the Thames.

Strangely enough, not a word of vitriol was directed against me when I recalled that day in a column I wrote here seven years ago. Nobody called me an evil scumbag, who deserved to rot in hell — as so many have described Miss Willoughby and Mr Schofield. Nor did anybody sign a petition saying that I should be sacked and lose my livelihood as a punishment for jumping the queue.

Indeed, the only critical message I received came from my old schoolfellow Edward Alport, whose father was the Peer I’d named in that article as my host. He told me he had no recollection of going with me to pay homage to Sir Winston.

Holly and Phil have faced growing backlash over claims they ‘skipped the queue’ at Westminster Hall – they deny the claims and say they were given official permission to access the hall

This makes me think I may have got my Lords mixed up, and it could actually have been the Earl of Kimberley — two of whose sons were also at my school — who took me to the lying-in-state. If so, my belated thanks to him.

All I can say for certain is that the scene that greeted me when I walked into Westminster Hall for that first time in my life, as an 11-year-old, will be etched in my mind to my dying day.

As if it were yesterday, I remember standing open-mouthed in awe at the magnificence of that room, under its massive medieval double hammer-beamed roof, where Charles I stood trial for his life.

The morning TV stars were pictured entering the hall through a door which was clearly marked as not for public access – thought to be the entrance for media representatives

I remember the total silence of the queue filing past the coffin to pay their last respects, and the guardsmen standing as still as statues, with their hands resting on the hilts of their swords.

I even recall being struck by the distinctive smell of the place. It was slightly musty, with a hint of the scent of wax from the candles at the four corners of the catafalque.

As I discovered many years later, when I walked through that hall almost daily during my time as a parliamentary journalist, it retained that smell for decades. For all I know, it may be a chemical they use to guard against woodworm in those mighty rafters. But to my 11-year-old imagination, it smelt like the odour of centuries.

Above all, I remember the coffin, draped in the Union Flag, in which lay the mortal remains of the man we all regarded as the greatest Englishman of our time.

This was the hero who had sworn defiance of Hitler. He was the man who had led our country through the Battle of Britain, which we constantly re-enacted in the dormitory at night, leaping from bed to bed, with our arms outstretched as Hurricane wings, chanting ‘ducker-ducker-ducker’ to represent machine-gun fire.

And there I stood in my school uniform, only yards away from the great man’s body, with the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.

Now scroll forward almost four decades to the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state after her death in 2002. You may be relieved to hear that on that occasion, I had no privileged access. Instead, I queued with my wife, along with tens of thousands of others.

Tom Utley: ‘For heaven’s sake, let’s stop vilifying Mr Schofield and Miss Willoughby. As far as I can see, they did absolutely nothing wrong’

I can’t remember how long we waited, but I reckon it must have been roughly four hours before we reached the hall, since the end of the queue when we joined it was only a few yards east of Lambeth Palace.

Looking back, I was pleased that we had to queue. This was because I found it a deeply moving part of the experience to talk for so long with friendly, patient, like-minded strangers, united by our fondness for the Queen Mum.

Indeed, I reckon that Miss Willoughby and Mr Schofield missed out on something valuable by being ushered straight into the hall, as I was all those years earlier.

As for the Queen’s lying-in-state, last week I wrote that I was determined to go late on Friday night. More fool me, I thought that the queue might be shorter at that hour. As it turned out, however, this was the worst of all times to join it, with the Government’s official tracker putting the wait at a daunting 24 hours. The long and the short of it is that I wimped out.

Oh, I have lots of excuses. I didn’t want to miss my daughter-in-law’s 40th birthday party on Saturday evening. Less selfishly, I also felt that since I’d already been to two of these occasions, I ought perhaps to make way for others to experience a lying-in-state for the first time.

The great thing, it seemed to me, was that there should be an enormous turnout for her late Majesty, to prove to the world how much she was loved. Since she was assured of that, without any help from me, I stayed at home to watch the live stream on TV.

Tom Utley: ‘Isn’t there something profoundly depressing about the trolls’ pathological need to find something or someone to hate, even in a ceremonial occasion as moving and dignified as a lying-in-state?’

But if I’m to be wholly honest, I must admit that I had another reason to dread that queue. You really don’t want to hear about the state of my prostate gland. Enough to say that I’ve reached a time of life at which the cast-iron bladder on which I used to pride myself, like my memory, is simply not what it was.

So as I doff my cap to my fellow oldies who stood the course, I hope the late Queen, whom I revered, will understand and forgive my absence.

But for heaven’s sake, let’s stop vilifying Mr Schofield and Miss Willoughby. As far I can see, they did absolutely nothing wrong. They took nobody’s place in the queue, any more than I did as an 11-year-old. Indeed, not a single person had to wait even a split-second longer than if they hadn’t been there. Look at the photographs if you doubt me.

Furthermore, they were on duty. Of course, you may argue that their physical presence in the hall may not have been strictly necessary for their morning show. But there can be no doubt that they were there principally to report on the lying-in-state for the benefit of the many who couldn’t make it.

God knows, I carry no special torch for either of them. If anything, I find their doll-like good looks and permanent smiles slightly irritating (though they get on my nerves somewhat less than the BBC’s royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, particularly when he’s in lugubriously solemn mode). But that’s my problem, not theirs.

Isn’t there something profoundly depressing about the trolls’ pathological need to find something or someone to hate, even in a ceremonial occasion as moving and dignified as a lying-in-state?

Dry your eyes, poor Miss Willoughby. These people are not worth your tears.

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