Andrew ‘Vern’ Stokes could be forgiven for having sleepless nights on a regular basis. After all, when most of us struggle to drift off into the land of nod, we can count sheep, probably imagining them in the calm and serenity of Shropshire’s beautiful countryside.
But for Garrison Sergeant Major Stokes – the man behind so much of the ceremonial splendour we are privileged to enjoy in the UK – things are very different. He finds himself running through military drills in his mind.
It’s probably not quite so relaxing trying to fall asleep to the rhythmical sound of marching feet, hundreds of trotting horses, and the stirring sounds of a military band.
Never mind sleep. For most of us, the thought of calculating distances and timings at a global event such as the Queen’s Birthday Parade sounds more like a nightmare. The complexity, precision and detail that goes into something of such magnitude seems unimaginable.
It needs a cool, calm, collected, disciplined figure, with an eye for detail. We’d even go as far as to say, it requires a BAFTA winner. And GSM Stokes, who grew up in Madeley, is one such man.
We have spoken before – last September to be precise. Andrew had, that April, been part of the team designing and delivering the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh at St George’s Chapel.
He received a special honour from Her Majesty The Queen as a result and was named a Member of the Royal Victorian Order.
At the time of our last conversation, the Festival of Remembrance was also very much in his mind. Such important, poignant events are a time of reflection and commemoration.
But this month, the mood shifts from solemness to celebration and Andrew’s focus is on the nation coming together to enjoy The Queen’s historic Platinum Jubilee, which centres on a festive four-day bank holiday weekend.
As we chat, he is, as you’d imagine, extremely busy in the rehearsal stage for The Queen’s Birthday Parade, or Trooping of the Colour.
I have been working on plans since October and they are coming into fruition,” he explains. “There are many sleepless nights as nothing is set in stone. Schedules change and, if they do, I have to go back to the drawing board and reset timings or anything else like that.
There’s an incredible amount of pressure and everything has to go right. With live television, you have to be exact and precise. It is tricky but it’s achievable. No one wants to get this wrong and it has to be perfect.”
On the afternoon of our call, Andrew is preparing for his latest rehearsal.
And it puts the magnitude of some of the duties he has to carry on into some perspective.
We have 260 musicians, who we are teaching to do the spin wheel, which is an intricate drill manoeuvre which moves the band 180 degrees,” he explains. “It probably seems like absolute confusion to some watching but there’s a science behind it.
It’s something that has never been written down. It’s a drill movement passed on by word of mouth and that’s what I’m doing this week.
I’m telling each one of those musicians which direction they have to go in. Some march backwards, some sidewards, it’s really quite confusing.
“But musicians are inherently intelligent,” he adds. “Which is useful so they pick things up quite quickly.
“The only thing is, we haven’t been at Horse Guards for The Queen’s Birthday Parade for three years now because of Covid. The last two were in Windsor so the majority of people I’m working with won’t have that experience, so it’s a significant challenge.”
That’s just one tiny part of planning and the scale of this month’s royal extravaganza is not lost on Andrew.
It will include a live pop concert at Buckingham Palace, a carnival pageant on the streets of London, Jubilee lunches, and the lighting of beacons across the world.
The aforementioned traditional Trooping the Colour Parade for the Queen’s official birthday is taking place on Horse Guards Parade on Thursday, June 2, beginning four days of historic ceremonies.
“The Birthday Parade is 1,700 soldiers, 450 horses and 260 musicians so it’s pretty significant,” Andrew says. “And, of course, the Royal Airforce do their birthday salute which is a flypast, culminating with the Red Arrows. This year, they will do something special.
“The Royal Horse Artillery will be heading to Hyde Park to fire a special birthday salute which will acknowledge The Queen’s Birthday and also the Jubilee. They will fire 82 rounds which is a lot of ammunition and will wake up London!”
The spectacular weekend will also see a service of thanksgiving for the Queen’s reign at St Paul’s Cathedral.
On Saturday it is the Epsom Derby and, in the evening, the BBC Platinum Party at the Palace concert promises to feature some of the world’s biggest entertainment stars.
Sunday, June 5 sees the Platinum Jubilee Pageant, where a dragon puppet larger than a double-decker bus, marching bands and circus acts will celebrate the Queen’s reign on the streets of London.
This is the biggest year I have been involved with,” Andrew admits. “It’s incredible. No other monarch has had four jubilees. Queen Victoria had two. The country may never see the likes of thi sagain. I certainly won’t. The nation will be celebrating wherever they are and London will be bursting at the seams”
“It really is going to be special and the celebrations mark an incredible achievement by Her Majesty. What an example she is. If you reflect back to the worst of the pandemic, whenever we saw The Queen, she said exactly the right thing.
She spoke those famous words of Dame Vera Lynn ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and that spurred on the country at a time when it was needed. We had that bit of guidance and assurance from the Head of State. She says the right thing at the right time and always leads by example, which is incredible.”
An inspirational monarch deserves an incredible occasion and, despite the pressure, Andrew is looking forward to it.
“This is a celebration and I’ll enjoy it, perhaps in a different way to spectators but later, on reflection, I will be incredibly proud of my involvement,” he admits.
And so he should be. A measure of his determination to deliver on the big occasion is evident and has rightly been acknowledged.
Two nights before our phone conversation, Andrew, who lives in Coalbrookdale, collected a BAFTA at the TV Craft Awards, celebrating the very best behind-the-scenes television talent of 2021.
He joined Nigel Catmur, Andy Deacon, Patrick Doherty, Kevin Duff and Simon Haw to collect the award for Entertainment Craft Team for The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance.
“It’s not something you expect to achieve when you are a soldier,” he admits. “It was my second nomination and I thought I was going to make the numbers up so I was in a bit of a shock when my name was called out.
“It was nice as the military organiser and choreographer to get noticed for the festival. The Festival of Remembrance is my favourite event because of what it means to everybody and all the people taking part – the bereaved families, and those people identified as doing something brave or important during that year.
“It’s really nice to be able to bring it together and showcase it for the public.”
And it is also something that is deep rooted in Andrew’s life, meaning a lot to his family, in particular to his beloved mother Diane, who is sadly no longer with us.
“It was special for me because as a kid I was made to watch Remembrance when it was on in November,” recalls Andrew, whose brother Mike, twin Michelle and sister Donna have or are serving in the military.
“My mother could have told you who the Garrison Sergeant Major was at the time when I was a kid.
She managed to survive a battle with cancer until she saw me deliver my first one in 2015 and passed away a couple of weeks afterwards. So you could say my life has gone full circle now in some ways.”
His family’s love of military tradition has always been there and there will no doubt be some proud siblings when the nation joins together to celebrate Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. Once it’s over, no one would begrudge one of the key men behind it a few restful nights’ sleep.