Queen Camilla hailed as driving force as she hosts special event

Queen Camilla inside Buckingham Palace
(Chris Jackson)

The Queen has been praised as the driving force behind the revival of a prestigious children's writing competition at a star-studded Buckingham Palace reception. Her Majesty rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Hugh Bonneville, former Strictly star Oti Mabuse, singer Olivia Dean and Matilda star Alisha Weir, after taking part in the final of the BBC's 500 Words competition in the Palace ballroom.

As she chatted to Hiddleston, who had earlier read out one of the winning entries to the 250 guests, she said: "We've had a three-year gap and I never ever thought we were going to bring it back again, but the very kind people at the BBC did listen, thought it was a good idea and here we are." The Loki star replied: "It's extraordinary the quality of the writing, and if you think of the number – 44,000 entrants – and how many will people will probably continue to write after this."

The popular annual writing competition, which was launched by DJ Chris Evans back in 2011, was postponed during the Covid-19 pandemic, but returned in late 2023, attracting 44,000 entries from children in two age categories, 5-7 and 8-11.

Fast Show star and author of the Young Bond series of novels Charlie Higson, one of the judges, said of the Queen, "She's genuinely been a huge supporter of this, really keen on promoting literacy and it was really down to her that the competition came back - she twisted a few arms and said this is a really good thing, you've got to carry on'. She played a huge part in it. It was amazing because it had shut down and gone away and we'd thought it would never happen again. We had meant to have the final here - it would have been in 2020 - and we didn't.

Charlie Higson shaking Queen Camilla's hand
Charlie praised Camilla for being a 'genuine supporter' (Chris Jackson)

"So to bring it back and do it here was just really exciting. I love the finals, I love hearing the stories but the thing I really love most is seeing the kids, trying to think which one of them wrote which story. Then they go up there (on stage it) and it reminds you how extraordinary (they are), these very small kids have written these extraordinary stories."

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Asked if the Queen was a fan of the Fast Show, he replied: "I've never asked her," adding mischievously, "The question everyone always wants to ask, is 'do you watch The Crown?' - I'll probably be put in the Tower for treason."

Queen Camilla shaking hands with Sir Lenny Henry
Lenny thanked Camilla for her support (Chris Jackson)

The Queen also chatted to judges, including Sir Lenny Henry, who said of the judging process: "It was a joyous thing, and thank you, you sent a card for us and biscuits. We really appreciated the biscuits." "Well, I was really sorry I couldn't be there," Camilla replied. "I haven't missed many of them."

There was laughter as the Queen greeted the authors Francesca Simon and Malorie Blackman with a kiss, when Sir Lenny piped up: "Hang on, we didn't get that!"

Queen Camilla shaking Alisha Weir's hand
Camilla joked with Alisha about her upcoming movie (Chris Jackson)

There was a kiss too for Alisha Weir, the 14-year-old star of Matilda, the movie. Asked by Camilla what she was working on, the Irish actress replied: "I just finished filming a horror film, very different to Matilda."  "Oh my goodness, that must have been pretty shocking. Is it going to frighten the life out of us?" replied the Queen. Told "maybe" it would, she joked: "Oh dear, I’ll have to keep an eye out on that one."

Speaking afterwards, Downton Abbey and Paddington star Hugh Bonneville said: "This is pretty much the best venue in the land for this sort of thing. But I think what it does is shine a light on kids unlocking their creativity. I hope that will unlock other children to explore their imaginations and just tell their stories in whichever way they can, because they will be listened to and celebrated. And they may get to come and meet the Queen."

Queen Camilla speaking with Hugh Bonneville
Hugh hoped the event would inspire children (Chris Jackson)

He said of the spectacular setting for this year’s final, "The venues have changed over the years from Shakespeare's Globe to Windsor Castle and now here and there was the Hay Festival when I first did it. I don't know where the venue next year will be, I think probably the International Space Station."

The Hobbit star Luke Evans said of his turn reading one of the winning entries: “It was such a lovely, lovely experience. It’s nice actually to read a story written by a kid, celebrating writing for young children. Some of the stories are so complex and so deep and then so funny. All I had to do is put a voice to it and it just came alive. I know that Her Majesty has been involved in reading and supporting all this – young people learning to read and write and enjoying reading and creating stories. It’s wonderful to be in this place. I mean, this Palace is something else. Every time they open a door it goes on for another 10."

Queen Camilla speaking with Luke Evans with Oti Mabuse in the background
Luke praised the children for their entries (Chris Jackson)

Sir Lenny Henry said about choosing the winners: "It was amazing, judging as you would expect was difficult because there is so much talent out there, but in the end what happens is there's a massive sifting process and you end up with the final 50 stories. And we read and respond, and first of all you're in your pants at home eating jammie dodgers reading these stories, then you get in a room and you learn whether there's a coherent strategy, whether we all agree and actually what's amazing our taste was quite similar."

This year’s final will be broadcast in a special edition of BBC’s The One Show on Thursday 7 March to coincide with World Book Day.

Queen Camilla with a group of celebrities and children
The final will coincide with World Book Day (Handout)

The Queen also met six illustrators who had created artworks to accompany the six overall winning entries, including Axel Scheffler, illustrator of children’s favourites including The Gruffalo. He said afterwards: "To have the Queen support something like this must mean a lot for the children. I think anything in this country to encourage creativity, which is neglected by politicians, I’m all for. There's such a huge potential in the UK, music, arts. It’s overlooked. It's such a big industry as well. It’s an important factor economically."

Afterwards guests were treated to afternoon tea in the Picture Gallery, where Isabel Wilkins, seven, one of the 50 finalists, proudly showed Queen Camilla her large stuffed penguin, Baggit, and was delighted when Her Majesty posed for a photograph with it. Her mother, Toni Wilkin, from Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, explained that it was her favourite toy from when she was a baby and his name came about because she couldn't pronounce the word "penguin".

Queen Camilla with a young child and a stuffed penguin toy
Camilla met Isabel and Baggit the Penguin (Chris Jackson)

A friend, she said, had made him a bow tie especially for his visit to the palace, and matching one for Isabel to wear in her hair. Baggit was the inspiration for her story, she went on to explain: a stuffed toy who makes dreams for the other toys and distributes them.

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Mrs Wilkins said afterwards: "It's just so surreal to be here. What a wonderful day for all of the children. It's almost superfluous who wins. Just being here is making the most magical memories for them. I don't think Isabel could hide her excitement when she saw the actress who plays Matilda and we just wanted to thank the Queen for having us. This is a really once in a lifetime experience. Isabel just loves reading and writing so it is magical to be recognised for that.”

How To Train Your Dragon author Cressida Cowell, who has been a judge in previous years, said she was just happy "soaking up" the young talent on display. "It's a thrill to have 500 Words back and here at Buckingham Palace. Her Majesty is such a champion of it. It just wonderful to hear what the children have created, I couldn't stop laughing. Just brilliant."

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