The Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London, circa 1968. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)

Last Night of the Proms – a storm in a teacup?

BBC Proms row has developed into an unexpectedly successful publicity stunt

Artillery Row

If I was to be allowed a personal Room 101 of things that have made life in Britain that iota more intolerable, I would, without hesitation, include that unlovely figure “The Prommer” in my dungeon.

I make a distinction between any number of blameless people who queue up outside the Albert Hall during the Proms season to obtain £5 standing tickets to a concert of their choice – I have been among their number on many occasions – and that red-faced professional bore whose conversation, such as it is, usually revolves around how fortunate he (and it is nearly always a he) has been to see twenty-four Last Night of the Proms concerts. “There I am, on the telly, bobbing up and down”, he will inform his unfortunate listener, “you can’t miss me. I’ve got my Union Jack hat, T-shirt and jacket on, and I’m waving the biggest flag money could buy.”

It soon became clear that this issue had migrated from a musical one to that of free speech

“The Prommer” lives for the weeks in August and September when he, and his fellows, can engage in carefully planned “spontaneous” outbreaks of merriment and backchat during the concerts. He usually avoids the more strenuous twentieth-century repertoire (“no tunes, know what I mean?”) but he comes into his own on the Last Night of the Proms, when, through a mixture of good fortune, a willingness to spend all night in a sleeping bag and the coercion of his ticket-owning fellows, he can usually be found, flag in hand, waiting to have his brief moment of glory. He knows that, without fail, he will appear on TV, and takes delight in the recognition that he will have in his community for a day or two after. He is usually unmarried, often owns a large and aggressive dog that he is secretly frightened of and would unhesitatingly refer to himself as a proud patriot. He voted Conservative at the last election after a flirtation with UKIP but supported the Brexit Party at the European Elections.

Yet this has been a dark year for the Prommer. Not only will he be unable to attend the Proms at all this year, instead being compelled to watch on television, but he is deeply unsettled about what he has heard about the Last Night of the Proms. The rumours that the entire series was to be a “Black Lives Matter” Proms particularly exercised him, and the comments that he contributed to various newspaper websites were trenchant, angry and probably racist in nature.

But the greatest insult of all, one that he could barely bring himself to comprehend, was that his favourite patriotic songs – “Rule, Britannia!”, “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Jerusalem” and the rest – would no longer be performed in their usual orchestral and choral splendour. Instead, after reading that this year’s conductor Dalia Stasevska believed that it was time to “bring change” to the concert, the Prommer heard rumours that the Last Night of the Proms would take place without any of the usual music, which incensed him. Time to take to social media, he thought, as he logged into his usual Twitter username – @proudpatriot1945 – and proceeded to direct a torrent of abuse towards Stasevska, all revolving around his fear that he would not be allowed to wave his Union Jack and bob up and down in the privacy of his own home.

I regard Last Night of the Proms in the same way that I think of Norway: I’m broadly glad that it exists but have no particular desire to visit it

The controversy that has arisen over the Last Night of the Proms this year might seem, to those not especially invested in the event, rather absurd. It began with a report in the Sunday Times that it was felt that the performance of such patriotic songs as “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” would be contentious in this era of nationalistic and racial sensibilities, and that such lines as “Britons never, never, never will be slaves” could create controversy when none needed to exist. After some handwringing, a compromise was decided upon. The traditional songs would be performed, but in orchestral arrangements; “Jerusalem” would be arranged by the black British composer Errollyn Wallen, while the new arrangement of “Land of Hope and Glory” would come courtesy of white British composer Anne Dudley. Besides, the organisers claimed, social distancing, the absence of a physical audience and a vastly reduced chorus of singers ensured that the usual roof-raising finale was not appropriate this year. You can have it again in 2021, was the implication.

Under normal circumstances, the matter might have rested there. Those who loudly announced that “Rule, Britannia!” was a racist and xenophobic song about the slave trade were soon informed that it was first written in 1740 as an exhortation to war against the Spanish, rather than a celebration of colonial power. The usual forces of naysaying have never been particularly exercised about the Last Night of the Proms. As Novara Media’s “luxury communist” Ash Sarkar, never usually one to avoid a ruckus, put it, “The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ brouhaha is completely made up. No antiracist org has asked for it to be dropped. What’s played at The Proms has never been a major concern of Black Lives Matter.” Instead, it became entirely a right-wing concern. The Prommer, and his ilk, would have their day.

The authentic note of outrage was soon struck by the actor-turned-woke-baiter-in-chief Laurence Fox, who argued that what was being proposed was little less than an assault on our individual freedoms, and that the only solution to this outrage was to defund the BBC immediately. Although some may have questioned whether a defunded BBC was a proportionate response to the controversy, it soon became clear that this issue had migrated from a musical one to that of free speech, or free song to be more exact. While some papers had initially hailed the decision to perform “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” orchestrally as a victory, it became clear that public indignation at the absence of their lyrics was widespread.

Sensing an easy victory, or at least a chance to place themselves on the patriotic side of public opinion, the politicians soon weighed in. Boris Johnson, relieved to be able to express himself with apparent candour, said “If it is correct, that the BBC is saying that they will not sing the words of ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’ or’ Rule, Britannia!’ as they traditionally do at the end of The Last Night of The Proms, I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.” He concluded, tub-thumpingly, “I wanted to get that off my chest.”

The Labour leader Keir Starmer offered a suitably Janus-faced appraisal of the situation when he defended the “pomp and pageantry” of the event as a “staple of the British summer”, even as he suggested that “enjoying patriotic songs does not – and should not – present a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it.”

It seems likely, given the enormous controversy, that the BBC will be forced to back down and stage the Last Night of the Proms in more “traditional” style, with the new orchestral arrangements accompanied by the sparse chorus of the BBC singers in an empty Albert Hall. If this does happen, the forces of the “anti-woke” will be able to claim a victory in this particular cultural war, and the Prommer’s disappointment will be assuaged. But those of us who are not as exercised about this issue as our musical brethren might instead think that the game has barely been worth the candle.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that “Land of Hope and Glory” arose from Elgar’s orchestral “Pomp and Circumstance March No 1”, the urge to seize upon the perceived lack of patriotism from the BBC and their craven submission to all things woke has obscured the fact that there is no particular appetite from the forces of the left to fight this particular battle, as Sarkar pointed out. Had the Sunday Times story noted that the songs were to be performed orchestrally because of social distancing, rather than because of their potentially offensive content, it is doubtful that anyone would have batted an eyelid.

As someone who regards the Last Night of the Proms rather in the same way that I think of Norway – in that I’m broadly glad that it exists but have no particular desire to visit it – I wonder if the whole saga has in fact worked rather to the BBC’s advantage. It has given the Proms an immense amount of publicity and has created a national talking-point about an institution that has often seemed as if it has struggled for relevance.

If they back down and allow singing, they can claim that they have “operated a listening exercise”, but if they stick to their guns and proceed with the programme as advertised, they can cite the importance of social distancing in this coronavirus-paranoid era. Vexed questions of colonialism and national sensibility can thus be elegantly side-stepped.

Whether this will be enough for the lonely Prommer, defiantly bobbing up and down and singing at home in front of the TV, is uncertain. I just hope that, in this new land of hope and glory, that he has managed to buy himself a very large flag indeed.

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