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What is the point of the Proms?

The BBC’s new recruitment campaign for the Proms shows a clear disregard for its classical origins

There are times in the history of an organisation or institution when it is brought into disrepute through simple carelessness. One thinks of Gerald Ratner denigrating his company’s products as “total crap”, as he claimed that Ratner’s “sold a pair of earrings for under a pound, which is cheaper than a shrimp sandwich from Marks and Spencer, but probably wouldn’t last as long”. Or alternatively the V&A’s ill-considered marketing campaign, devised by Saatchi and Saatchi, that branded it “an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”. Now, the Proms has come under fire once again, and all because of a spectacularly imprudent recruitment video for roles within live events and communications.

Over the course of the brief film, a BBC publicist assures potential jobseekers that the most famous series of classical music concerts in Britain “are not all just about classical music like Mozart and Beethoven”. Instead, over images of breakdancing and a lively world music score, the publicist eulogises the way that the Proms showcase everything from “house, Ibiza music to sci-fi film music and breakdancing music, so there really is something for everyone”.

The suspicion remains that there is a feeling of embarrassment when it comes to the Proms

No background in classical music is required, we are assured, as the publicist’s colleague happily reminisces about his own stand-out experience working at the Proms: dancing on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, dressed as an astronaut, while the band Public Service Broadcasting played. And, best of all, if breakdancing and space costumes all get too much, the publicist cheerily assures would-be Prom workers that “my experience allowed me to get another position at the BBC working in publicity for TV programmes instead”. We see that one of these shows is RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Her colleague speaks of the “nice community atmosphere” of the Proms team, as the music switches to dance, and we see various shots of predominantly BAME musicians, classical and popular alike. The implication is clear: forget about the fuddy-duddy, boring overtones of the Proms. This is hip, diverse and contemporary. And if you get bored of it, it’ll look great on your CV when you want to trade up into a “proper” job.

To say that this has gone down badly is rather like describing the Proms’ founder, Sir Henry Wood, as a mildly successful impresario. The theatre critic David Benedict described it on Twitter as “genuinely shameful”, and asked, “Will you now be advertising a job with BBC Sport that says you needn’t know/care about boring old football and cricket and that you won’t get stuck there because it’s a stepping stone to something better?”

When the BBC Radio 3 controller Alan Davey was asked about the advertisement and its implications, he was bullish in its defence: “Every year, we want to put a plea to as wide an audience as possible. The advert is not saying classical music is dull, embarrassing or only for old people. What is says is that the BBC Proms is more than more than you think.”

Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that there is a feeling of embarrassment when it comes to the Proms. The furore that occurred last year revolved around whether or not the traditional Last Night of the Proms songs such as Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! would be performed with their traditional lyrics or instead in “new arrangements”.

It did not help that there were briefings that it would be a “Black Lives Matter Prom”, nor that it became a political issue, with Boris Johnson saying, “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.” It was eventually resolved in a fug of compromise, with a socially distanced orchestra playing to an empty Albert Hall and cutaways to various celebrities celebrating at home. As a metaphor for England in 2020, it was an unwittingly perfect one.

One gets the impression that middle-aged, often white faces are no longer the desired fit

The question now is what the Proms stand for, and what their future is. As recently as 2008, Margaret Hodge’s comments that, “The audiences for many of our greatest cultural events — I’m thinking in particular of the Proms — are still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease with this” were met with horror by both the Conservative and Labour parties, with David Cameron saying: “We want more things where people come together to celebrate Britishness and more occasions when people think the Union Jack is a great symbol of our Britishness, rather than sniping at it.” The former director of the Proms Sir Nicholas Kenyon also hit back, commenting, “She is absolutely wrong to use the Proms as an example because there is no more cultural event that is more welcoming and more accessible.”

Yet if Hodge made a similar remark now, it is likely that Davey, and others, would greet it with handwringing and an apology for not having made the programme sufficiently exciting and diverse. Like many other major cultural institutions, including the National Theatre and the BAFTAs, the attitude displayed by its leaders has shifted from a defence of the status quo to shame at its various failings and weaknesses.

Therefore, while it is perfectly possible to argue that the Proms’ recruiting film serves its aimed-for market, there is no alternative campaign that extols the highbrow nature of its often-world-class concerts and seeks to recruit those who might be both knowledgeable and passionate about classical composers. Maybe it is not felt that these people need a social media advertising campaign aimed at them. But the suspicion remains that middle-aged, often white faces are no longer the desired fit with the institution.

Professor Alexandra Wilson, a music historian and author of Opera In The Jazz Age, has her own thoughts as to why the advertisement’s purpose is such a misleading one:

The furore about the Proms recruitment video is not about the fact that a range of genres feature in the festival. But the video downplays the Proms’ core repertory to such an extent that it implicitly confirms perceptions that classical music is remote and irrelevant – unhelpful stereotypes that put potential new audiences off giving it a try. It is particularly disappointing to see this apparent nervousness from the BBC, which has, over the decades, done so much to introduce new listeners to classical music. You don’t champion an art form, or expand its audience, by hedging around its very existence.

For Wilson, there is a solution that stays true to the spirit of the institution:

One of the job adverts says, ‘We want the Proms to be for everyone.’ Historically, this has always been the mission of the Proms. And back in the 1920s, the BBC was explicit that its aim was to make the best musical performances available to all. The most effective way of doing this is surely to present the music to listeners on its own terms, without embarrassment.

It does not help that this ill-judged advert has appeared at the worst possible time. As Professor Wilson says, “At a moment when so many well-qualified people are struggling, it does seem a pity if the Proms really is hiring staff who don’t know anything about classical music, or who – as the video suggests – see working there as merely a stepping-stone to something ‘better’.”

Robert Newman (who co-founded the Proms with Henry Wood in 1894) stated his intentions: “I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.” Few would disagree that the event has a popularity that few other classical concerts could hope to rival; which is why it is a pity that the BBC seems ashamed of its flagship summer shows. Their cack-handed, sloppy attitude towards recruitment should be vigorously criticised if there is to be any hope of bringing in the best staff who will give the event the kudos it deserves.

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