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Take your wristband torches and EU flags to the Last Night of the Proms


FOR a laugh last Saturday morning I drew up a list of odds about what might be mentioned in the conductor’s speech at the Last Night of the Proms. Marin Alsop, an American who ten years ago was the first woman to conduct the Last Night, is a noted feminist. I recalled that her speech in 2013 seemed a longish lecture on the subject.

Thus I made what bookies call a tissue:

Feminism/misogyny: 2/9

World peace/Putin allusion/build back better allusion: 2/7

Climate Change: 8/13

Patriarchical oppression: evens

EU/supranational allusions: 6/1

EU full mention: 25/1

To play The Bee Song by Arthur Askey: 1000/1

To wear a Chairman Mao style suit: 6/4

In the event I got three easy winners:

Feminism: 2/9: win (except acknowledgements, Alsop’s entire speech was about gender equality)

Supranational allusion: 6/1: win (it was the UN)

Chairman Mao suit: 6/4: win

A notional £10 Trixie (three doubles and a treble) would have cost £40 and returned £505.

Feminism was an obvious winner, and was reflected in its short price, and the Mao suit is the go-to outfit for right-on conductors who appear to suffer fear and loathing at the thought of traditional evening dress. On the subject of conducting, Ms Alsop told the  Guardian in 2017 that ‘society has a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles’. Does it? I certainly don’t. The criterion, as always, is talent.

Though I’m broadly traditionalist, I am by no means opposed to revolutionaries in the arts, providing their work be found worthy. Debussy, for example, ruffled feathers with his musical impressionism, but he is now part of the musical canon. I have followed the Proms for decades despite the organisers, the BBC, making it clear that they would prefer to have a different audience, rather in the way that the Hampstead Marxists at Broadcasting House would rather have a different population in the entire country. Notwithstanding, I am fond of the Proms and its headquarters, the Royal Albert Hall. But it seems obvious that the Proms is and will become further mired in the left-wing culture war.

On the First Night in July a couple of green bores invaded the stage to unfurl a banner. With a sigh I wondered if that would set the tone for the summer; happily it did not. But it set me thinking about the Last Night, which is now targeted by groups with advanced Brexit Derangement Syndrome. To make it look as if the audience on the Last Night is as obsessed as the groups are, they hand out free EU flags outside the Albert Hall to be madly waved all night. A blue-tick Twitter/X page called EU Flags Team boasted of their success.

It seems obvious that the BBC would find a way of stopping anyone handing out thousands of flags with Brexit written on them. But since the corporation is notoriously pro-EU, in go the flags with the opposite political message. All this was, so to speak, music to the ears of the Guardian, house journal of the left. 

Then there is the Proms programme. Apart from the mandatory equality, diversity and inclusion obsession like most of Britain’s arts administration, jemmying in pop culture – as if that wasn’t at saturation point everywhere else – is a preoccupation. Year after year one is struck by a sort of cold war of attrition being fought against tradition, as we see in museums and galleries. In 2017, after the Great Bedwetting by the leftish elites over the Brexit vote, the BBC commissioned a piece by the Finnish composer Lotta Wennakoski called Flounce Can you see what they did there? And to make sure everyone had the message rammed down their throats, it was included in the line-up for the Last Night.

Still, they can find space for anything they want in the Last Night, even if it means pushing out something that goes to the heart of the festival’s history. This year they showcased Hollywood’s latest,  instantly forgettable, Marvel movie soundtrack. 

But I noticed that Sir Henry Wood’s 1905 Fantasia on British Sea Songs had two sections omitted – Farewell and Adieu, Ye Spanish Ladies and Home Sweet Home – and the Londonderry Air, the Skye Boat Song and Beside the Sea – shoehorned in as a replacement for the four-nations outside broadcast, which had been dropped this year (I didn’t miss it). As the pioneer and innovator of the Proms, Wood’s memory (and bust, which was pulled from the rubble of the original home of the Proms, Queen’s Hall, in 1941) is rightly given much respect during the season. In his memoirs, My Life of Music (Gollancz, 1938), Wood says the piece ‘epitomises the Promenades’, so the least the BBC could do is to make sure it is played in full.

None of this is new. Twenty years ago the American conductor Leonard Slatkin wanted ‘less nationalism’ in the patriotic second half, which features Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and Rule Britannia. In 2020 the BBC considered axing them ‘because’ of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, 35, was a big BLM supporter apparently. Everyone with nous already knew for years the corporation would love to ditch the traditional stuff. Those who bandy the word nationalism about should learn that it is not interchangeable with the word patriotism – George Orwell settled that subject as long ago as 1945.

Another annoying Last Night innovation was the issuing of wristband torches to the entire audience. This gave the evening the look of a dance-music rave. Keep an eye on those torches and the colours. My guess is it will not be long before they are put to some political purpose, turning the Last Night into some left-liberal version of Triumph of the Will.

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Robert James
Robert James
Robert James is a national newspaper journalist.

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