Rituals Best Forgotten 2: The Last Night Of The Proms
The Proms, or to give them their full title the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, are an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral concerts and other events held annually, predominantly in the Albert Hall.
The Proms are, of course, A Good Thing, bringing wonderful music arranged in imaginative concerts at affordable prices, currently run by the BBC, who like us to stick their name in front of them, until they lose them, that is, when they’ll probably become the Kentucky Fried Chicken Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. However, the Last Night of the Proms has evolved into a Bad Thing, for two reasons.
The first, to do with the ticketing, goes back to the construction of the Albert Hall. Promming (promenading) tickets are priced the same as for that season’s concerts, but seated tickets are more expensive. To pre-book a seat, it is necessary to have bought tickets for at least five other concerts in the season, and an advance booking for the Last Night must include those five concerts.
However, 1,276 permanent seats in the 5,272 capacity venue were leased to 330 individuals for 999 years, to help pay for the building of the Albert Hall, and owners are allowed to optimise their returns by reselling their tickets. This means that for the Last Night online tickets go for thousands, with members of the public excluded unless they’re very rich. Looking at the audiences you’d also conclude, very old and very white.
Many people’s perception of the Proms is based on the Last Night, although this is very different from the other concerts. It usually takes place on the second Saturday in September, and is broadcast on the Beeb. The playlist is pretty simple; the first half has some MOR variety, the second half doesn’t. The 2016 programme ran like this;
- Raze by Tom Harrold
- The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth
- Polovtsian Dances from opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin
- ‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro’ from La Cenerentola by Gioachino Rossini
- ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from opera L’elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti
- ‘Au mont Ida’ from La belle Hélène opera by Jacques Offenbach
- Matinées musicales by Benjamin Britten
- Our revels now are ended by Jonathan Dove
- Serenade to Music by Vaughan Williams
- ‘Ah! mes amis’ from La fille du régiment by Gaetano Donizetti
- Latin American medley
- Land of Hope and Glory
- Fantasia on British Sea-Songs arranged by Henry Wood
- Rule, Britannia!
- The National Anthem
- Auld Lang Syne
It’s the second half that descends into a raucous knees-up. Some attend in fancy dress, from DJs to patriotic T-shirts. Many use the occasion for an exuberant display of patriotism. Union Jacks are waved by the Prommers, especially during ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Flags, balloons and party poppers are all welcomed – although John Drummond famously discouraged this ‘extraneous noise’ during his tenure as Director. The event is peppered with knowing little rituals, such as wiping imaginary sweat from the bust of Sir Henry Wood, and the giving of a speech.
I’ve always asked myself, who would want to go?
This is a well-intentioned event that has somehow become a distorted, creepy vision of lost empire. It’s the Brexit gang writ large, a celebration of delighted exclusion as mission statement, although a few minor concessions to the new world order have been made in the last few years.
Still, harmless fun you’d think, and only of special interest to a few thousand like-minded individuals yelling their heads off in a concert hall. But interest in the event has grown so large that there are in fact four or five huge live-streaming versions of it around the country, including one in Hyde Park, all with corporate hospitality tents full of pissed-up executives ‘doing the Last Night’.
There is a world of difference between celebrating one’s heritage and blindly waving two fingers at the world, attended by those who are terrified of losing a royal head on £5 notes yet happy to own second homes in France. Patriotism for one night I can live with – it’s the ideas that lurk behind it that give me trouble.
Pointedly, this was not how the proms were meant to be, but it is what they have been allowed to become. But I wonder now if the event reflects the true spirit of England after all. Feel free to have a go at me in the Comments. It’s not as if you usually hold back!