Rituals Best Forgotten 2: The Last Night Of The Proms

Great Britain


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!
  • Jerusalem
  • 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!


14 comments on “Rituals Best Forgotten 2: The Last Night Of The Proms”

  1. Ness says:

    I’ve just found out my paper fivers are no longer legal, so royal absence or presence is neither here nor there.

    I do like Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia, at least they are rousing even if my status as one of the ruled should alienate me. I also enjoy Jerusalem even though I’m not remotely religious.

    I’m will also admit to dodging tear gas in riots in Paris and being moved by the mass of voices singing the French anthem. Perhaps it’s all that being girt by sea, all alternatives seem better.

    Sometimes it’s just the energy not the meaning. I’m not waving flags for anyone though.

  2. brooke says:

    Unlike the Last Night, Late Night held a Stax/Volt concert.

  3. Steveb says:

    I think you worry too much about it all! Ideas that lurk behind it… not convinced. It’s just a stupid show, like Eurovision.
    I think you should let Arthur have his say on this.

  4. Chris Webb says:

    An American once asked me the reason for a certain British annual event (can’t even remember what it was now, something like Trooping the Colour or the Lord Mayor’s Show) and I said “Oh, they do it every year”. Both of us were evidently happy to accept this as a perfectly valid reason. Some things just gain enough momentum to become a habit.

    Banks of Green Willow is very poignant. Before he went off to The Great War Butterworth destroyed a lot of his music in case he was killed. He was worried it wasn’t very good and he didn’t want people to remember him as a third-rate composer. Well as it happens he was killed. Had he lived he would probably have become the greatest British composer of the 20th Century, a worthy heir to Vaughan Williams whose friend and protege he was.

    I actually think there should be more British music at the proms. We as a nation are said to champion the underdog which in terms of classical music is ourselves!

  5. Chris Webb says:

    Sorry, forgot to mention that I think you can still pay old vegan Lady Godivas into your bank.

  6. Vivienne says:

    We do have such a rubbish National Anthem so I can see the attraction of belting out Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia and Jerusalem in an orgy of fervour once a year. As this happens in a concert hall and one that is really quite egalitarian in its roundness and rather intellectual decoration, as opposed to having a serious portico of soaring columns, this makes it less triumphalist. After Brexit, this nostalgia will be all we have to keep us warm.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I thought the Last Night was terribly unBritish, but that’s because I didn’t understand anything. Singing with full lung expansion is great exercise and leaves you with a feeling of emotional uplift, totally unconnected to the intellectual content of the material sung. Jerusalem used to be in our hymnbook, in spite of its being totally unrelated to anything Canadian. The Sally Anns’ founder used to ask why the devil got all the good tunes and someone wrote a set of Canadian lyrics. Land off Hope and glory is a great workout because there are all those big open vowels.
    I would love to attend a proper concert at the Albert Hall, which I saw from the Albert Memorial on a beautiful sunny day.

  8. admin says:

    The Albert Hall is not a great venue; the acoustics are rubbish, the circular area around the hall is a scrum, and the queue for the lavs is awful – yet I’ve had some magical, memorable nights there.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Rats! Another icon shattered. Performing at the Albert Hall was supposed to be special but it isn’t if the audience doesn’t hear and if a man is complaining about lav lineups it must be terrible. Oh, well.

  10. davem says:

    Interesting point about the acoustics. I saw The Cranberries there a few years back, and the sound was superb.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Right! So it’s all in where you sit? Or what the performers have behind them? Or whether there’s miking and if so what kind and where placed? Or…?

  12. Jan Briggs says:

    I am pretty sure it’s gone now turned into a dwelling or ghastly gastro joint but there used to be little pub inside a mews just W of the Royal Albert Hall. During the intervals of concerts held there the orchestra used to dash into this little pub which seemed to operate the same sort of preordering of drinks that they do inside theatre bars have a quick drink and dash back into the Hall. All in full penguin gear. They all moaned like mad about the conductors, audience and various bits and pieces. Double quick drinkers though. If they weren’t held up by too many encores these guys had a quick last orders then dashed for trains home. Happy days.

  13. Jan Briggs says:

    I thought those big weird suede looking mushrooms dangled from the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall to improve the acoustics. Either that or they are just the largest fungi in London

  14. Helen Martin says:

    There are always sound engineers (there, a different sort of engineer) who are sure they can improve the “listening experience” and it always seems to involve hanging weird things from the ceiling. In our local theatre it involved large plexiglass looking panels, but since I don’t know what exactly they were trying to improve I don’t know whether or not it worked.

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