The instruments have been put back in their cases, the flags have been furled and the prommers and orchestra have all gone home for another year following that great British party to celebrate the end of the BBC Proms – the famous Last Night.
The Last Night is one of the British traditions that is so well loved by people that its programme should be sacred. The BBC is the custodian of this great party of an institution and yet you can’t help but feel the BBC is somehow uncomfortable with something it should be very proud of.
Much as the Last Night of the Proms was once very establishment – with God Save the Queen and all the patriotic songs, in today’s Britain to enjoy this night is an act of proud rebellion against the shackles of political correctness. It is the one night of the year when real people get the chance to celebrate being British in a good-humoured, but unambiguously patriotic way.
It is light hearted and fun, it is patriotic and very British. So the BBC ought not to tinker, yet it cannot help itself. The sacred canon is of course opened with Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Seasongs and then we move into the unapologetically nationalistic Rule Britannia and the rest. Everyone gets the chance to wave the flag and it is so enjoyable. It is even more enjoyable because it is a forbidden pleasure. One can almost feel the political and media class trembling in their boots as “Land of Hope and Glory” reverberates around the dome of the Royal Albert Hall. Today patriotic songs are virtual protest songs against the new, insipid, politically-correct establishment.
Perhaps that is exactly why the BBC constantly tries subtly to change the programme. Have you noticed how the Fantasia on British Seasongs has been removed from the evening? I don’t think sophisticated BBC types can comprehend the sheer good fun of bobbing to the Hornpipe or the mock-weeping to “Home Sweet Home”. What about the orchestra playing Jack the Lad faster and faster? These are all great traditions that we all hold in real affection. Bring them back BBC! Remember how they tried to water down Rule Britannia too?
Meanwhile, Radio 3 commentator Sean Rafferty every year appears desperately to play down the patriotic fervour, by constantly mentioning the small number of foreign flags and how international it all feels. Can you imagine him saying: “Isn’t it great to see all those Union Jacks? What a patriotic event!” Sadly that just seems impossible. Of course it is good to see foreigners who feel they belong enough to wave their flags, but is it not even more heartening to see good-hearted patriotism alive and well?
The BBC just cannot do patriotism. Patriotism is not in its DNA. Is this why it is always trying to ensure that the conductor is no longer British? The message is we are international – this is not actually a patriotic event. Well BBC yes it is and that is why we all love it so much! The conducting is of course about the musical ability, but on the Last Night it is also about entering into the spirit, getting the tone right and understanding our national sense of humour. A British conductor like Sir Andrew Davis got the humour of the moment just right – no pompous speechifying, just entering into and enhancing the spirit of the event.
The BBC is a custodian of the Last Night, not the owner. It should allow us to enjoy the fun and patriotism and not try and impose its own misplaced guilt about being British. To criticise such a great fun event such as the Last Night of the Proms seems churlish, but that is how the BBC is getting away with watering it down. We all feel so cheerful after singing Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, we turn a blind eye to the creeping political correctness.