Melanie McDonagh

Ditching Rule Britannia’s lyrics from the Proms is a step too far

Ditching Rule Britannia's lyrics from the Proms is a step too far
Last Night of the Proms (Getty images)
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If the Proms director, David Pickard, thought he’d get away with fiddling with Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms, boy, he knows better now. Yesterday, the Proms publicity people put out a statement deploring social media commentary about its plans and explaining: 'The Proms will reinvent the Last Night in this extraordinary year so that it respects the traditions and spirit of the event whilst adapting to very different circumstances at this moment in time. With much reduced musical forces and no live audience, the Proms will curate a concert that includes familiar, patriotic elements such as Jerusalem and the National Anthem, and bring in new moments capturing the mood of this unique time, including You’ll Never Walk Alone, presenting a poignant and inclusive event for 2020.'

Well, that worked out well, didn’t it? And no, no one seemed terribly taken with the promise of the inclusive You’ll Never Walk Alone sung raucously. Now the Prime Minister has weighed in, bringing less light than weight to the row, declaring: '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. I wanted to get that off my chest.' Feel better now, Mr J?

You know, it didn’t have to be like this. If the BBC had simply said that Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem were being played, not sung, at this year’s Proms because of Covid, they might have got away with it. This would be on account of the fact that it is impossible to sing the words other than fortissimo – and loud collective singing is a high-risk activity because of people being likely to spray everyone around them with spittle as they bellow the lyrics. Plus the notion of people singing the thing in anything but the equivalent of a packed football stadium – the Albert Hall – is a bit odd. So if they’d stuck to the health and safety line, they might have pulled this off, since everything else is pretty well cancelled this year anyway.

The trouble was when people got wind of the idea that it wasn’t Covid that was seeing off LOHAG so much as the whole woke, BLM thing – an idea that the director general of the BBC didn’t exactly dispel today. Once word got round that the Finnish conductor didn’t care for the imperialistic overtones then this move was bound to get caught up in the culture wars.

People mind about the Last Night of the Proms because it really is a chance to wrap yourself in the Union flag, literally and metaphorically, which other people despise – though in recent years, critics have taken the opportunity to wrap themselves in the EU flag instead. As it happens, this particular Elgar doesn’t do it for me, and I actively dislike the tune to Jerusalem, but people like it, have fun with it, and do no one any harm singing it. At the Last Night I attended, it was all good humoured and cheerful. But once it looks like the Establishment is trying to ban the Elgar and the Parry for fear of causing offence, people start getting factional and the issue ends up being – sorry to use the overused adjective – totemic.

But really, it shouldn’t be a problem. Marin Alsop, the charming American lesbian conductor did the Last Night a few times, and didn’t balk at Rule Britannia. I interviewed her, and she was just fine with Elgar, and didn’t see it as a culture war thing. Her sane approach rather recommends itself just now:

'Of course there are people who don’t care for Land of Hope and Glory and all the flag-waving but for me, an American, I’m always thrilled and a bit amused by the Last Night, as many British people, I find, are. It is an evening of contrasts: a brilliant combination of streetwise and sentimental, naïve and ironic and, to me, that’s very British. I love the British sense of humour, especially about yourselves and your unwavering pride in your own identity. It all comes together at the Last Night in a show of emotion which is sincere and very moving. It’s a moment to be generous, egalitarian and together. And, as it happens, I really like Elgar.'

Someone, send that in a memo to the BBC.

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a contributor to The Spectator.

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