The BBC Proms 2023 season is in its last week, the moment, as it seems to me, when summer finally becomes autumn. The season has had its high points, as it always does – this year in Simon Rattle’s farewell with Mahler’s Ninth, one of the few serious Proms the BBC allowed us to see on TV, a remarkable occasion which even the Albert Hall’s unique acoustic could not dampen.
But one can’t entirely suppress some doubts. Is high culture really safe in the BBC’s hands? The attempt to kill off the BBC Singers earlier this year hardly suggests it. This Proms season had a slightly down-market feel, with no truly world-class overseas orchestras, a bit too much Horrible Histories and Northern soul, and not enough serious music. William Byrd, whose 400th anniversary was supposedly being marked, got one concert in Londonderry and one four-minute piece in a “Mindful Mix”.
As so often, one feels the BBC doubts the appeal of the Western civilisational and cultural tradition, and instead prefers to give people what it thinks they can cope with.
Of course, for many, the Proms are the Last Night, that annual festival of flags and fun. And once again there is the usual whiff of controversy surrounding Saturday’s event, a tradition by now almost as long-standing as the Proms themselves.
On the one hand there are the unreconciled Remainers. Once again the “EU Flags Team” will be handing out EU flags to be waved in the Hall on the night. George Orwell called this phenomenon “transferred nationalism”. He wrote that those who abandon loyalty to their native land still feel the need for a place to focus their emotions.
Having chosen somewhere (in his day it was usually Russia), they could be “more nationalistic, more vulgar, more silly” than they ever could be about anywhere about which they had real knowledge. The transferred nationalist can then “wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes he has emancipated himself. God, the King, the Empire, the Union Jack … can reappear under different names … and be worshipped with a good conscience.”
Still that’s fine by me, if that’s what they want. The Last Night can easily accommodate those of all nationalities who love their own country, and even those who claim to love an international organisation instead.
Much more troubling is the evidence that the BBC, and at least parts of the musical world, doesn’t really like the core of the event at all.
This actually goes back much further than you might think. As early as 1969, the BBC tried to drop Land of Hope and Glory, to make the programme “attractive to 40 million viewers in Europe” as the then Controller of Music put it. But even The Guardian, a more robust newspaper then than now, criticised the decision, and it was rapidly reversed.
In 1990, the conductor Mark Elder was swiftly dumped from the Last Night when he suggested that the brewing war in the Gulf meant the tone should be changed. But 10 years later, in 2001 after 9/11, it did seem necessary to adjust the traditional programme and I admit it felt entirely appropriate.
But over the past decade the sensitivities have grown faster and faster, as in every other area of our national life. The Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, who wore a Union flag waistcoat in 2014, preferred not to in 2016. By 2019, the mezzo Jamie Barton was waving the Pride Flag not the Union Jack.
By 2020, Black Lives Matter was turbo-charging the criticism, with its supporters claiming that Rule, Britannia backed slavery and Land of Hope and Glory fuelled racism and Empire nationalism, a view which is now pretty commonplace in certain places. So the BBC tried to get away with playing the music without the words, until ridiculed out of it by Boris Johnson.
Last year Elizabeth II’s death resulted in the cancellation of the whole evening, though many thought a rejigging of the programme, as in 2001, would have been better. And this year, tiptoeing carefully through the controversy, but no doubt reflecting the views of much of his generation of musicians, the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason told the Radio Times he’d prefer more folk tunes to Rule, Britannia.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the spirit of the age is unsympathetic to the Last Night and that the BBC would like to change it if it could get away with it. Does that really matter?
I think it does. So many of us feel strongly about keeping the Last Night unchanged, not because we are obsessed with waving flags, but because we feel “if they can take that, what can’t they take?” The Last Night, unchanged, provides at least one evening of nostalgia, of self-deprecating humour, and of harmless, inclusive patriotism, all things which were thought, until recently, to be entirely and characteristically British.
When the new cultural forces feel strong enough to scrap it, or turn it into the usual modern mush of celebrating diversity and inclusion, then we will know we have lost the culture war. At the moment they don’t feel strong enough. Let’s keep it that way.