ROBERT HARDMAN: First fight at the Proms… after a bit of Brexit bother there was a very British scuffle
A Finnish conductor leading an American mezzo-soprano against a backdrop of hyperactive European Union flags –and yet it was somehow all still as British as a cucumber sandwich in a cricket tea interval.
This was not only the most right-on, politically charged Last Night of the Proms that anyone could remember (kicking off with a work on social justice titled Woke). It was also the first one to feature a fight – though even this was really rather British too.
A scuffle broke out on the floor of the Royal Albert Hall right in the middle of Jerusalem. A small posse of pro-Brexit activists held up a ‘Brexit Now’ banner, at which point a chap in an EU beret and an elderly gent in a Panama did their best to pull it down. The Brexiteers were then bundled off the premises by security guards.
Pro-Brexit activists held up a ‘Brexit Now’ banner, at which point a chap in an EU beret and an elderly gent in a Panama did their best to pull it down.
Yet none of it managed to spoil what remains one of the great evenings of the musical year. I met people who had crossed oceans specifically to be part of the climax of the world’s greatest festival of live classical music.
The reach of the Proms was reflected in the umpteen nationalities in the audience and the flags draped over balconies and balustrades – from as far afield as Japan, Jamaica and Argentina. There was a respectable smattering of Saltires and Welsh dragons and, sure enough, a healthy turnout of Union flags of all sizes.
Yet one flag outnumbered all the others by a country kilometre – the blue and yellow standard of the EU. This was the fruit of months of careful planning by a well organised pro-Remain group called the EU Flag Mafia who had launched an online crowdfunding appeal to produce 50,000 EU flags and then hand them out for free at events like the Last Night of the Proms.
All those arriving outside the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening were given handfuls. When I asked the student who gave me mine if she also had any Union flags, she gave me a blank look and suggested I could try buying one. I did find a chap near the main entrance flogging Union flags at £3 a go but he wasn’t happy about the free competition.
Some people made a point of matching a British and European flag. Some declined the EU freebie altogether. ‘Today is all about Britain and music and I don’t feel the need to bring politics in to it,’ said Caroline Fitzpatrick, an engineer from Windsor, who had arrived with her mother, Mary, in a Union flag dress made for the occasion.
Careful planning by a well organised pro-Remain group called the EU Flag Mafia saw 50,000 free EU flags made available to those attending the Proms
The pro-Remainers were busy on the inside, too. A chap in a top hat, dressed as a pantomime Jacob Rees-Mogg, made his way around the middle tiers, offering extra-large EU flags to those in boxes – the best seats in the house – and asking them to drape them over their balconies.
The desired effect was to suggest to anyone watching on television that the crowd at a 125-year-old event forever associated with gentle British patriotism had morphed in to a celebration of European identity – and to provoke a reaction on social media. The organisers denied that they were trying to hijack the evening. ‘We’re not being political. This is just about saying that freedom of movement is essential – for musicians and everyone else,’ said one of the organisers who gave his name as Peter.
Having watched the event with my own eyes and then on television, I would say that the BBC did its best did to minimise the politics. On telly, the EU flags were visible but incidental. In the hall, however, they were everywhere.
At half-time, I did a survey of the grand tier and counted 12 boxes draped with EU flags versus 5 with Union flags plus one Saltire, one Danish Dannebrog and one state flag of Bremen.
Up on stage, however, the only flag which mattered was the rainbow banner of the gay Pride movement. By tradition, the conductor’s rostrum is always decorated by the hardcore Prommers, the dedicated band of music aficionados who are to be found standing at the very front on the Last Night, according to a closely-guarded pecking order.
On telly, the EU flags were visible but incidental. In the hall, however, they were everywhere
This year’s conductor, Finland’s Sakari Oramo, found that his rostrum had been festooned with rainbow flags in homage to his mezzo-soprano, America’s Jamie Barton.
The self-styled ‘queer girl with a nose ring’ came on for the final section of the evening wearing a gown of lavender, pink and blue (the livery of the bisexual rights movement) and marched off waving a huge rainbow flag.
The rapturous applause which she received was, above all else, simply recognition of a superb performance incorporating everything from Verdi and the Wizard of Oz to Rule Britannia.
The closing stages of the Last Night are always left to the BBC Chorus and Singers and, above all, the audience. Notwithstanding the current febrile debate about national identity, Land of Hope and Glory came belting forth with as much oomph as ever, with flags of all denominations going haywire.
It was followed by Sir Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem, whereupon jostling broke out in the middle of the main standing area. Two men had unfurled a large blue and white banner with the words ‘Brexit Now’. It was never going to stay upright for long amid a platoon of blue and yellow berets.
TV viewers will not have seen the comical tug-of-war which broke out before security staff waded in and seized the banner. They then ushered the protesters off the premises. Afterwards, the group unfurled the banner on the pavement in front of the hall and explained their actions.
‘Everyone else was making a point with their European flags,’ said Dan Day, 60, a Brexit Party member and builder from Willesden Green, north-west London.
His fellow activist, William Peters, 65, said that he was not a member of the Brexit Party and that their action had not been sanctioned by any organisation. ‘We just wanted to make our point on behalf of 17.4million people, we queued up early and got in.’ In response, a BBC spokesman explained that the issue had been one of size rather than content. ‘Flags are a traditional part of the Last Night of the Proms and audience members are not prevented from bringing them into the Hall,’ she said. ‘On television we try hard to avoid undue prominence when reflecting and conveying the atmosphere of the live event.
Some Prommers had a large banner, bigger than the Royal Albert Hall allows, which they were attempting to unfurl. As this was distracting other customers and was disturbing the celebration, they were escorted out of the arena.’
Come the grand finale, however, there was very little flag-waving at all. Locking arms for Auld Land Syne made it impossible.
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