What does the term “Last Night of the Proms” mean to you? Well, if you’re an American, bets are high that it means absolutely nothing. I was, of course, familiar with the BBC Proms after my Sunday afternoon of modern pipe organ music; and knew it was an eight week music event that runs each summer bringing classical music of all sorts to London however I figured the final evening performance of the Proms might have a bit more pomp and circumstance and self-congratulations than ordinary but would otherwise just be another concert. How wrong I was.
As someone who did not grow up watching the Last Night on BBC1, I’ve found it a bit difficult to properly explain the evening. This except is from the BCC Proms Wikipedia page:
Most people’s perception of the Proms is taken from the Last Night, although this concert is very different from the others….
Tickets are highly sought after…. advance booking must include six previous concert stubs, plus an application for a Last Night ticket…. Some standing tickets are sold on the day, just as for other concerts during the season. Prommers with tickets or wishing to buy them on the day of are likely to queue up much earlier than usual (even overnight) in order to ensure a good place to stand in the hall. The resulting cameraderie adds to the atmosphere. Fancy dress is an optional extra: from dinner jackets to patriotic T-shirts. Many use the occasion for an exuberant display of Britishness.
Ann, my flatmate, had mentioned the event over the previous weeks but until Saturday morning, when the two of us arrived at the Royal Albert Hall at the ungodly hour of 8:30am, I had no concept of how truly popular this event actually was… or any idea what to expect.
The Queue (Part I)
The entire process begins with a queue. The British like to queue. They’re good at it and when other countries beat them in the sports they’ve invented, at the very least they can ‘tut’ and say “well! At least we weren’t making a mess of the queues!” or some such comment. As I mentioned, we arrived at 8:30, and were about fifty places into the queue for people who didn’t have tickets but wanted them for the lower arena (as opposed to the queue for people who did have tickets for the arena, those who wanted tickets for the gallery, and those who did have tickets for the gallery). In front of us were several hard core Promming fans who had spent the night. The queues steadily grew and at 11am, we were given tickets with a number on them… telling us our place in the queue. This allowed us to leave under strict instructions to return by 3pm as the queue would be checked again and if we weren’t there we would forfeit our place.
If you were told to wear fancy dress to a party in America, you might be expected to wear a dress (if you’re female) or suit and tie (if you’re male) whereas in Britain it’s the opposite. Fancy dress denotes something similar to costume party and so while a number of people did wear black-tie and ball gowns to the Proms (yes, even though they had to stand outside in the queue for hours), just as many were wearing things like strategically placed Union flags; fuzzy cowboy hats; aprons; wigs and false mustaches. Ann and I dressed up nicely during our brief reprise from the queue, grabbed a quick lunch and hurried back so as not to miss any of the quintessentially British queuing.
The Queue (Part II)
From 3pm until we were allowed into the Hall at 7pm (for the 8pm performance) we queued. And let me tell you, if queuing were an Olympic sport (*note to London 2012 Olympics planning committee*) we would have taken gold. Not only did we retain our place in line, we picnicked, made friends with the people beside us, survived grouchy queue monitors from the Hall, and took part in an impromptu sing-along.
Perhaps the best bit of the queue was meeting a fantastic group of London students whose music knowledge put mine to shame but still allowed us to spend the rest of the day hanging out with them. I got tips on upcoming operas, met a real Welsh girl (I still wish I were Welsh), compared picnics, and discussed differences in the party scene between American and London universities (note to my fellow Americans: we lose). Despite the fun we were having outside, it was starting to get a bit chilly, we had been sitting outside all day, and the excitement was rising so we were perfectly happy to be let into the Royal Albert Hall.
The Proms (First Half)
The only time I had been inside the RAH before was for the rather unique experience I have alluded to earlier. This polar opposite event had about 100 or so people and I had about three metres of space to myself on the arena floor. Now, however, I was packed in with 1500 others just on the floor level but when the music began, it hardly mattered. The BBC Orchestra and Choir provided the backup for baritone Bryn Terfel who sang a number of pieces including Puccini and Verdi and, just to mix things up, sea shanties. By the interval, I was quite engrossed in the music. I always forget how much I enjoy live classical music and sharing it with 5000 other viewers made it even more special. The only thing that seemed to be missing was the emphatic flag waving I had been promised….
The Proms (Second Half)
If anything, the anticipation was greater entering into the second half of the show. This was what the people had come to see, the real reason these people had been in the queue for the last twelve hours, and the BBC Proms Last Night that Brits know and love. There is no better way to demonstrate the event than with an actual clip of the night:
Yes, I am one of those people waving the Union Flag singing Rule Britannia. I also sang God Save the Queen.
I think after the final song, in which we all held hands and sang Auld Lang Syne I started to get a bit of a sense of the cultural heritage that this event holds for the British. There was something spectacular about this one instance when both flags and patriotism are aired and rejoiced in. In the USA, there is a constant undercurrent of patriotism. We can disagree with the government, with our peers, or with our culture but there is an element of pride in that disagreement – what a great country, we think, where I am allowed to be a dissenter. How proud we are of the stars and stripes whether it’s the 4th of July or any average Monday. I’d never gotten the sense that there was such pride or patriotism in this somewhat confused former imperialist power where I now reside. So it was with relief and joy that, like a suppressed memory the flags, national songs and love of Britain was finally released on the night of September 13th. How could the country not rally around, raise their children to watch, and, of course, queue for hours for this event?
And because there’s no chance of such a show of British patriotism until this time next year, just for good measure let me say it once more; God Save the Queen.