Last night I was checking people with 'C' surnames against Caverhill while listening to The Last Night of the Proms on radio. Once the program reached the intermission I felt eyes needed to experience this as well as the ears. It was time to leave the computer screen for the television one.
I was first introduced to the Last Night of the Proms 44 years ago when I had only been in the UK for a couple of weeks. Two of us were driving from Glasgow to London by way of the slow scenic route. Saturday night still found us on the Scottish side of the border staying with some people introduced to us by Canadian friends. As dinner ended our hosts recalled that it was the Last Night of the Proms, something that appeared to be a "must watch" to them, but meant nothing much to a couple of girls in their mid-twenties visiting from a foreign land. So the black-and-white television was switched on and we settled down to an evening in which conversation was not going to be the vital part.
As all of us who can remember back that far can recall that, as the 1950s moved into the 1960s, popular music changed. I was not a fan of rock'n'roll. In fact, to replace that empty space that had been filled by romantic ballads and easy jazz, I was discovering classical music of the era from Bach to Mozart. But concerts have never been my style. I can't keep my hands still in my lap. However, that evening I was doing my best to be a proper guest and not fidget excessively.
My yawn factor was suddenly reduced as the quieter parts of Sea Shanties moved into The Hornpipe and the camera moved to the standing audience doing their best to clap in time as the music got faster and faster. Then there was Jerusalem, which I had learned at school, sung with warmth and respect by singers on both sides of the podium. I was beginning to realize why my hosts had looked forward to this evening in front of the television.
"It will be Britannia next." And it was. I forget who the soloist was that year. I don't even know if it was a man or a woman. All I can remember was the audience participation--people of my own age waving flags and swaying from side to side in unison. Really letting their hair down and having fun. It was something I had never known at a symphony concert.
Then Sir Malcolm Sargent made his traditional Last Night speech, thanking all and sundry from Sir Henry Wood (the founder of the Proms whose bust sits on a plinth at the back of the platform) to the hoi polloi like us. On completion he turned to the orchestra, raised his baton, and the familiar tune of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 came forth. The orchestra played the melody once through, and then, together, the whole audience began to sing "Land of Hope and Glory". Again the streamers and the flags came out. At that moment I decided this was where I wanted to be. These people were the kind of people I wanted to be part of.
The Last Night of the Proms has changed a bit over time, but it keeps many of the traditional features and people love it for doing so. The soloist for Britiannia sometimes comes on in costume. I recall a well-built soprano who came on in an all-covering cape which turned out to have a Union Jack lining. But last night Sarah Connolly, who had sung her earlier solo in a trouser suit, came on dressed as Horatio Nelson, and with a flourish presented her tricorn to the conductor who then proceeded to lead the orchestra with one hand while keeping the hat under his other arm.
A few years ago someone got the brilliant idea of producing matching "proms in the parks" in different parts of the country so that the live audience was not limited to those who can get to the Royal Albert Hall in London. Giant television screens allow the various concerts to be swapped around from venue to venue and fireworks displays add to the excitement. This year Handel's Fireworks Music took the place of the Sea Shanties. It was just as fitting. The weather was dry and warm enough for the park audiences to enjoy their night out.
The program from inside the Albert Hall has also changed. Thirty or more years of colour television has seen to that. I am sure there are more streamers and the flags are much larger. There are now a number of colour spotlights moving their beams around the hall. In fact, we did not see as much of the promenaders last night, and--shock, horror--many of them appeared to be in evening dress instead of the usual t-shirt, jeans and silly hat.
It was a wonderful way to take a break from Toronto 1861. If you want to see what this year's Last Night was about, follow http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/events/Proms/b00mvfl6. The podcast will only be available for the next week (until September 19 2009). Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.