Land of Hope and Glory-hunters
By: Robert Weedon | Written: Wednesday 6th May 2009
Say "BBC Proms" to most people, and their immediate thought will be of flag-waving, patriotic singing, and people dressed in stupid outfits bobbing along to sea shanties. That's the popular impression of "the world’s most popular classical music festival", and more precisely of the hallowed Last Night of the Proms. On the whole it's a fair impression of that concert, but most people don't even seem to be aware of the 76-or so other concerts that take place during the festival's three months, and indeed only base their impression of them on one rather unrepresentative one. Anyway, it's there - the People love all the flag waving and singing, and the BBC love it because it shows them "bringing the nation together" by the medium of television. They even put the final half of the Last Night on BBC1, where, somewhat satisfyingly, it usually ends up delaying Match of the Day. However, there's a traitor in their midst, and that traitor is the BBC Proms in the Parks.
The Proms in the Park started in 1996 in Hyde Park, opposite the Hall. At first, it seemed like a nice idea. Tickets for the Last Night are, literally, worth their weight in gold. You have to book for at least six concerts to even be considered, have a season ticket or queue for a silly amount of time outside the Albert Hall. Even then, unless you're Promming, the price is prohibitively expensive. There are also the cheats – as Richard Morrison pointed out in his article in the The Times recently, a shocking number of the Albert Hall's boxes and hundreds of seats (apparently up to a fifth of its seating capacity) are permanently owned by individuals or companies, some of which can legitimately charge over £1000 for a Last Night seat, and which the BBC can do nothing about.
Anyway, with tickets being nigh-on impossible to get hold of, it seemed like a nice gesture of the BBC to have a large outdoor screen for people to come out and watch the concert in a more festive atmosphere. Great. It was a success, so over the next few years, they rolled them out in Belfast, Glasgow, Swansea, and for a while, Manchester. No problem with that. People went to see their own little concert given by a BBC orchestra before watching the Last Night on a big screen.
Apart from one year, somebody thought that it would be a good idea to introduce an element of interactivity, and show some of the crowd at these events, showing how the BBC had democratised the admittedly closed-club of the Last Night. This is where it went wrong. Ultimately, this is a classical concert broadcast - viewers at home don't want to see a field full of poorly-lit people huddled together in Berghaus coats jumping about as they see they're on the telly. They tune in to see the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and hopefully get a taste of what being in the Hall is like, which is of course what the Proms in the Park people had wanted to do in the first place as well.
It's rather like watching the live finale of the FA Cup, only to cut every few minutes to another shitter match taking place in a stadium lit by a 40 watt bulb. It's stupid. And attempts to link up the four venues have usually ended up being quite awkward, climaxing in 2007 with a somewhat poorly executed attempt to perform a piece split five ways between these Proms in the Parks by satellite.
Don't get me wrong, the Proms in the Park are a good thing (albeit one that's apparently becoming increasingly as difficult to gain tickets for as the Last Night itself). However, if I watch the Last Night on television, I don't really want to see them, much as they wouldn't want to see me sitting at home watching the concert. No, really, they wouldn't. What I would propose is that the Proms in the Parks stop featuring so heavily in the television coverage, or if they must televise them, why not show the event later on the BBC Red Button, or on BBC Two at a later date? It's just a thought.
UPDATE: This year's Last Night was a fairly text-book example of all the problems caused by the Proms in the Parks. What I had forgotten to mention earlier is how the "digital delay" makes any attempts to synchronise people singing in the parks with those in the hall rather futile, as seen in all of the "audience participation" pieces. This year, as it was a first time event, the director seemed to have a strange preoccupation with the front row of people standing in the park at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. This location provided the "lowlight" of the whole evening, during the last verse of Jerusalem with a 10 second pause on a bloke sitting in Northern Ireland with a tin of lager, in a vest and a viking hat, not singing along. Well, he wouldn't, would he? Jerusalem is generally regarded as an English anthem...
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