BBC insiders have blasted their bosses for ‘walking into an unnecessary and absurd row’ and making a ‘ghastly mistake’ by censoring the ‘racist’ to Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia on the Last Night of the Proms.
The decision to use instrumental versions of the patriotic anthems for the summer festival has drawn widespread anger – with staff at the corporation also venting their frustration at bosses’ apparent submission to ‘woke’ activists who find the anthems offensive.
One senior insider said: ‘This is another example of the BBC walking into a completely unnecessary and absurd row about culture.
‘It makes a lot of us despair when this kind of thing happens again and again. There’s lots of things you can say about both of the songs and they are not up to the minute. But that’s the case with 99 per cent of our culture one way or the other.’
And ex-BBC chairman Michael Grade launched a blistering attack on the corporation this morning, calling the decision ‘idiotic’ and a ‘ghastly mistake’ by bosses who have ‘lost touch’ with the British public.
It comes as tens of thousands sign a MailOnline petition demanding that demanding that the lyrics be reinstated.
Another BBC source told The Times ‘We have taken a relatively simple thing and made it a complete mess,’ one BBC source said. Another called it a ‘totally self-generated f*** up’.’
The compromise was drawn up after incoming director general Tim Davie – who takes over on 1 September – after he intervened to insist both Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory were performed in some form.
BBC bosses had been considering removing both completely following criticism by woke left-wing activists claiming the lyrics about Britain ‘never being enslaved’ were ‘racist’ .
But former Tory council candidate Mr Davie intervened and is thought to want to reset the BBC’s relationship with No 10 when he takes over next week.
Mr Davie is a former Tory council candidate and marketing executive who worked for Pepsi and Procter & Gamble before joining the BBC’s commercial arm. He is replacing Oxford-educated BBC veteran Lord Hall who worked for the corporation for decades before leading the Royal Opera.
Anger grew over the BBC’s decision yesterday, with Boris Johnson condemning the corporation for ‘wetness’ and accusing its senior figures of harbouring a ‘cringing embarrassment’ for Britain’s traditions.
Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, has also condemned this year’s decision.
Mr Phillips accused BBC bosses of being ‘rooms full of white men panicking that someone is going to think they are racist’.
He told Times Radio: ‘The real problem the corporation has is that it is always in a panic about race, and one of the reasons it is always in a panic is that it has no confidence.
‘The principle reason it has no confidence … is that there is no ethnic diversity at the top of its decision-making tree.
The BBC vowed last night that the patriotic lyrics would return in 2021 – when the concert season finale is again performed before an audience – but it has done little to quell the anger.
BBC chairman Michael Grade told the Today programme this morning: ‘This is a ghastly mistake which shows how out of touch they are with their audience.
‘I would defend the BBC’s right to make decisions free of political influence but it is clearly a mistake, it’s just idiotic.’
‘Although it may be justified on artistic grounds [the decision] does have while political and cultural significance which they [BBC bosses] either ignored, didn’t understand or were caught in a complete muddle over.’
‘[The decision] is an indication of the BBC’s… that they are out of touch with the rest of the country. They’ve shown that tome and again over Brexit, they missed the big swing at the election. The journalists at the BBC are too trapped in the Westminster bubble.’
‘The big question is what’s the future for British public sector broadcasting and Tim Davie is a fine executive who will serve the BBC very well indeed.What we need to do is take a long hard look and come with a definition and a role fore the BBC that reflects the very different reality today.
The remit of the BBC hasn’t really changed in 100 years, it really is time for a review.
Yesterday, the director-general Lord [Tony] Hall claimed it was a ‘creative conclusion’ by director David Pickard in response to Covid-19, insisting: ‘It’s very, very hard to have things where the whole audience normally sing along.’
The British public could also force the BBC to play the ‘offensive’ lyrics of Land of Hope and Glory on Friday after Vera Lynn’s rendition of Land of Hope and Glory topped the charts.
The corporation could now be forced to play the patriotic anthem properly after all, because the UK’s top-selling songs are typically aired in full during BBC Radio 1’s Friday chart show.
It came after the actor Laurence Fox mounted a social media drive to back a recording by Dame Vera Lynn, who died in June aged 103.
The campaign to get Dame Vera to the top of the charts was launched by a group called Defund the BBC, which states that its main goal is to decriminalise failure to pay the licence fee.
The group urged those upset with the Proms decision to download Dame Vera’s version, tweeting yesterday: ‘Let’s get Land of Hope and Glory to No 1 in the charts and make the BBC play it… the words the BBC really don’t want you to hear, sung by Dame Vera Lynn.’
Those backing the appeal include actor Laurence Fox, who called the decision to drop the lyrics from Edward Elgar’s composition ‘shameful’.
He wrote online: ‘Would the BBC then have to play it? What a beautiful day that would be.’
By last night the song had already shot to number one in Apple’s charts for its own music services.
It followed Boris Johnson’s condemnation of the move by the BBC yesterday.
Saying he could barely believe the BBC’s decision, he added: ‘It’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness, I wanted to get that off my chest.’
Former chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins MP, added today: ‘There has been a suggestion that this is because some people regard the performance of these songs as out-dated and even that some of the words are offensive.
‘People are of course entitled to their opinion, but so too are the millions of people who have enjoyed these performances over the years.
“Great words and music that become part of our national culture, based on the significance people have attached to them over many years, often centuries, should not be lightly discarded.’
The row also rumbled on today as a Songs of Praise producer who compared singing Rule Britannia to Nazis singing about gas chambers doubled down on her attack – and called for the anthem to be rewritten.
Cat Lewis said that singing about how Britons would ‘never be slaves’ during Rule Britannia was akin to Nazis shouting about how they would ‘never be forced into a gas chamber’.
Her comments came amid the controversy over the decision to not sing the patriotic anthem, along with Land of Hope and Glory, at the Last Night of the Proms this year.
Ms Lewis, the CEO of Nine Lives Media, which produces the BBC programme Songs of Praise, has now expanded on her earlier comments, saying she thinks ‘slavery was Britain’s holocaust’.
She added: ‘We should apologise for it properly and yet at the moment, we have NO memorial to enslaved people in the UK. We should not celebrate slave owners.
‘And we should not sing in a gloating way that Britons will never be enslaved, when we were responsible for enslaving so many. We should have anthems which celebrate what is truly great about the UK, which we can all sing and this will help unite our country.’
Ms Lewis then said if she was producing the Proms, she would suggest a national competition to find new lyrics for Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory to find ‘words which celebrate and unify our fantastic country, because the music to both is undoubtedly fabulous’.
David Brice, a commodore in the Royal Navy, wrote a letter to The Times condemning the censorship of Rule Britannia. He said : “Any attempt to remove the right to sing Rule, Britannia! on the Last Night of the Proms seems at variance with historical truth.
“Between 1807 and 1869 the Royal Navy conducted a very difficult maritime campaign against the Atlantic slave trade; it was an act of national intent.
‘Without Britannia ruling the waves, this successful campaign could not have been attempted.’The BBC has said there have been “unjustified personal attacks” on social media on Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, who will be at the helm of the Last Night this year.
“Decisions about the Proms are made by the BBC, in consultation with all artists involved,” it said.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also weighed into the row, with a Labour spokesman saying the Proms was a ‘staple of the British summer’ and enjoying patriotic songs ‘was not a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it’.
The row over this year’s Proms began at the weekend when it was first reported that Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory could be ditched entirely. Critics have claimed the songs are inappropriate due to associations with colonialism and slavery.
The lyrics to Rule Britannia include the line ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’, while the 1902 words to Land of Hope and Glory were reputedly inspired by Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist and mining magnate whose statue is being removed from an Oxford college.
It was suggested that the Finnish Proms conductor, Dalia Stasevska, was keen to limit patriotic elements, and that this year – without an audience due to coronavirus – was the perfect moment for change.
Late on Monday, BBC bosses finally confirmed that the two anthems would be performed, but without the lyrics.
Government officials held talks with BBC executives to urge them to rethink the decision but to no avail.
David Mellor, the Tory former culture secretary, said: ‘This is a disgraceful cock-up at every level. What we get is a whole lot of woke claptrap and the BBC don’t know what to do about it.’
Business Secretary Alok Sharma suggested the BBC should put the lyrics on screen so viewers can decide for themselves whether to sing them.
Tensions between No 10 and the BBC have been growing since the election. Downing Street banned ministers from appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and was enraged by a monologue by Emily Maitlis on Newsnight about Dominic Cummings. Tony Hall, the BBC’s outgoing director general, yesterday tried to blame the coronavirus crisis for the Proms decision, pointing out that fewer performers are allowed on stage.
He said the issue had been determined by David Pickard, who became director of the BBC Proms in 2015. Asked whether there had been a discussion about dropping songs because of their link with imperialism, Lord Hall replied: ‘The whole thing has been discussed by David and his colleagues.’
He defended the compromise, adding: ‘It’s very, very hard in an Albert Hall that takes over 5,000 people to have the atmosphere of the Last Night of the Proms and to have things where the whole audience normally sing along.’
A BBC spokesman said last night: ‘For the avoidance of any doubt, these songs will be sung next year.
‘We obviously share the disappointment of everyone that the Proms will have to be different but we believe this is the best solution in the circumstances.’
Yesterday, a Songs of Praise producer has compared Rule Britannia’s lyrics to neo-Nazis singing about the Holocaust.
Cat Lewis tweeted: ‘Do those Brits who believe it’s ok to sing an 18th Century song about never being enslaved… also believe it’s appropriate for neo-Nazis to shout ‘We will never be forced into a gas chamber’.’
Anti-Semitism campaigner Jonathan Sacerdoti called the comparison ‘outrageous’.
Several prominent left-wingers have come out against the traditional anthems in recent days.
Nwanoku, founder of the Chineke! Foundation which supports upcoming BAME musicians, told The Guardian: ‘The lyrics are just so offensive, talking about the ‘haughty tyrants’ – people that we are invading on their land and calling them haughty tyrants – and Britons shall never be slaves, which implies that it’s OK for others to be slaves but not us.
‘It’s so irrelevant to today’s society. It’s been irrelevant for generations, and we seem to keep perpetuating it. If the BBC are talking about Black Lives Matter and their support for the movement, how could you possibly have Rule Britannia as the last concert – in any concert?’
Ms Kani also raised concerns with the line on slavery, telling BBC Radio 4: ‘I’m Indian, my parents came from India, I received a wonderful education in Britain, but I don’t actually feel very British when I hear things like that.
‘I don’t feel very British when I have people say to me ‘go home p***.”
The musician instead suggested the songs could be replaced with I Vow to Thee My Country or The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love.
Ms Kani, whose parents sought refuge in Britain after the partition of India in 1947, also told the Sunday Times: ‘I don’t listen to Land of Hope and Glory and say ‘thank God I’m British’ – it actually makes me feel more alienated.
‘Britain raped India and that is what that song is celebrating.’
The conductor of this year’s Proms, Dalia Stasevska, has reportedly voiced her desire to modernise the Proms and reduce its patriotic elements.
She is understood to have been part of a small group behind the decision to perform Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory without lyrics next month.
‘Dalia is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change,’ a BBC source said.
A corporation spokesman said: ‘The decisions taken are the BBC’s. We very much regret the unjustified personal attacks on Dalia Stasevska, BBC Symphony Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor made on social media and elsewhere.’
At least, there is still one irredeemably British quality to this year’s Last Night of the Proms: the fudge. Not even the finest dairy herds of Devon and Cornwall could have confected something as thick, rich and clotted as the latest solution served up by the BBC.
Instead of either ignoring the usual half-hearted complaints about ‘jingoism’ – a recurring grumble ahead of every Last Night since the war – or else explaining why such charges are baseless, the BBC management has, this year, just caved in.
The result is a mess that has not merely satisfied no one at all but has now managed to kickstart a national debate about the BBC itself. And it is all so needless.
Come the grand finale of this year’s concert, ‘Rule Britannia’ will be just a shrivelled morsel. A few bars of Arne’s famous anthem will be bolted on to the end of the usual medley of nautical songs – but without any words. Next comes Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (‘Land of Hope and Glory’) but, again, minus the words.
It would have been easier for the BBC if they had simply said they were removing these pieces on a temporary basis, as indeed they did in 2001. Back then, in those dumbstruck days immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, it was decided that these boisterous crowd-pleasers would hit the wrong note. So out they went, without complaint.
This time around, the BBC is floundering, meekly trying to blame this mess on the coronavirus while not denying that it has something to do with the culture wars raging beyond.
Yesterday, the director-general Lord [Tony] Hall claimed it was a ‘creative conclusion’ in response to Covid-19, insisting: ‘It’s very, very hard to have things where the whole audience normally sing along.’
This argument simply falls apart given that the song which has now overtaken Elgar – ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – is a singalong classic which will be sung by the guest soprano and by the BBC Singers. So, too, will ‘Jerusalem’ and the National Anthem.
In other words, some songs are safe to sing in a pandemic but not others. Pull the other one.
This year’s guest conductor, Finland’s Dalia Stasevska, 35, reportedly regards the virus as a good excuse for pruning a much-loved script. As a BBC source told the Sunday Times: ‘Dalia is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change.’
Miss Stasevska has made no comment and has chosen to let this remark stand. With no substantial ethnic minorities beyond a tiny percentage of Swedes and Russians, Finland is among the least diverse societies in Europe. Finns are perhaps not best-placed to lecture the British on multiculturalism.
I suggest that Miss Stasevska has a word with her compatriot, Sakari Oramo. He was the Finnish conductor with a very difficult task – conducting the Last Night of the Proms in 2016 in the toxic aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Back then, the BBC was crippled by the same old anxieties about orgies of jingoism.
Former Proms director Nicholas Kenyon wrote darkly in the Guardian of his ‘sense of foreboding that this most British of occasions might be hijacked to celebrate the triumph of Little England’.
As ever, it was nonsense – as I discovered when I went along myself. The only people who hijacked the event were an enterprising band of Remainers who had purchased a lorry load of EU flags which were given to everyone going through the door. A few Brexiteers tried to do the same with Union flags. Mr Oramo ignored it all.
Perhaps the loudest cheer of the night came when he led on his star vocalist, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, to sing Rule Britannia – originating from a poem by James Thomson.
Florez had come not in white tie and tails, nor dressed as Britannia. Instead, he was in the full regalia of the King of the Incas, complete with feathered cloak and Sun God helmet. The audience was ecstatic. Here was a proud Peruvian in ancient native dress, conducted by a proud Finn, leading the entire Albert Hall – plus tens of thousands gathered around the jumbo screens in Hyde Park, Glasgow and elsewhere plus millions more watching on telly – in a bravura rendition of one of Britain’s best-loved tunes.
It was a perfect illustration of a point completely lost on these panicky BBC executives: the Last Night is a global event. It is also one with a healthy sense of irony – an alien concept, of course, to the woke. The thing which most sticks in my mind about that night in 2016 (like all the other Last Nights, in fact) is the range of nationalities. In addition to the EU and Union flags, the next most popular is usually that of Germany.
People get up at all hours around the world to tune in and hold ‘Last Night’ parties. For many of them, it is a lifelong ambition to get a ticket to the real thing. All those German and Japanese viewers will be just as dismayed as the crustiest British ancient mariner this year when they witness Miss Stasevska’s joyless, truncated snippet of a wordless Rule Britannia.
Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts (to give them their full name) have always been the greatest festival of world music anywhere. They are anything but a celebration of national music, like so many lesser festivals.
Those eccentrics with their little rituals whom viewers always see at the front of the Last Night crowd are very serious about their music.
I have interviewed a few of them over the years. They are an eclectic bunch but the last thing you can accuse them of is jingoism. They might sing Rule Britannia with gusto but they will have been just as enthusiastic for the French, African, Indian – even Finnish – music at other concerts over the season.
Besides, Rule Britannia has nothing to do with ‘enslavement’ as its critics claim. Indeed, the words are an exhortation, not a triumphalist boast. Note that the words say ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ – not ‘rules’.
The song was written for an 18th-century royal masque about Alfred the Great defeating the Vikings. It acquired its popularity not as a military marching tune, like, say, France’s unashamedly brutal Marseillaise, but as a catchy musical number sung by barmaid-turned-West End star, Kitty Clive. In other words, it’s a Georgian X-Factor hit. It then went on to be a favourite tune of the Royal Navy – the same navy, of course, which abolished slavery.
Similarly, Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory was called no such thing when it was first performed at the Proms in 1901 – because Arthur Benson had not yet got round to writing any words. It was just Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.
These songs have never been imposed on the British public – like a national anthem or school song – but they endure through their universal appeal. The Germans, Brazilians and Japanese whom I have seen singing ‘Rule Britannia’ at the Royal Albert Hall, while waving their EU flags, had no more enthusiasm for British imperialism than Dalia Stasevska, Jeremy Corbyn or Karl Marx’s cat. Like all the other Prommers, they were there for the music and for the occasion.
It is often said that the BBC is far too sensitive to the prevailing wind on Twitter. So the Broadcasting House high-ups must have been mortified to see that the most popular Twitter thread yesterday lunchtime was ‘#DefundtheBBC’ followed closely by ‘#RuleBritannia’. Then, the Prime Minister weighed in for the second day running, accusing the BBC of ‘cringing’ and ‘wetness’.
They need not cringe. Rather, they should point out that it was the BBC which saved the Proms from insolvency in 1927 and which has kept it all going ever since with generations of great musicians, conductors and presenters. Then they should tell their critics on both sides to pipe down and enjoy the music.
But perhaps, we should have seen this coming. For last year’s Last Night, the BBC commissioned a new work to open the concert. It was entitled, simply, ‘Woke’.