BBC says words to Rule, Britannia! will now be sung at Proms

Decision comes three days into tenure of new director general Tim Davie, who said original choice was due to Covid-19

The BBC has caved in to pressure and announced that the words of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory will be sung at the Last Night of the Proms.

The decision comes three days into the tenure of the new director general, Tim Davie, who has this week been in the headlines for threatening to axe leftwing comedy shows.

Wasfi Kani, the founder of Grange Park Opera, is among those who find the second line of Rule, Britannia! – “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”– problematic as it suggests other people can be slaves.

Told of the U-turn, she said: “I give up. If they don’t get it, they’ll never get it. Isn’t it depressing?”

Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder of Chineke!, an orchestra that has performed at the Proms and whose musicians are majority black, Asian and ethnically diverse, said she was saddened by the decision.

“The U-turn by the BBC is disappointing, and it’s clear that the strength of feeling runs deep on this issue.”

She had some sympathy though. “For many, the performance of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms is a much-loved tradition that is repeated year after year. People cling to tradition and nostalgia because they are comforting, especially in times of upheaval like now.”

Many do not object to the patriotism, but do think the second line could be changed.

The broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby said he had “never personally loved that part of the last night. I’ve always found it uncomfortable.” In particular, the “delusory” second line. Why not “Britons never, never, never shall be knaves?” he said.

Dimbleby said he did, however, understand why the decision had been taken.

“Clearly, there is a strong feeling. People, in the times in which we live, feel very strongly that these traditions somehow meld the nation together. Changes of mind are no bad thing. If you never change your mind, you never have an interesting opinion,” he said.

In a statement, the BBC said the original decision to not sing the words had been an artistic one because Covid-19 restrictions meant they were not able to bring together massed voices for the songs. Instead there were to be orchestral versions.

That angered politicians and the rightwing press. Boris Johnson said he could not believe the decision, telling reporters: “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history.”

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, tweeted: “Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it.”

The Daily Mail led its edition with the banner headline “Surrender!”. The Sun headlined the story “Land of woke and glory”. The Daily Telegraph complained it was “as extraordinary as it is wrong-headed”.

At the same time, Davie was beginning his job as director general. One of his tasks is to build bridges with the government as the BBC works to secure a new funding deal.

The decision for the Proms to change course so abruptly suggests the instruction has come from Davie himself. A spokesperson for the Proms said: “The director general is of course aware, but we are not getting into the process.”

The two songs are sung annually with gusto by 150 or so singers in the BBC Symphony Chorus, accompanied by a lively flag-waving last night audience.

Following the U-turn, the event will involve a group of 18 BBC singers performing the songs. It is not yet known if this will be a diverse group.

“This means the words will be sung in the hall, and as we have always made clear, audiences will be free to sing along at home,” the BBC said in a statement. “While it can’t be a full choir, and we are unable to have audiences in the hall, we are doing everything possible to make it special and want a Last Night truly to remember.”

The BBC insists the original decision was made for artistic reasons. “We have been looking hard at what else might be possible and we have a solution,” it said.

“We hope everyone will welcome this solution. We think the night itself will be a very special moment for the country – and one that is much-needed after a difficult period for everyone. It will not be a usual Last Night, but it will be a night not just to look forward to, but to remember.”

Johnson, speaking to Tory MPs after the the BBC announced the change, said: “I do think this country is going through an orgy of national embarrassment about some of the things that other people around the world love most about us.

“People love our traditions and our history with all its imperfections. It’s crazy for us to go around trying to censor it. It’s absolutely absurd and I think we should speak out loud and proud for the UK and our history.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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