LONDON (Reuters) – Every year millions tune in to watch a pomp-laden celebration of all things British with flag-waving music lovers boisterously singing along to patriotic anthems performed at the last night of the BBC’s Promenade concerts.
But a decision by the public broadcaster to omit the words from two of the best known songs in this year’s concert from London’s Royal Albert Hall has sparked a bitter row over censorship and the country’s imperial past.
The BBC said an orchestral-only version of “Rule Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” would be performed to reflect how the Last Night of the Proms concert would take place on Sept. 12 with no audience and a small orchestra due to COVID-19.
However, the move follows a media report that the conductor believed the time had come “to bring change” to the concert after the global anti-racism protests spurred by the death of George Floyd in the United States.
Rule Britannia! includes the line: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves; Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday he had to address the subject.
“I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture, and we stopped this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness,” he told broadcasters. “I wanted to get that off my chest.”
Outgoing BBC boss Tony Hall said it would be very hard to recreate the atmosphere of a 5,000-strong audience, but declined to say whether the lyrics were dropped because of any colonial links. He said he suspected the lyrics would be back next year.
The annual musical jamboree, normally the conclusion to a summer-long series of concerts, has attracted criticism in the past for being jingoistic, while its defenders argue it represents a joyful outpouring of tradition and patriotism.
In 1990, the designated conductor was dismissed because he did not want to play the two anthems while Britain was engaged in combat in the Gulf.
However, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the concert did not include the pieces, with organisers saying a more sombre programme was appropriate.
The BBC’s decision to drop the words made the front pages of Britain’s right-leaning newspapers, with the Daily Mail decrying the move as “Surrender” and commentators on some news websites and social media sites saying the BBC had censored the songs.
The BBC said it very much regretted the “unjustified personal attacks” on Dalia Stasevska, the principal guest conductor, and said this year’s concert would mark the traditions and spirit of the event while reflecting the need for a smaller choir to social distance.
A report that Stasevska wanted to modernise the evening because she was a supporter of Black Lives Matter was carried in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and pounced on by critics of the publicly-funded BBC, including some members of the government.
Stasevska has not directly commented on the row.
(Reporting by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Mike Collett-White)