Diary of a Prommer

Forget the seats. For many, the real joy of the Proms means queuing to stand in the Arena. We sent deputy editor Jeremy Pound to experience the magic.

A
a
-
Diary of a Prommer
Prommers inside the Royal Albert Hall (Credit: Getty)
Rating: 
0

20 April, 2010

Some ideas are best kept to oneself. Such as the little gem I came up with at this morning’s Proms Issue planning meeting. ‘Why don’t we get someone to go along as a Promenader, mix it with the die-hard standers and queuers, and keep a diary of the day?’ I pipe up. ‘You know, a sort of Beginner’s Guide to Promming.’ The editor’s reply is instant and gratifyingly enthusiastic: ‘Great! Though you’ll have to make it a really high-profile Prom if you’re to get the most out of the experience.’

His worryingly satanic grin tells me that this transition from my generic ‘someone’ to his all-too-specific ‘you’ was no accident. He knows full well that, ever since I went to my first Prom as a nipper in the early 1980s, I’ve always enjoyed the comfort of a seat. I’ve never stood, never queued. ‘Obviously, we’d want you to get right to the front of the Arena,’ he continues. ‘So that would mean getting to the Albert Hall really early. Do take a book and a cushion, as I don’t imagine the pavements are too comfortable. And then the weather might be a touch iffy…’ Glee scarcely contained, the commission, he assures me, is all mine.

 

4 August, 8.25am

So, here we go. Cheltenham Spa station on what looks like being, touch wood, a sunny day. To secure my front-row slot in the Arena, I need to get into London as early as possible, but a crack-of-dawn start is also out of the question – getting into a Prom for a fiver won’t mean much if I’ve had to shell out a month’s mortgage on a peak-time train ticket to get there. So, the 8.31am train it is.

The day is going be a long one, though with a rather magical musical reward at the end of it: Mahler’s Third Symphony, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Sir Donald Runnicles.

10.50am

Remarkably, my train has arrived bang on time. As I make my way across Hyde Park, I find myself breaking into the occasional run. Am I really that excited about the prospect of hanging around doing nothing for hours? Or just absurdly desperate to get as close to the front of the queue as possible? Beyond the Albert Memorial in front of me looms the magnificent sight of the Royal Albert Hall. I do so love it. Not so keen on the increasingly grey sky above it, mind…

11.15am

And here I am. I’m in the queue! Or, rather, one of the queues, plural – lining up along the wall to the left of the statue is the ‘Arena Day Queue’ for occasional visitors to the Proms such as me, while across the way, to the right of it, is the season-ticket holders’ ‘Arena Season Queue’. As British queues go, ours is decidedly higgledy-piggledy, consisting basically of a couple of gaggles chatting, a lady reading a book, one chap lying along the wall half-asleep… and that’s about it. By my estimation, when it comes to making my way through Door 11 and into the arena this evening, only seven or eight people will be ahead of me. Surely I’ve done enough to bag a place against the front rail? In the meantime, all I have to do is think of ways of passing the eight hours between now and when Sir Donald raises his Mahlerian baton. And hope that wasn’t a drop of rain I just felt…

11.50am

Oh dear. Yes that was a drop of rain. And now the skies have well and truly opened. Our already haphazard queue disintegrates as we all run for shelter within the covered walkway of the Albert Hall and I find myself worrying if this means my hard-earned place will count for nothing. Not a bit of it, my fellow queuers assure me – once you’ve bagged your spot, honour among Prommers means that it will remain yours. They’re a friendly bunch, I must say, and we soon get chatting. Nigel, I learn, was second here today, arriving from Brighton at just after 9am – a civil servant, he’s taken a couple of weeks off work just to attend Proms; Rick, a lawyer – ‘or Rod, as some of the older Prommers know me’ – gives me the lowdown on the works that bring in the most early-doors punters: Dvoπák’s New World Symphony, Ravel’s Bolero, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Holst’s Planets; and Barbara, aged 80, has memories of Promming that date back to Sir Malcolm Sargent’s heyday in the 1940s, though says she has slowed down a bit recently – last year she managed ‘only’ 33 Proms. I in turn explain who I am and what my aim is today. ‘Ah, the Holy Rail!’ I hear someone joke, to amused chuckles. I suspect this pun may have made an appearance one or two times before.

12.10pm

Do you ever get the feeling your colleagues might not like you? I’ve come today with a couple of props – a Union Jack flag and umbrella – which I’ve been instructed by our art editor to use for photos at appropriate occasions. Such as the current spell of As I lift flag and brolly sheepishly out of my bag, David, a schoolteacher from Bedford who arrived just before me today, looks at me worriedly: ‘You do know this is not the Last Night, don’t you?’ Nodding glumly, I head out into the rain.

12.30pm

Keen to establish my musical credentials, I chat at some length to David, who’s a keen organist. We spend a happy half hour on the finer points of Bach, diapasons, Widor, reed stops, swells to greats and all. I move the conversation enthusiastically on to one of my pet subjects: the organ works of Herbert Howells! Oh. David suddenly seems keen to get away and have some lunch…

12.40pm

The rain stops. We venture back outside.

1.10pm

David returns – leaving the queue for something to eat/a wee/to stretch one’s legs  is deemed acceptable so long as one doesn’t disappear for hours on end. He’s been shopping and is brandishing a plastic bag, out of which he pulls the sheet music for Howells’s Psalm Preludes for organ. He says he intends to learn them. I am genuinely chuffed.

1.30pm

A big moment. Proms stewards walk down the queue, handing out numbered tickets that mark our official position in the line. I’m No. 10! A truly distinguished number, I’d say – think Pele, Dudley Moore and Bo Derek, Churchill, Attlee and co. More to the point, it surely has ‘Holy Rail’ written all over it. Of course, Nigel (2), Barbara (4), Rick/Rod (8) and David (9) are better placed still. We’re all happy. Bring on Mahler and Sir Donald.

2pm

Since the numbers excitement, not a great deal has been going on. Starting to get a little bored, if I’m honest.

2.30pm

Still nothing. Still bored. Pavement beginning to feel rather uncomfortable, despite my ad hoc cushion of a folded-up Union Jack flag.

2.50pm

Bored, bored, bored. And uncomfortable.

3.10pm

A little thought to pass the time: I really must stop referring to Donald Runnicles as a ‘Sir’, as he isn’t one. That said, whether it’s the beard and long silver locks, the distinguished-sounding name, or simply that Wagnerian aura, he definitely does have something of the knight about him. Perhaps in the future? We’ll see. Back to being bored.

4pm

Not so bored, thanks to an engaging chat with Rick/Rod about what to expect when the doors open at 6-ish. As we enter through Door 11, he explains, the season ticket holders will be coming in through Door 1 on the other side of the Hall. Everyone stays strictly in order until you reach the edge of the Arena, at which point you make like a bat out of hell for the holy rail. Running is strictly forbidden, while tactics such as rugby hand-offs, tripping up others, and trampling over old ladies are also frowned upon.

4.30pm

The stewards make their second journey along the line, this time to sell tickets for this evening. It’s cash only, I’m pleased to find out. Paying by credit card somehow wouldn’t seem right.

5pm

We’re getting tantalisingly close now, and our queue has started to lengthen rapidly down the steps and into Prince Consort Road. Ditto the season ticket holders’ queue across the way, which I’ve been keeping an eye on all day, and now decide to go and say ‘hello’ to. The Prommers at the front, I quickly find out, are every bit as obsessed as us ‘day ticketers’ with getting as near to the stage as possible. Unsurprisingly, many of them have also got to know each other very well indeed over the years. One couple further down the line, I’m reliably told, met at the Proms, fell in love at the Proms and have since got married and started their own brood of little Prommerlets (presumably not at the Proms). How sweet.

6.15pm

Here we go then. Those attending the pre-Proms lecture have returned, and we’re being ushered forward towards Door 11 and into the Hall, tickets in hand.

6.20pm

Done it! I’ve made it to the holy rail. I’m standing just in front of where the third desk of the second violins will be. Immediately to my left are Rick/Rod and David, and to my right are Andrew and Paul, who tell me that they were 18th and 19th in the queue. I’ve no idea what happened to Nos 11 to 17. Lost in transit?

6.55pm

The Albert Hall is now as good as full. It’s a fine sight, especially with the Mahler-sized orchestra and vast chorus of singers up on stage. There’s just time for the Proms charity collectors to announce how much they’ve raised, before Sir Don arrives on stage.

7.40pm

First movement down, and I’m enjoying myself immensely, even if the view’s not the best this close up. The BBC SSO second violins may well be the best-looking section in the world... but I wouldn’t mind being able to see some other parts of the orchestra occasionally. I’ll take it as read that there are brass and wind players behind them somewhere. That said, the sound is knockout, and the orchestra is having a blinder.

9pm

Superb. Huge symphony, huge performance. As orchestra, singers and maestro take their well-deserved bows, I turn round and admire the spectacle of 6,000 people applauding. I see why it must be such a thrill to perform here. I’m on cloud nine myself.

9.10pm

As we head out of the Arena, a number of those who I have got to know over the day enthusiastically ask me if I’m going to give up the comfy seat for the holy rail in future? That’s a tough question. I’ll have to have a think about it over a beer.

10pm

One final treat. Suitably refreshed, I make my way back into the Albert Hall, and head all the way up the stairs into the perimeter Gallery for the late-evening concert. This time, everywhere is sparsely populated – row upon row of empty seats and large spaces in the Arena far below me. But that only adds to the magic. As the Hall’s big spaces are filled with Bach organ and choral music, I roll out that Union Jack, lie back and wallow in the atmosphere of it all. Glorious. So, I ponder to myself, what is the best way to enjoy a Prom? Sitting, standing or lying down? I can’t say. I’d gladly recommend all three.

 

This diary was originally published in July 2011. For more information about how to Prom, click here.

 

Read more:

• What is a... Prommer?

• 15 things we love about the BBC Proms

• The First Night of the BBC Proms

 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here