Every summer, a strange sight appears daily from around 5pm just south of the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a cheerful, eccentric queue of people, all fanning themselves and looking bedraggled from the heat. These are the Prommers, that happy band of people who’ll brave all weathers to get a good place in the arena. To newspaper editors in search of a good ‘silly season’ story these ‘Promenerders’ are a gift.
It’s hardly surprising that over the years, the foibles of the Promenaders have been projected on to Proms audiences as a whole. When Sir Malcolm Sargent wrote an introduction for BBC History of the Proms, he addressed it to his ‘Dear Promenaders’, and went on: ‘…the Promenader comes to his concert, not to judge between this performance or that; not to listen for slight defects in the playing… he comes to “enjoy” the music. And the Promenader is right.’
But was Sir Malcolm right to praise them? Several critics I know sneer at Proms audiences (both seated and standing) for praising only ‘designer labels’, ie well-known performers. Others say they’ll applaud anything. The Proms audience can’t be guilty of both these faults, and my hunch is that neither accusation is right. Novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie was nearer the mark when he wrote in 1946: ‘I suspect that the audience is applauding itself as much as the musicians.’ He had put his finger on the peculiarity of the Proms audience, which is its awareness of itself as an audience; and this is something that takes on a special intensity with arena Prommers.
To find the causes of this, we have to go back to the founding of the Proms in 1895. It’s hard to recall that when it was launched the Henry Wood Promenade Concert series was a social and artistic experiment. Its founder Robert Newman wanted to lead taste rather than just follow it: ‘I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.’ Henry Wood, the young conductor hired by Newman, was determined to mould the audience’s behaviour, making it listen to symphonies as a unity rather than as movements.
Remarkable as all this was, it would not on its own have been enough to create the Promming spirit. The other factor was a social one. The Proms were launched in a brand-new venue, the Queen’s Hall, which drew a new sort of public – not the well-heeled public of the St James’s Hall, but a more mixed audience from the suburbs. Lacking a ready-made cohesion, this audience had to create one for itself. The Queen’s Hall, with its friendly democratic crush and its modern ‘amenities’ helped, acting like a giant social pressure-cooker. By the outbreak of World War I, the Proms audience could be satirised. A hilarious little book called The Promenade Ticket appeared in 1914 and became a best-seller.
By the time the BBC took over the Proms in 1927 the Prommers were recognisably what they are now; socially mixed, vehemently unsnobby, always ready to argue over the choice of programmes (too much English music was one common complaint; another was that there was too little). And there was a definite proprietorial pride in the improving mission of the Proms. Over the coming decades the link with the BBC gave enormous impetus to that mission.
Talking to Prommers today, the continuities with the days of Henry Wood seem tenacious. The Prommers are reluctant to boo, preferring to clap to show approval for ‘honest effort’. They’re still asserting their inalienable right to argue with the director’s choices, and to subvert attempts to control their behaviour. But despite all our culture changes, there’s plenty of evidence that younger Proms audience members are taking on the values of their elders. It looks as if the spirit of the Proms will persist.
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Stephen Johnson is a critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine, with work also published in The Independent, The Guardian and Gramophone. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service, and has presented programmes and documentaries on Bruckner, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams.