Richard Lutz steels himself as the the bells ring in a new decade
Here’s a small list. And we’ll start with things that won’t disappear and will appear and re-appear year on year. They are part of the British fabric and while some celebrate them, others yawn and roll their eyes.
The first is the orchestral extravaganza called The Proms, which used to end in September but now, through the magic of marketing and Making Money, extends through to the New Year to evolve as Last Night of the Christmas Proms.
The concerts are a century-old wheeze to offer mid-table classical music to the punters. It’s all Strauss, Brahms and opera-lite extracts that raucously build to a final flourish of ultra-patriotic songs, all festooned with the waving of cheap Union Jacks and the heart-stopping appearance of thousands in the audience adorned with gaudy plastic bowler hats brimming with John Bull colours. All very British, and in Britain what would be termed ‘all very Daily Express‘, named after that midbrow tabloid that deals in simplicities and memories of The Good Old Days.
This year, the London Concert Orchestra filled the hearts and ears of the massed crowd that filled the 2200 seat Symphony Hall in Birmingham. What started with old chestnuts such as The Blue Danube Waltz and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, inevitably soared ever upward to the heights of the all star Blighty tubthumpers: The Dambusters’ March, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and then Rule Britannia. The finale was sung with erratic gusto by the full hall on its collective feet, belting out the nationalistic stuff of Hope and Glory. As conductor John Pryce Jones drily noted to the fevered bouncing faithful: “Well, I know how you voted.”
This was met by orgiastic cheers and even more flags. And despite the roar of the audience you could hear an odd sound, a small but distinct sound. It was the small plastic Union Jacks continually snapping in the warm air as they were held aloft and waved above our heads. Rule Britannia, indeed. And Pomp and Circumstance and Hope and Glory. And plastic Union Jacks. Indeed.
This explosion of British madness, this Last Night of The Christmas Proms which suddenly superseded the real Last Night of the Proms three months earlier, is equal in popularity to that other great event that never changes: The Panto.
It’s traditional British music hall stuff gone completely and merrily berserk. It is vaudeville, knockabout humour, a machine gun rattle of one-liners and Italian commedia dell-arte all wrapped up in a crazed multi coloured sandwich.
This hallucinatory Christmas event takes over theatres throughout the island; theatres great and small, prestigious and humble, old and new. And it fills seats. Lots of seats. And balances the books of UK’s theatreland. And probably subsidises less popular stuff that might not get in under the wire because they’re too artsy or too cerebral or too edgy- triple adjectives that just don’t apply to the outrageous totally bonkers panto.
Plots are based on old fables (Snow White or Cinderella); the cast includes popular TV soap stars contracted in for the run; veteran actors stitched into bizarre costumes and reality show winners ready to burst their pipes for a hit of fame. Meanwhile, the script is studded with blobs of terrific double entendres for the parents and pratfalls and acrobatics for the kids. Fun for all the family, bought for eye popping prices. Honestly, I never miss it.
The Proms and The Panto will be with us forever. They’ll never change.
But some things will mutate in the next year.
First of all, Britain will be bleached in anger and accusation by both sides of the Brexit furore. What had started as a challenging ideological debate about Who We Are defaulted into a mean-spirited axe fight. This country is bloodied, tired, stripped of buoyancy. Britain has changed.
I bury myself in the reduced world of newspapers for some kind of comfort. But, for me, a small and important alteration arrives in the 2020 print/online world; two major forces in criticism have retired. Both knocked out reviews for half a century. Now, they’ve wandered off to that great green room of retirement .
The first is theatre reviewer Michael Billington who’s put down his pen for The Guardian. The other is Nigel Andrews who’ll stop reviewing films for The Financial Times. Billington was (still is…) a towering stage critic. I attended press review evenings where he would be there as well. I would attempt to summon up the feel of a play and whether it would be worth the ticket price – and that can mean big money in a national production. Billington would review the same night’s play and come up with nuances and intriguing insights that never crossed my mind. And his writing style was always clear, crisp, tight. Always a thousand miles better than my efforts.
Now for Andrews, for fifty years a movie critic. His farewell included his best picks over the past fifty years. While choosing some of the obvious movies (Godfather Two, Tree of Wooden Clogs, Spirited Away…), he was also wise enough to name films that were just great fun: This is Spinal Tap, The Lego Movie, Terminator Two. I feel, as both men leave the scene, that I’m a bit more on my own now with those two hanging up their keyboards. I’m left more to my own devices.
Another change. An inevitable one too. And a personal one. A senior member of my family, now late in her ninth decade, is slowly losing the ability to act on her own. She can’t shop or cook, domestic details are difficult, her memory is patchy, and just the other day she tried to use her bus pass in a cash machine. She needs more and more family attention as even the daily management of her small flat becomes more untenable. She had always been a feisty and independent woman. When she was young she stuffed her four kids, all not yet teenagers, into an old camper van and holidayed in the Alps and then Spain. Later, she flew around the world to see what was on the other side of the planet. Jaipur was her favourite place on Earth. A close second was Canberra. But she is old now and, like tens of thousands of other families, her children buoy her up.
I took her to The Proms this week. The Proms that will never change. She loved it…the music, the busyness of the concert, the buzzing energy of the audience, the snapping of the plastic flags, even the taxi ride home through the city night. It was as if she was clinging to what makes a life vivid and valid as she contemplates her diminishing longevity in this, the winter of her days.