For some, the Proms are an obsession. And as `Modern Times' discovers, there's much more to it than mere music appreciation
What is the definition of Britishness? It is surely something along the lines of: "Queuing up for 400 hours, while vigilantly ensuring that no one else jumps the queue, sleeping in rickety tents, eating food cooked on makeshift stoves and at the end of it all belting out `Jerusalem' in a Union Jack hat at the Royal Albert Hall."

Hardcore Prommers, who fulfil all these criteria, are quintessentially British. Quite what that says about our country is another matter entirely. The subject of an engrossing Modern Times documentary called "Prommers", these people spend all 73 days of the Promenade season queuing up for the concerts at the Albert Hall. They are obsessives. For the Prommers, the music has almost become secondary to the rituals involved in queuing to watch it. "The problem with the Proms is actually going to the concerts," declares Prommer John Underwood. "If we didn't have to go to all these concerts, the season would be wonderful."

The Prommers' routine is dictated by rules as strict as any monastic order's. Their area within the Hall is demarcated by white lines which warn outsiders: "thou shalt not cross." An Albert Hall official stands in the Prommers' allotted area and calls it "the bearpit. If you stray into here, you're a lost lamb and you aren't going to live very long. If you wander in with five minutes to go and go `here's a nice spot', you'll get eaten, because this is where Marjorie has stood for 40 years."

One Prommer, who has the honour of placing a wreath on the bust of Henry Wood on the Last Night, admits that the set-up is "like the Communist Party in early China".

Two Germans, who are unaware of the inflexible hierarchy and have unwittingly bagged prime spots for the Last Night, are shown to the back of the standing area by a Prommer of many years' standing.

Meanwhile, a British couple who attempt to blag their way onto a priority- tickets list for the Last Night by pretending to have spent three nights camping outside the Albert Hall are exposed by eagle-eyed queuing veterans. "It's cheating," fumes Sue Brady, the formidable woman who is the uncrowned queen of the Proms and knows her rights after queuing there for the past 30 years. "If they're not prepared to play by the rules, then off they go... They'll be knocked off, and their faces will be clocked for future reference."

Helen Richards, the producer/ director who spent several weeks observing this rigidly feudal system, points out its ironies. "The thing about the Proms is that you expect to be able to just turn up for a concert. But human nature will automatically organise itself into a social structure. Hierarchies will create their own lines. There are no signs and you think you can stand where you like - but actually it's an incredibly formal and set society, which tells you who's in and who's out. The moment you have a territory that says `I can stand here', you're creating a society that is also saying, `but you can't'. There is an elitism about it - that's an inevitable factor of life, it happens anywhere."

At bottom, Richards reckons, this is a story about creating an identity for yourself. "This a society of people who in the wider world may not have an awful lot of ownership. They're unemployed men over 50, who are largely single. They've got ownership of an area within the Proms and have colonised it. They've filled their lives with something and now own it. For two months of the year, they have incredible ownership. Sue, for instance, has become queen of the Proms because that's her area of ownership."

The very dedication of the Prommers, though, opens them up to mockery. "The flipside of enthusiasm is ridiculousness," Richards avers. "Trainspotting is, after all, the most pure form of love; it's totally one-way and there's no real reward. The Prommers view themselves as people who have become eccentric by the fact that they take the Proms so seriously.

"They can be seen in two ways. It's a society where some are more equal than others. I'm slightly critical of that, because they're a frightening bunch as well. But at the same time, it's the culture of the amateur and the enthusiast. Much as it's easy to look at it in a sophisticated way, you can also admire people who can be bothered to take that much time to do something. I'm impressed by their zest for life. You do feel respect for them - even if you don't like them."

For Richards, the Prommers are a mirror of British society. "We're a nation of queuers. The queue gives you legal and moral rights. It's a microcosm of what we do on a daily basis - appeal to people's sense of fair play. I'm ambiguous about it. Part of you goes `for goodness sake', and another part goes, `fair enough'. It's like traffic wardens. It's a fair system for other people, but the moment you fall foul of them, you hate them."

What could be more British than that?

`Modern Times: Prommers' is on Wed at 9pm on BBC2

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