'We've been here three years running,' says David Wootton, who is sitting with six members of his family at a prime position near the stage. All eating chicken and coleslaw out of Tupperware boxes, they are totally hemmed-in by flags. 'It's brilliant] They play all the patriotic music that we like, and it's a good excuse to put hats on and wave The Flag. It's just like the Last Night of the Proms, at the Albert Hall, except this is ours; we've been singing 'Rule Britannia' all the way over from Sittingbourne. What car do I drive? Well, a Nissan, actually, but I'm still patriotic. Look] We're drinking English wine.' He turns to his wife, Olive, who waves her flag in agreement. 'Yeah. I wish they'd blow up the Channel tunnel,' she says, supportively.
Every summer the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra plays 'light classical music' at outdoor venues from now until September across the country. 'Prom classics', with its unashamedly nationalistic programme, has already played at Herstmonceux Castle, Petworth and Rochester. Each concert has been a sell-out.
'It's like Lord's or Wimbledon; you don't have to be an expert in any of these things to enjoy them,' says Nicholas Cleobury, the Concert Orchestra conductor. 'And frankly, one can't get too arty-farty about it; you can't start playing Bartok or Tippett to an audience like this. They won't understand it, and it's not what they want. But this is very good music and for some people out there, it might be an introduction to great classical music. I'm a fanatic European, personally; but hell] tonight we're going to celebrate Elgar.'
As the orchestra, clad in white dinner jackets and seated in a portable, domed auditorium, strikes up with the 'William Tell Overture', people start swaying and beating their flags. The 2,500-strong audience is on a gentle grassy slope leading up from the stage; a small cluster of caravans along the banks sell Royal Philharmonic bookmarks, combs and pads; hot drinks and more Union Jack 'Proms' material to take home.
Cleobury is true to his word; there is nothing in the least arty-farty about tonight. 'This is Opus something-or-other,' he says, by way of introduction to Dvorak's Slavonic Dance. Op 6, No 3. 'If you think it's Number Three, that's fine. If you wanna know, it's in C Major; this might put the orchestra straight anyway.'
The orchestra look pretty unconcerned by their chief's seeming disregard for their musical savvy; by their standards, this evening is somewhat akin to log-falling-off time. 'We didn't really rehearse,' admits Cleobury. 'To be honest, not rehearsing keeps people sane. We just go through the intros and the endings. It would drive you mad, rehearsing 'Jerusalem' every time.' Still, 'Jerusalem is what the audience have come to hear, this, and its brethren ('Nimrod, 'Pomp and Circumstance, 'Rule Britannia) is what the orchestra play at every single one of these concerts; this is what the sponsors want, this is what the council knows will recoup them their subsidy, this is what the flag-sellers want, this is what the Albert Hall has, and therefore this is what the audience want. Quality is however, not really the issue; the programme has become a by-word for something else.
'This sort of evening fulfils a need, more now than ever,' says Markham Chesterfield, who has come with his family from nearby Otterden. Owners of a B&B, they have nevertheless left their guests to fend for themselves; this evening is too important to miss.
'Bring back the Empire, that's what I say,' says Mr Chesterfield, chomping through cold salmon and prawn mayonnaise. 'We're not in the driving seat any longer. The EC are very good at making rules, but we're the only people who abide by them. There's a butcher in our village who's gone out of business because he was forced to buy things he can't afford, like refrigerated cabinets.' He adjusts his bow-tie. 'We're drifting. In 20 years time, our children will be asking 'Who was Britannia?'.'
Driving down through the unlovely pastures and industrial towns of the Thames Estuary, Mr Chesterfield's sentiments can be understood. Bilingual signs for the Channel tunnel and to 'Tenez la Gauche' are plentiful. This is no Peter Mayle gateway to heaven in Provence - it is the encroachment of a large and confident Europe; people's backyards being ploughed up by an unwanted conqueror. The Philharmonic were canny in booking Proms classics at Mount Ephraim; every ticket, costing pounds 14 (picnic area) or pounds 18 (seated area), was snapped up in a matter of days by a largely local audience.
'No, we don't like the French, at all,' say the Lamings, who have driven over from Biggin Hill for the night. 'No, we don't like the Common Market. What's wrong with John Major; have you got an hour to spare? And I'm anti-Tunnel', says Mrs Laming (surprise surprise). 'Who's for a black olive?'
'This is what I call Commonwealth Music,' says Margaret Jenkins, who had come over from Beckenham with her family. She lowers her copy of the Weekend Telegraph as 'Greensleeves' floats across the open air. 'And I think we need it. There's something lacking in life today.' Her daughter, Yvonne Robertson, nods in agreement 'We haven't had a war to bring us together,' she says. 'Society has split up, so many families are separated, so many women are out at work.'
She sits miserably over a Thermos of coffee. The sun is going down and North Kent is feeling pretty chilly. 'I get depressed about it,' she continues. 'This music makes me feel happier, but it's momentary.' She looks up. 'Still, it's helped that we've had good weather this summer.'
As the night closes in, the evening gets going. 'Welcome to Blighty]' shouts Cleobury, and everyone cheers to 'Nimrod. Wood's Hornpipe (aka the Blue Peter theme tune) gets the audience clapping in time and fumbling frenetically for their flags. 'Patricia? Alison? David? Got your hats?' calls a woman urgently, as Cleobury asks us to take up our 'hymn books, sorry programmes', and turn to the back page where words for the holy trinity - 'Rule Britannia, 'Jerusalem and 'Pomp & Circumstance' March No 1 - are printed.
'Of course, it would be bad taste to have a programme like this in some areas of London,' whispers Guy Bebb, the promoter . 'You couldn't have all this jingoism; people might label it inflammatory. Here, that's all irrelevant. There's no guilt about it.' He points to the unremittingly all-white crowd. 'People like it because it represents a longing, a harking-back. There are no well-off middle classes here; this area has terrible rural deprivation, but why shouldn't they have some music to enjoy. Incidentally, it's not my taste,' he says hurriedly. 'but you have to think about what will sell.'
'Bring me my bow o-o-of Bu-urning Gold]' shout the audience. We are all up on our feet, all waving our flags to Jerusalem. The conductor has turned away from the orchestra; he is conducting us, and we sing out back to him on our hilltop at Mount Ephraim. 'You can do better]' he shouts; and we do, three, four times in a row. People are waving flags, candles, picnic baskets, rugs; anything to show their solidarity.
Sandys Dawes, an elegant man whose family have lived at Mount Ephraim for 300 years, looks coolly at his now largely hysterical paying-guests. 'It's just Edwardian music for an Edwardian-designed garden,' he says as people clap frenetically to Elgar's triumphant chords, and, five minutes later, gasp at Handel-synchronised fireworks which blast out over the empty landscape. 'That's all it is.'
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