Thursday 18 December 1997
I've always been uneasy about the Proms, particularly the last night. All that flag-waving and parading of Empire seems to verge on a Mosleyite rally or at least the triumphalism of a Tory party conference. I'm always relieved that this crowd of proud Little Englanders is only allowed out once a year, is corralled in a confined space and doesn't attend football matches. Who knows what they might get up to if they fell in with a bunch of Millwall supporters?
Modern Times (BBC2) confirmed my worst fears. Helen Richards' documentary sought out those doughty souls who cheer year after year from right beside the orchestra pit. They turned out to be a bunch of little Hitlers, obsessed with policing their piece of standing room and keeping out newcomers. A gathering of neurotic traffic wardens would be more easygoing about where the casual music lover could park himself.
This study of Prommers (season ticket holders for the BBC Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall) was in part an examination of the Great British Queue. It is dying out in this country thanks to innovations such as those little numbered tickets at supermarket deli counters. No longer do you have to stand in a line waiting for a lump of Gorgonzola, when you could be stocking up with loo roll.
But to Prommers the queuing is reverential, part of the suffering to be endured for the love of music, like walking the Stations of the Cross on your knees. And they hate backsliders who refuse to pay homage to their rituals, who will not sleep out night after night to earn a place in that holy of holies, where a few lengths of a violin bow separate public from players. This is the fast disappearing, oppressive world of Dad's Army, A Private Function and those who still hanker after rationing, sleeping in tube stations and being visited by the Queen Mum, Gawd Bless Her.
So far, so cruel. The film did, however, look sympathetically at what draws this bunch of eccentrics together, year after year, to sit on the pavement, quaffing a few bottles of red wine and barbecuing kippers out on the street before the doors opened. They emerged as ageing loners, men usually, but occasionally women, on their uppers in search of community and a little grandeur in life. A more dignified existence than the dole queue, more stimulating than vegetating on the sofa.
One's regard for the Prommers also increased with a few contrasting shots of a corporate box at the Royal Albert Hall, looking down on the folk with funny hats and flags. The Man in the Suit, sipping Chardonnay while entertaining business clients, confessed that he wasn't much into Verdi's Requiem. He'd prefer Victoria Wood. I caught myself thinking I'd rather be down there with the nerds than up there with the philistines. Or maybe I'll just go to watch Millwall instead.
Secret Lives: JFK (C4) trawled over familiar territory as it exposed the bedhopping, Mafia-links and drug-taking which left America's slain president so vulnerable to blackmail. Not much new in this for aficionados of Kennedy sins to chew over - juiciest food for thought was the revelation that a possible Stasi agent was among the latter Camelot conquests. One suspects, however, that American viewers, for whom this film was made, remain more fascinated than us by such documentaries because, unlike the more sceptical Brits, they still cling to the golden image of Kennedy.
For me, the detail of Kennedy's flaws was less interesting than a section tackling the paradox of a president who was a committed public servant but a private philanderer. His father, Joseph Kennedy, it turns out, regarded a biography of Lord Melbourne, the Victorian prime minister, as his favourite reading. The book, explained a Kennedy intimate, described young aristocrats who ruled the world, "who gave their lives in military campaigns or devoted themselves to Parliament, who held the ideals of empire and national honour above all else, but on weekends, when they went to their country estates, it was a broken field running through the bedrooms" The father loved that book. His son lived it.
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