David Lister: Let's not be afraid to recognise this outbreak of patriotism

The Week in Arts
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The Independent Online

One of the best Proms seasons of recent years ends tonight. It has been notable not just for outstanding performances and infectious atmosphere, but also for subtle moves towards a greater inclusiveness – from family Proms at one end of the spectrum to an encouragement of applause between movements at the other. The latter may seem faintly ridiculous to some, but it does help the first-time visitor, unused to the often intimidating conventions of classical music concerts.

It may be no coincidence that this year with its more inclusive feel saw the highest-ever number of Prommers (buyers of the £5 tickets to stand in front of the stage). There was an impressive 14 per cent rise on last year.

The season has been a triumph for its director Roger Wright. But here is one last, end-of-season challenge for him. Will he turn his back on the political correctness of recent years and proclaim the Last Night of the Proms to be the celebration of Britishness that it was for about half a century from the 1950s?

Of course he will feature Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory. There would be a riot among the Promenaders if he didn't. But aside from these two numbers and some flag-waving, there has been, as in most years of the past couple of decades, a studied determination to play down patriotism.

Roger Wright recently told one interviewer that the Last Night is one of "singing, celebrations and merriment". He told another: "People might know it for people singing Land of Hope and Glory but that's just the Last Night musical frolics ... [it is] a party rather than a jingoistic event."

Merriment, a party and lots of singing. The Last Night is indeed all of those things. But I suspect that if you asked some of those flag-wavers, or some of the Prommers, or some of the revellers at Proms in the Park or indeed the viewers watching on TV, then they would also describe the Last Night as an evening of patriotism.

That, though, is a word one rarely, if ever, hears in the arts; it's a word that is seen as the antithesis of the creativity, egalitarianism and internationalism which culture strives for. It's a bit of an embarrassment. Perhaps that's why the more negative word jingoism is always used, as it was by Mr Wright in the interview quoted above. Jingoism closes an argument swiftly.

But is it actually so terrible for one night of the year to be an unashamed celebration of a great British tradition and a homage to patriotism? Mr Wright should glory in the Last Night and in his interviews next year take what would be a highly daring step for anyone in a senior position in the arts or media. He should proclaim the Last Night as music's most patriotic event of the year. There are plenty of opportunities to party. The Last Night's unique selling point is the other P word.

We need more women playing men

In 2003 I wrote in this column that we should have more cross-gender casting in Shakespeare and I would love to see Helen Mirren play Prospero in The Tempest. This week Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest opened at the Venice Film Festival with ... Helen Mirren playing Prospero. I'll assume Ms Taymor is an Independent reader.

With luck, Dame Helen will have started a trend of actresses playing male roles in Shakespeare on film. Now that the gender barrier has been broken, there are undoubtedly more great Shakespeare performances just waiting for an imaginative director.

Both Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave have a King Lear in them, I'm sure. Fiona Shaw, who has already triumphed with Richard II, might care to go one notch further with Richard III. Dawn French makes a great Shakespearean comic character. I'd love to see her Falstaff. And I once saw her play Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream on the West End stage. It was perfect casting and extremely funny. That too should be committed to film.

The wrong sort of water

Also at the Venice Film Festival there was a notable end-of-film credit. In the new movie Essential Killing from the director Jerzy Skolimowski, Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban prisoner of the Americans. At one point he has to undergo the notorious waterboarding torture in an American barracks. The water is poured on to his covered face, making him almost suffocate.

At the end of the film, well into the list of credits, is the memorable line "Water for Mr Gallo supplied by" followed by the name of a well-known mineral water company. I suspect that if executives from the mineral water company had actually watched the movie, they might have been a little less keen for the plug.