Forces' last night of the bombs

Cole Moreton
Saturday 24 July 1999 23:02

IT WAS like the Last Night of the Proms with guns. The massed bands of the armed forces played "Land of Hope and Glory" as an enormous silk Union flag unfurled itself from the ceiling of the Earl's Court arena. Ticker tape in red, white and blue fluttered down.

There were tears as the 700 uniformed bandsmen began to play the Last Post, and old soldiers stood to attention to honour the dead. The spectacle and the emotion were irresistible. Even children were caught up in it, eyes wide.

But the Last Post also mourned the death of the Royal Tournament, the annual festival of military might and pomp.

The Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, has court-martialled a tired event that was losing audiences and money. The massed ranks of Middle England have responded by buying out every performance until the very last, on 2 August.

On Thursday afternoon Earl's Court was full of men in blazers and women in Crimplene dresses. Many had brought children and grandchildren for a dose of old-fashioned patriotism before it was too late.

In some ways it was just like the Fifties. As all rose for the National Anthem there was hardly a black or Asian face among spectators or bandsmen. In this hall it was still the Britain of Dan Dare and the Coronation, not of Stephen Lawrence and the Asian Dub Foundation.

The only exception was a dark-skinned naval rating who appeared on a massive video screen, cradling a baby as part of a humanitarian mission. The rest of the show dwelt more on past glories than the military's new role as global policemen.

"The next event is sponsored by Shorts Missile Systems," said a commentator, as the King's Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery thundered into the arena to fire their cannons. Children covered their ears. They were amazed by the police dog that jumped through hoops with a burning stick in its mouth; they cheered as men with barrel chests and arms like cows' legs raced to carry 2,000lb guns over an assault course; and when the commando raid began, the little boys stood on their chairs in excitement.

"Daddy, are those people really dead?" asked one, as soldiers abseiled and parachuted from the ceiling, firing blanks and slitting throats. The display finished, and the dead got up.

There was even less reference to the bloody reality of war in the static display outside the arena. Dad could buy a decommissioned bazooka, and junior could fly a bomber on an MoD computer far more powerful than his Playstation. "Get fit. Get trained. Get the most out of life," said a poster. What it didn't say, of course, was, "Get killed."

There were some clues to what the Royal Tournament might have looked like in the next century. Having declared its mission to keep world markets stable, the navy could have sent in a Sea King to rescue terrified euro traders jumping out of their office windows. MoD sniffer dogs could have searched for the school party with the most cannabis, and the redundant gun teams might have raced to dismantle the Dome.

Instead there will be a one-off spectacular at Horse Guards Parade, in London, next summer. After that, the same venue will host an annual tattoo.

Mr Robertson says it is time to "reinvent and reinvigorate the shop window of Britain's military mission" - but few seem willing to pick up the challenge. Events specialists were too busy to consider such a thing or said they would decline to get involved on principle.

Danielle Nay, the event organiser behind the launch of FilmFour last year, said: "If you are trying to build morale and make people feel good about our armed forces, you should be making the event bigger, louder and more impressive, rather than scaling it down.

"You want jets, people leaping out of the sky, stunts and explosions. And I'd have the marching bands playing Oasis hits, rather than Land of Hope and bloody Glory."

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