Brexit: Royal Albert Hall asks Proms concertgoers to put away EU flags

'It was an abysmal way to deal with a political statement at a classical concert; it turned attention away from the performance,' says concert-goer

Maya Oppenheim
Thursday 03 August 2017 10:52
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The audience at 2016’s Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
The audience at 2016’s Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Concertgoers at the Proms have been ordered to remove their EU flags and scolded for “disrupting” the performance.

Following a similar controversy last year, Royal Albert Hall found itself embroiled in another Brexit row after members of the audience who draped EU flags over the barrier dividing the audience from the orchestra were instructed to put them away them by ushers on Sunday.

Union flags, Welsh flags, which were being displayed for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and other flags were allowed to remain in place during the finale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Fiona Swann, who attended the concert and is part of an activist group who call themselves EU flag mafia, told The Independent one of her party had an EU flag confiscated when walking into the venue.

“Before the performance we were giving out small hand-held flags and lapel badges and lots of people took them,” Ms Swann said. “During the ‘Ode to Joy’ [the EU's official anthem] we got out our flags and draped them over the front of the barriers so they would be visible to the cameras. We were asked to remove them. We forwarned the performers about the stunt so they would not be surprised – they were broadly supportive."

She added: “There was somebody in the seated area who was asked to remove his EU flag before the performance.”

A fellow concertgoer told classical music blog Slipped Disc that Royal Albert Hall staff came in through the piece on a number of occasions to tell people to remove them, saying: "it was a total distraction to the performers".

“It was an abysmal way to deal with a political statement at a classical concert; it turned attention away from the performance. There was no waving of the flags or anything that might be construed as distracting”.

A spokesperson for Albert Hall admitted to The Independent people had been asked to put their flags away but insisted the reason was not politically motivated.

“We haven’t banned the EU flag. At one Prom, our stewards asked a couple of people to put their flags away, as they were distracting others, including members of the orchestra," they said. "This wasn’t a political issue, and we have no objections to concertgoers bringing flags – including, of course, the EU flag – provided they do not interfere with the smooth running of the festival.”

Ushers at Albert Hall follow instructions from the BBC during the Proms – an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events.

Pro-EU campaigners have now threatened to overwhelm the Last Night of the Proms, a fervently patriotic affair which finishes with British patriotic pieces such as Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!” and the national anthem, this coming September with a plethora of blue and yellow-starred EU flags.

Although the BBC is famed for trying to stop the Proms from being politicised, this is not the first time the event has found itself caught in the firing line over the Brexit decision. On this year’s opening night, pianist Igor Levit performed an improvised version of the EU anthem while wearing an EU pin. A day later, Daniel Barenboim, an Argentine-Israeli conductor and Brexit opponent, interrupted a BBC Proms concert to issue an ardent plea for European unity and warning against the dangers of nationalism and “isolationist tendencies”.

Last year’s finale night saw a sea of blue and yellow-starred EU flags raised in solidarity with the European Union. Union flags – which are traditionally waved at the Last Night Of The Proms to well-known anthems such as “Rule Britannia”, “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory” – were brandished alongside the EU flags.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, pro-Remain volunteers came together outside the Royal Albert Hall before the event to distribute 2,500 EU flags to attendees.

“As music is such an international activity that benefits greatly from our membership of the EU this event feels an appropriate venue to show UK solidarity with the EU,” an organiser said at the time. “The event is televised and has a very high profile. Concert goers waving EU flags along with the Union flag would send a message to the world and our own people about how much music lovers value the EU.”

But not everyone was so happy about the display of affection for Brussels and the continent. Arron Banks, Leave.EU co-founder and prominent Ukip donor who was suspended from the party in March, said at the time he paid £5,000 for 10,000 Union flags to be handed to prom-goers. The multimillionaire said: “It is a British event and nothing to do with the EU – this is a pathetic attempt by the desperate Remoaners to hijack a celebration of Britain.

“I will be handing out union flags personally. I don't know what they are trying to prove – we won! Brexit happened and nothing the IN side will do will change that.”

A statement on behalf of the Albert Hall and the BBC, which organises the Proms, released in response to the recent furore said: "Flags are permitted, however our primary concern is the smooth running of the festival. On this occasion, a small number of people with large flags caused disruption to the audience and performers at the front of the arena. In line with standard event management, staff intervened as they would for any disturbance in the hall."

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