As the Proms arena queue snaked its way towards Door 11 before last night’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and as we clutched our fivers, with bags open ready for inspection, one of the stewards was complimenting us on our good behaviour and preparation. A sprightly, white-haired lady, clad in sensible footwear like the rest of us, smilingly retorted that it was because she had been attending Proms for so many years. She asked the steward how long he’d been looking after Proms queues – 16 years. She had first attended a Prom in 1943.
Intrigued, I asked her what was played at her first Promenade Concert. She couldn’t remember; she’d been a student at Imperial College then, buying a season ticket.
‘Has the flavour of the Proms changed over the years?’ I asked.
‘No, I don’t think so – unless I’ve changed with it,’ she replied. And off she went to chat to her friends who had already assembled in the hall.
That is quite a record. Had she attended the first Prom of 1943, she would have heard the LPO under Sir Henry Wood in a programme of works by Bax, Beethoven, Handel, Saint-Saëns, Stringfield and Tchaikowsky, some of the items now available on CD. Last night it was the LPO again, under Jurowski, in works by Kodaly, Bartok and Liszt.
What a place. Before the concert, people are sitting or lying on the floor of the Arena, or standing, chatting, reading, working on laptops, checking their phones. A film camera is manned on a high platform where the fountain used to be; another is at the front of the hall, discreetly moving left and right, and there is one on stage. Above to my right, someone is being interviewed for the television broadcast of the concert; above left is the R3 sound control room. The massive organ pipes are blue-lit; gold lettering on red high above the stage reminds us that we are at the BBC Proms.
Up the stairs into the Arena come two people, new to the hall. They stop dead in their tracks, their faces light up and their eyes widen. ‘Wow! Fantastic!’ says one. I quite agree; so, I imagine, does the lady who has attended for 68 years. They find a spot to stand, and the concert begins…