Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for an end to “self-recrimination and wetness” as the BBC’s chief said it was “right” to remove lyrics from some traditional anthems at the Last Night of the Proms.
The BBC’s director-general Lord Hall said the decision to perform new, orchestral versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory was a “creative” one.
But he confirmed that the issue of dropping songs because of their association with Britain’s imperial history had been discussed.
His interview aired after the Prime Minister voiced his concern over the issue, saying he wanted to get his thoughts “off my chest”.
“I just want to say… if it is correct, which I cannot believe that it really is, but if it is correct, that the BBC is saying that they will not sing the words of Land Of Hope And Glory or Rule, Britannia! as they traditionally do at the end of The Last Night of the Proms.
“I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness,” he said during a visit to Devon on Tuesday.
“I wanted to get that off my chest.”
There will be no live audience to sing along and wave flags at the September 12 concert because of coronavirus restrictions.
Lord Hall said it was a “miracle” that Proms boss David Pickard had put together a fortnight of live performances amid the pandemic.
Asked whether there had been a discussion about dropping songs because of their association with Britain’s imperial history, he replied: “The whole thing has been discussed by David and his colleagues, of course it has.
“The point is they’ve come to the right conclusion, which is it’s very, very hard in an Albert Hall that takes over 5,000 people to have the atmosphere of the Last Night of the Proms, where a whole audience normally sing along,” he told the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan.
“It’s quite hard creatively and artistically to make that work. I think they’ve come to the right conclusion.
“Who knows what will happen next year. I suspect it will be back.”
“The fact is we have come to the right conclusion, which is a creative and artistic conclusion,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme.
Earlier, Business Secretary Alok Sharma suggested the BBC use subtitles so viewers can sing along at home.
“Personally, I would like to see the lyrics sung and of course it is always possible to put lyrics up as subtitles on the screen so if people want to they can join in at home,” he told Times Radio.
The former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, told the station that the BBC panicked when it came to issues of race.
“It has no confidence. The principal reason it has no confidence… is that there is no ethnic diversity at the top of its decision-making tree,” he said.
“What you have is rooms full of white men panicking that someone is going to think they are racist.”
The BBC said there had been “unjustified personal attacks” on social media on Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, who will be at the helm of the Last Night this year.
“Decisions about the Proms are made by the BBC, in consultation with all artists involved,” it said.
“The Proms will reinvent the Last Night in this extraordinary year so that it respects the traditions and spirit of the event whilst adapting to very different circumstances at this moment in time,” it said.
“With much reduced musical forces and no live audience, the Proms will curate a concert that includes familiar, patriotic elements such as Jerusalem and the national anthem, and bring in new moments capturing the mood of this unique time, including You’ll Never Walk Alone, presenting a poignant and inclusive event for 2020.”
The national anthem and Jerusalem will still be sung during the event, which will air on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC One and feature soprano Golda Schultz and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Earlier, after The Sunday Times reported that the songs could face the axe, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted that he had “raised” concerns with the BBC.
“Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it,” he said.
But TV choirmaster Gareth Malone suggested Rule, Britannia! was outdated, tweeting: “It’s time for Rule Britannia! to go.”
Rule, Britannia! – strongly associated with the Royal Navy – is deemed problematic by some because of Britain’s role in the slave trade.
Anyone for some socially-distanced Mozart?
The BBCSO strings were reunited for the first time since lockdown yesterday, and the full (reduced) orchestra will rehearse on Monday! 🙌
— BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (@BBCSO) August 22, 2020
It has lyrics such as Britons “never shall be slaves” and that “while thou shalt flourish great and free, the dread and envy of them all”.
Land Of Hope And Glory features the music of Edward Elgar and the lyrics of Arthur Benson, including “Thine Empire shall be strong” and “God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.”