Why do people wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms?

Open navigator

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

1. Setting the scene

The Proms were inaugurated at London’s Queen’s Hall in 1895 by the impresario Robert Newman, with Henry Wood as the sole conductor. Newman’s idea was to use low ticket prices and an informal setting to attract a new public to concert-going. To this day, these founding principles have remained at the heart of the concerts.

The Proms were taken over by the BBC in 1927, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra becoming the Proms’ main orchestra when it was founded in 1930. The two-month annual BBC Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall and other venues can justifiably be called the largest music festival in the world, its reach extended by live broadcasting of every concert on radio and the internet, with other live and recorded concerts on TV.

Ever since the Proms were first broadcast, the Last Night has become an essential appointment to listen and to view ‒ it is watched by millions all around the world. Over the years, a number of audience and performer rituals have developed around the Last Night: some are real traditions, and some are imagined. So what are the Last Night's most memorable features? Where did they come from and what do they mean?

2. How did the Proms evolve?

A new audience for concert music

For its founder Robert Newman, the Proms idea was a strategy to attract more people than had ever before been interested in music to come and see a real orchestra play; having been 'trained' through the Proms to enjoy ‒ in less formal surroundings ‒ more serious symphony concerts, the new breed of concert-goer would soon underpin the enterprise with 'repeat business'. Early audiences comprised more men than women, partly because going out at night was not something women always did on their own; but they were always mixed in terms of social class and interest.

Birth of the 'Promenaders'

The original venue, the Queen’s Hall, was much smaller than the Royal Albert Hall, but it had many more standing places ‒ so many, in fact, that the 'Promenaders' – those who stand ‒ outnumbered the seated audience. This is the basis for the tradition of the Prommers taking ownership of their standing space ‒ in the Royal Albert Hall, that's the Arena, where, since the Sixties, audience members have become uninhibited about vocalising not only their applause, but also the messages they sometimes wish to convey to the Gallery and to the musicians on stage.

The musical menu

Wood and Newman also had a musical strategy: if the orchestra were able to play every night, the standard of performance would rise. Novelty and variety came as standard, with many new works introduced to listeners increasingly regarded as the most attentive in the world. Standing prompted concert-goers to concentrate hard: Wood encouraged the audience to come really close to the stage and the players, even to look at what was on the music stands. The players also enjoyed the new style of concert-giving because they could physically sense that the audience members cared about the music, were listening hard, and sharing in the experience.

3. Why do people wave flags at the Last Night?

Flag-waving is a major part of the Last Night of the Proms, whether it's large flags of nations or the small hand-held variety.

Katie Derham gets to the heart of the flag-waving tradition with cultural historian and Proms expert Dr. Leanne Langley.

Nobody waved flags before 1947. The advent of TV in the 1950s prompted audiences to use flags and banners to add colour and movement to the spectacle. The reign of the debonair Sir Malcolm Sargent (Chief Conductor, 1947-67) coincided with a new, national feeling of relief after World War Two, and an encouraging mix of jollity combined with slick professionalism. Television exported both the spectacle and Sargent's reputation. Recent world events such as the Gulf War, the death of the Princess of Wales, and 9/11 have called for special sensitivity around the Last Night. Flag-waving signals national pride, but does not find favour with every concert-goer.

4. The conductor's speech

The First 'Speech'

Sir Henry Wood made the first 'Conductor's Speech' in 1941 ‒ the first year in which the Proms were held at the Royal Albert Hall, following the complete destruction of the Queen's Hall by German bombing. The speech came as a complete surprise to the audience ‒ and it was an unusual step for a shy man, reluctant to speak not least because he believed it would betray his class and detract from the inclusive message of the Proms. He used the speech to thank his sponsors and the Prommers. 'The Speech' was taken up with alacrity by the publicity-conscious Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Carry on talking...

'The Speech', now given before a worldwide live audience of millions, is an essential component ‒ or ordeal ‒ of the Last Night for every conductor. The opportunity is normally taken to review the audience figures for the Last Night, to thank the performers, the audience, and most especially the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who form the backbone of the concerts, and their sponsors, the BBC. Confident and urbane conductors will attempt jokes and josh the Prommers; others have used 'The Speech' as a campaigning platform for music and the arts ‒ an undertaking which must be very finely judged.

5. Rule, Britannia!

Flying the flag

Whether it's a part of Sir Henry's Wood's 'Fantasia on British Sea Songs' or as a stand-alone item in the Last Night of the Proms programme, Thomas Arne's 'Rule, Britannia' is a moment for everyone in the audience ‒ Prommers and seated folk alike ‒ to wave their flags.

Variations on a theme

Although the Union Flag is a favourite in the Royal Albert Hall and Hyde Park, Proms in the Park events in the UK nations encourage displays of local flags. At the 2012 Last Night, conductor Jiří Bělohlávek ‒ presiding in London Olympics year ‒ found his podium bedecked with flags of his native Czech Republic; his tenor soloist, Joseph Calleja (see video), stripped off a Team GB strip to reveal a Maltese cross; in other years, baritone Bryn Terfel wore a Welsh rugby strip, and mezzo Sarah Walker famously wore a pale, classical-style dress which dazzlingly opened to reveal the Union Flag in batwings. Marin Alsop taking charge in 2013 prompted a flourish of Stars & Stripes.

6. Vote: flag-waving

Do you think it’s good to wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms?

7. The nation's classical knees-up

Bread and circuses

Katie Derham: 'Although Sir Henry Wood was the founder and original populariser of the Proms, Sir Malcolm Sargent recognised that television's hunger for spectacle could be harnessed to reach audience levels unheard of in the pre-TV age, while at the same time promoting his own image, and that of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.'

The magic formula

Dr. Leanne Langley: 'As we've seen, Sir Malcolm Sargent developed a formula to turn the Last Night into a broadcast celebration. The Proms are only one step away from 18th-century pleasure gardens: that's why the music in the second half tends to the lightweight and populist. Most people recognise that the Last Night is only one out of nearly 80 concerts, and is far from a typical Prom concert. It's like the celebratory cast party at season's end ‒ a one-off that's not at all the same thing as the real play.

Context is everything

'By 1905, the original impresario, Robert Newman and Henry Wood had begun to transform the English tradition of 19th-century 'pot-pourri' concerts into something more serious and symphonic, and to create the audience for this new style of event. This spirit continues in the audience of today. Whether it's flag-waving, or fancy dress, or shout-outs, the Last Night allows the audience to celebrate "themselves" with a grand party in which they feel they participate equally with the musicians.'