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Culture Secretary comments on BBC Proms set list following "Rule Britannia" axing rumours

The typically uncontroversial BBC Proms has become the epicentre of a debate

Royal Albert Hall
© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

In an already turbulent year, the BBC Proms has become another subject for hot debate.

Over the weekend, reports emerged in The Sunday Times saying that two songs – "Rule Britannia" and "Land Of Hope And Glory" – may be cut from the iconic Last Night of the Proms, due to the association the tunes have with colonialism.

While the BBC has yet to even cement its plans for the Last Night, the Sunday Times rumblings have caused a stir, with many leaping to defend the two songs, while others have said that the decision to axe the numbers is a fair move given the circumstances – in a year when the Black Lives Matter movement has created important and pressing conversations about race and history across the world.

Now the UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has waded into the debate – before any public decisions have been made by the broadcaster (the BBC told Sky News yesterday that they are "still finalising arrangements"). Taking to Twitter, Dowden said that he plans to chat to the BBC and wanted to make sure that the two songs, which he describes as "the highlight" of the evening, remain in place.

Dowden added: "Confident forward-looking nations don't erase their history, they add to it." Many have quickly responded to Dowden's claims, with one tweeter wondering why the MP is focussing on song choices at the Proms rather than the thousands of creative workers that remain unemployed and without support during the pandemic.

Talking to The Guardian, the founder of Chineke! (an orchestra where the musicians are majority Black, Asian and ethnically diverse) Chi-chi Nwanoku said of "Rule Britannia": "It's so irrelevant to today's society. It's been irrelevant for generations, and we seem to keep perpetuating it."

Historian David Olusoga added in an interview on BBC Five Live that, as a Black man, it makes him feel "uncomfortable" to hear the song, and that he'd rather the Proms instead featured William Blake and Charles Hubert Parry's "Jerusalem" – seen by many as an unofficial national anthem.

The Proms has embraced innovation this year, adapting their programming to suit the ongoing pandemic. Orchestra sizes will be reduced with no live-audience in-situ at the Royal Albert Hall. Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska will become the second female conductor to oversee the final night.

The numbers were previously cut in 2001, four days after the 9/11 attacks when they felt tonally inappropriate.

Update: The BBC has confirmed that new orchestral versions of "Land Of Hope And Glory", and "Rule, Britannia!", as well as a new arrangement of 'Jerusalem" will appear this year.

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