Autumnal Feel about Proms in the Park

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Proms in the Park 2013: Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag, Cast of Let It Be, Sir Terry Wogan, Joseph Calleja (tenor), Nigel Kennedy (violin), Dame Edna Everage, Bryan Ferry, Royal Choral Society, BBC Concert Orchestra / Richard Balcombe (conductor), Hyde Park, London 8.9.2013. (JPr)

, Bryan Ferry (C) BBC
Bryan Ferry at Proms in the Park © BBC

Early evening entertainment provided by Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Craig Charles and the Fantasy Funk Band, Blue, Tony Blackburn.

After last year when there was a post-Olympics party atmosphere in Hyde Park and a megawatt performance from the diminutive Kylie Minogue, this year’s Proms in the Park was perhaps only too likely to be something of a disappointment: how and why it was the let-down it was would need a lot longer than an over-night review to analyse. The weather didn’t help of course as after a summer of record-beating temperatures it had become autumnal all too quickly – or, more likely, was there a significantly reduced budget for this year’s event?

Still another sell-out crowd of 40,000 was present and undoubtedly some fun was had by all; however the BBC – and the popular music world in general – might be running out of headliners capable of entertaining an all-generations audience in the same way Kylie did last year. Unfortunately in 2013 ‘The Electric Lounge Lizard’ Bryan Ferry was not the person to do this. Whereas Ms Minogue was able to embrace all the flag-waving masses in front of her by her performance, Mr Ferry’s barely registered across his microphone. Despite a jazzed-up ‘Love is The Drug’ featuring on the soundtrack to Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby, I cannot remember when I last heard one of his signature songs on any of the radio stations I listen to that plays that sort of music – so most of his lyrics cannot be sung along to unless you are a diehard fan. Mick Jagger who is a few years older than Mr Ferry still gives a high-energy performance – as witnessed at this year’s Glastonbury – but here Bryan’s Ferry’s stage demeanour was of someone living up to his epithet and over-relaxed because of Horlicks. Nevertheless all credit to the extended rhythm section – hard-driven by the rampant drumming of Cherisse Ofuso-Osei – and four great backing vocalists (Bobbie Gordon, Michelle Johns, Jodie Scantlebury and Sharon White) who helped Ferry put on a good show of his songs either with Roxy Music or as a solo artist: from time to time he added some familiar ‘licks’ on a harmonica – and he even did the obligatory whistling for John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ – a hit for Roxy Music in 1980.

As I remarked last year, the sheer depth of the crowd means that most people are just happy to be there wherever they find a place in the arena, even if from right at the back it is difficult to see the stage – let alone anyone performing on it – with the two screens either side of the stage looking little bigger from there than those on the average smart phone! Fortunately, anyone at a Proms in the Park event can relive the whole experience for the following the seven days via the Proms website. During previous years many ‘big names’ have appeared at Hyde Park for the main event from 7.30pm but prior to that it is a usual to give the stage over to mainly tribute acts. (It was slightly different this year as I will explain later.) The only feature that never alters is that around 10pm Hyde Park and all the other Proms in the Park events join in the live relay from the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional communal singing of ‘Rule, Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, Jerusalem and The National Anthem. What people miss who are in the concert hall is of course is a magnificent firework display that concludes the Hyde Park experience.

Perhaps it was this year’s cold weather that made it seem like the late afternoon acts were flogging the proverbial ‘dead horse’ and despite their very best efforts failed to raise the temperature from chilly. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers began things with their covers that fuse traditional pipe tunes and contemporary anthems such as Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’ and Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’. Then it was the turn of Craig Charles and the Fantasy Funk Band that was first put together for a special one-off session to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the BBC Maida Vale studios in 2009 – and has been gigging ever since. They epitomised the title of Craig Charles’s BBC Radio 6 Music show especially through the Funk of Charles Wright’s ‘Express Yourself’ and the Soul of Esther Williams’s ‘Love Changed It All’. Quite what Craig Charles himself adds to the distinguished line-up of musicians, including two excellent vocalists (John Turrell and Ria Currie), was not immediately clear.

This part of the Proms in the Park was presented by Tony Blackburn who, it seems, is never given a script and was all-at-sea. For him everything was ‘fantastic’ including this Fantasy Funk Band that he renamed the Fantastic Funk Bank – not just once but twice! If this was not enough, for something he said at the end the BBC should consider replacing him next year, since – with great insensitivity to the myriad celebrity scandals that fill today’s newspaper – Blackburn seemed happy to remark ‘I know a lot of you would like to touch me’!

Lastly in this part Blue came on stage to try and gee-up the crowd in front of them but they had a hard time of it as well. Since 2000 this ‘boy band’ have performed, split, reformed, split and then come came back together yet again. To raucous backing tracks they sang some catchy pop tunes including old ones like ‘All Rise’, ‘You Make Me Wanna’ and ‘One Love’, as well as, the more recent ‘Break My Heart’. Antony Costa jokingly reminded youngsters in the audience that Blue are ‘One Direction’s uncles’ and Simon Webbe told us they were ‘back for good’ – only time will tell!

The more serious stuff after a lengthy pause in the ‘entertainment’ was the live linkup with Radio 2 hosted, as ever, by the legend that is Sir Terry Wogan. He was reading a script off an autocue and while there were many fun typically funny remarks, it was sad to see him unable able to adlib in any meaningful way when a lot of filling in was needed – and there was a lot of that on this occasion.  At these moments Sir Terry’s inspiration again sadly deserted him and he resorted to overlong interviews of the artists waiting to get offstage, or attempted to banter with someone like Dame Edna Everage when he must have known he would come off second best. ‘She’ had the temerity to mention his hair that always elicits comments in the media and told him how she liked ‘the white bits, it makes you look like a badger: don’t forage in the forest, you might be culled.’ A couple of vintage Wogan one-liners were how the ‘Hyde Park crowd is full of vim and vigour, behind me the BBC Concert Orchestra is full of gin and liquor.’ Also introducing a quite pointless whirl around the stage by Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag he announced how ‘Professional ballroom dancing is always a favourite on radio, up there with juggling, tightrope walking and Archie Andrews!’

Dame Edna had sung us a forgettable song and there had been the dance. Iinterspersed with this we heard some Gershwin, Walton, the theme from Mission: Impossible and music from Star Wars valiantly played by the orchestra under the redoubtable Richard Balcombe. They also supported Joseph Calleja in an eclectic mix of songs that appear mostly to be off his forthcoming album Amore including ’Caruso’, ‘Bésame mucho’ and ‘La vie en Rose’. At least ‘You Raise Me Up’, the last thing he sang, was in English and so most of the audience, at last, had some idea what he was singing about. With 40,000 people out front communication with them should be the priority and not just with those listening to the radio or watching an online broadcast. Once again there were no ‘money notes’ so that while he may seem the modern-day successor to Pavarotti, his claiming the crown of ‘King of High Cs’ can be postponed for a little while yet.

If a plug for Calleja’s new CD was not shameless enough, the current cast of the musical Let It Be returned after their appearance in 2012 at this same Proms in the Park event. At least whether young or old most watching knew the songs such as ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Help’, ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘Hey Jude’. This was all good Karaoke-type stuff but the four of them did not look like the originals or have sufficient talent to do justice to The Beatles in their early years. We briefly were shown Nigel Kennedy in the Royal Albert Hall performing Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending that was just taking flight when we left it to hear from Sir Terry again – presumably the lark plummeted to earth? Kennedy later came to Hyde Park to pay his Melody in the Wind with a quartet featuring a 15-year-old Palestinian violinist, Mostafa Saad. I would like to hear this on another occasion as I suspect this was another worthy item whose impact was diminished by the venue’s vastness. Then it was time for Bryan Ferry.

Finally at several minutes past the advertised time of 10pm (why isn’t there better coordination of all these concerts?) we went back to the Royal Albert Hall in time to hear Joyce DiDonato sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and a very florid ‘Rule, Britannia!’ that I hope sounded better in the Albert Hall that we all heard it? The Royal Choral Society live on stage in the park helped out here, as well as, for the rousing conclusion of Jerusalem and The National Anthem before the late-night firework display. We were able to hear the conductor, Marin Alsop, announce that this 2013 Proms season was the ‘most successful ever’ – when is anything else? It cannot be overlooked that she is the first ever female conductor of this Last Night. She talked about how Sir Henry Wood, the founder-conductor of the annual Proms, ‘would see this as a natural progression to more inclusion in classical music’, how she was ‘incredibly honoured and proud’ but ‘quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can still be firsts for women.’

What Marin Alsop said in conclusion was quite inspirational – and very American – and a highlight for me of an otherwise very disappointing evening: ‘I want to say to all the young women out there, as I say to all young people: believe in yourselves, follow your passion and never give up, because you will create a future filled with possibility.’

Jim Pritchard

Bryan Ferry performing ‘Love is the Drug’ in Hyde Park is on YouTube.