No matter how you view the life of Queen Elizabeth II you have to admit, she was a good ‘un. Her character, intelligence, sense of duty and ultimately her longevity were admired by millions across the globe. Even the staunchest republican has to admit that, as a queen, she performed her job impeccably.
And, as someone who never let her mask slip, she was indeed the ultimate performer. Not once in seventy years did you see a private shot of her lashing out at a naughty corgi, making a snide remark to a visiting head of state or giving young Andrew a well-deserved clip round the ear. Her tone was always tempered and her words well chosen. We can’t help but miss her.
Most of us cannot remember a time when we didn’t have Queen Elizabeth in our lives and on our money. She was always there: traveling the world to be greeted by smiling children holding flowers with outstretched arms. She attended countless grand occasions, opened numerous buildings and watched endless rounds of entertainment. It was this this latter task that seemed to me one of the most daunting. Who in their right mind would want to watch hour after hour of earnestly performed songs and dances wherever they went? But she did it often and always with good grace. And yet, when Queen Elizabeth passed away last Thursday, it was the entertainment that was the first thing to go.
The BBC made the official announcement of her passing and then told us there was to be a ten-day period of official mourning. After this they quickly set about cancelling stuff. And once again the BBC, in its sincere wish to do the right thing and keep everyone happy, went ahead and did the most wrong thing possible.
One of the first events to bite the dust was the The Last Night of the Proms; possibly the most patriotic musical event in the British calendar. The BBC Proms (formally named the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts Presented by the BBC) is a summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in London. The Last Night of the Proms is a musical spectacle of orchestral music, singing and flag waving that, if the BBC had allowed it to go ahead, might have been the perfect venue to unify the country in music and song.
For the Queen truly loved her music. She often talked about the advantages of taking up music early in life and she spoke quite a bit about her piano lessons and the singing they used to do in Windsor, particularly during World War II. The Royal Family loved the popular music of the day and, in the 1940’s, were big fans of Britain’s most famous ukulele entertainer, George Formby, who did private shows for them on several occasions.
On my website I have a quote from Elizabeth’s youngest son Prince Edward. He was attending an outdoor luncheon at Vancouver City Hall with other dignitaries as a prelude to the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Myself and two other musicians had been chosen to perform background music that day. We each rolled up with our instruments and amplifiers and were told the order to play in.
Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, sat at separate tables and lunched with Mayors and Premiers while I did an hour of songs from the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. When I finished playing, the event manager happened to ask Prince Edward what he thought of my music and he told her,
“Very enjoyable…his performance reminded me of the music my family and I listened to when I was young.”
Queen Elizabeth was once asked about her personal tastes in music and revealed that she liked a mixture of show tunes, classics and particularly loved dance. She enjoyed Scottish reels such as The Eightsome Reel as played by Jim McLeod and his Band. Favourite show tunes included: Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ by Rogers & Hammerstein, Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better) by Irving Berlin and Cheek to Cheek, also by Irving Berlin (and one of the songs I sang at the Prince Edward lunch.)
Although still a young teen at the outbreak of the war, by 1944 she had turned 18 and Princess Elizabeth insisted upon joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army. She undertook a driving and vehicle maintenance course at Aldershot, qualifying in April 1945. On May 8, 1945, the war in Europe ended and thousands of people took to the London streets, flooding Trafalgar Square and the Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace where the King and Queen greeted them from the balcony. As the light began to fade and the celebrations looked to continue into the night, Princess Elizabeth, dressed in her ATS uniform, slipped into the crowds with her sister Margaret to enjoy the festivities. In 1985, the Queen spoke to the BBC about how she tried to avoid being spotted, “I remember we were terrified of being recognized so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes.” She described the “lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, and all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.” There are even reports that the princesses joined a conga dance through the Ritz Hotel as they celebrated with the crowds. “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.” she recalled.
How sad it was then that the BBC felt it appropriate to cancel The Last Night of the Proms. For surely the Queen, if she could have been asked, would have wanted it to go ahead. Think of all the planning and rehearsal that goes into such a musical spectacle. Ukrainian born guest-composer Dalia Stasevska, and all the other musicians, must have been utterly deflated. Even Judith Weir the appointed Master of the Queen’s Music, commented,
“Speaking absolutely personally The Proms was an occasion which could have been just fantastic and very sincere. Though it might have been very different from the usual atmosphere of the Last Night of the Proms, I think it could have been a really unifying moment.”
Indeed, it would have been an astonishing sight to see the British singing along to Land of Hope and Glory and enjoying music at this time. It’s a great irony that perhaps right now the BBC are planning a concert of musical celebration for the Queen when they already had one in the bag ready to go.
Judith Weir continued, “We just witnessed recently the first day of test match cricket at The Oval, a really moving moment when the home crowd sang the national anthem with great seriousness and fervency, really not like the usual cricket match, and we must treasure these national moments.”
And, as the Ukrainians continue their fight to push the invading Russians from their land, morale is proving to be a huge factor. It’s something that the Ukrainians have in spades and the Russians are completely lacking. A recent clip showed soldiers standing in the woods singing the Ukrainian national anthem, accompanied by a single violin, before successfully taking back their region around Kahrkiv. The Russian soldiers abandoned their weapons and ran.
There is now a move to bring music back into the curriculum of British schools: like we had in the 1970’s and before. It’s a factor which certainly altered the course of my life. It’s extremely heartening news and I can only hope they go ahead and do it.
There is such power in music to create bonds of unity and strength during these occasions when solidarity and togetherness are needed most. Whether they are times of celebration, sport, combat or grief, music should not be the first thing to go – it should, most definitely, be the last.