The Proms And Eurovision: Odd Bedfellows Written by on October 23, 2015

The BBC Proms and the Eurovision. Odd-bedfellows, aren’t they?  Not for Jon Jacob. He loves both of them. But he’s never stopped to question why, until we asked him. Then he grabbed a notebook and started scribbling.

What Links The BBC Proms To The Eurovision Song Contest?

This isn’t a trick question. It’s a far more polite version of the question I’m asked whenever I talk about myself at parties, meetings or during visits to the dentist.

I’ve long exploited my equal enthusiasm for the world-renowned quality music festival and the Song Contest in a bid to project an interesting self-image. The strategy sometimes works. It usual invites follow-up questions (always good for difficult social situations) and, if I’m really lucky, it raises a titter. Only once did it illicit a sneer, but that person was a complete idiot anyway.

Is it so weird to love both a festival of so-called ‘serious’ music and the Eurovision? Are there similarities between the two, and if there are, what are the differences? Included below, a handy list of hastily drawn up ideas thoughts.

The Proms (image: Jon Jacob)

BBC Proms 1994: magic happens when 4500 people are in close proximity with one another

A Massive Commitment Promising A Satisfying Reward

Eurovision semis and finals offer forty or so songs to get my teeth into. Some go through transformations from the national finals and selections in advance of the big showdown. Some acts have a back story; some have controversy crowbarred into their biographies. There are reputations to transform and reputations to maintain. Eurovision is an epic battle: one big story with forty or so sub-plots with a grand denouement at the end of it.

There were 76 concerts in the Royal Albert Hall alone this summer during this year’s Proms. Even though it’s a curated musical festival intended to represent as much as possible of the classical music world (and other things), there are inevitably going to be things I don’t naturally gravitate to. But when the season starts, the ‘live-ness’ of the event and it’s mammoth scale means I find it difficult not to listen or attend as many concerts as I possibly can. It’s a personal challenge I make to myself every single year. No wonder that come the Last Night there’s a overwhelming sense of achievement come the end of the season.

The Proms (image: Jon Jacob)

The Proms Brochure: all musical institutions need a sense of ocassion. And ocassions need glossy programme brochures.

You’re Bereft When They Are Over

I don’t want either to go on all year round. It wouldn’t be sustainable, my nerves would be shot to pieces and I would eventually take both for granted. But both seasons transport me to an emotional state I don’t experience in other part of my life – I miss them for a week or so when they’re gone.

In the case of the Eurovision, it’s the infectious sense of warmth an arena audience brings to the event. In the case of the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall, it’s the way that a venue so vast can over time quickly feel like home even if you’re only listening on the radio.

It’s A Pilgrimage

Whether it’s the walk up Exhibition Road or through Hyde Park to the Royal Albert Hall, or the walk to the arena on the day of the Eurovision final, the experience of journeying to the same venue with a few thousand other people is incredibly powerful. It can also be slightly emotional (I’ve cried at both). For a moment I feel a part of something even though I often have absolutely no desire to talk to anyone else when I get there.

The Proms (image: Jon Jacob)

Me Promming in 2010: it’s a tight squeeze in the arena, and some people are a little smelly, but it’s the best acoustic, hence the smug smile

Perfect Studio Spaces

Both the Eurovision arena and the Royal Albert Hall are the perfect kind of studio. In the case of the Royal Albert Hall a radio mix can combine an intimate sound produced on stage with the ambient sound created by the 4,500 strong audience. It makes for the perfect radio broadcast. TV relays from the Proms are visually stunning too. Similarly, Eurovision arenas have the scale needed for a grand affair like the contest has recently become. And I generally like big things with big audiences. I’m a size queen.

It’s All About The Audience

This year in Vienna I stepped into the arena for the first semi-final. It was the first time I’d been in the auditorium and the effect was incredible. I had a real sense of the physical effects of my emotional response to the roars, whoops, cheers and claps from the audience. Eurovision already means something to all of us, but when that feeling is amplified by thousands of people around you, the effect is really quite moving. I spent most of the time in the arena in an alchohol-fuelled sense of awe. Next year, I told the confused-looking Swedish man sat next to me during the first semi-final this year, “I’m bringing my husband so he can experience this first hand.”

The Royal Albert Hall’s seating makes for a similarly immersive experience. Earlier this year I attended one especially popular Prom conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The audience was especially enthusiastic at the end of each work. Come the end of the symphony – Tchaikovsky’s 5th, an unequivocally joyous affair – I resolved to sit and listen to everyone else around me. I held my breath, closed my eyes and waited for the second of silence after the last note and the first cheer. The effect was overwhelming. If you go, resist the tempatation to clap. Just pause and experience the amazing soundscape unfold around you.

Bitchiness Is Everywhere

I can’t bear the people who piss and moan about everything and nothing. The people who use the Eurovision and the Proms as a self-aggrandising opportunity, or an excuse to berate all and sundry for a lack of effort, a poorly executed performance or the idea that people don’t care. Exactly the same accusations are made by associates during the Proms and the Song Contest. If I’m not careful it can ruin my enjoyment of both.

Jon Jacob At The Proms (image: Jon Jacob)

800 journalists all in room. Statistically, there’s going to be a high chance of bitchiness.

I go to both events with an open mind, keen to discover things about myself and others. If I didn’t then the things I loved would quickly become stale. What remains constant are the people who derive immense pleasure in being derogatory. I don’t understand them at all. And I wonder whether it would be easier if I did. Maybe I could forgive them a bit?

Unity

Both events bring people together and there is an intangible joy to be derived from it. As the years go by, I adore going to the Royal Albert Hall and seeing the same familiar faces exchanging a smile or a firm handshake. These are the people who give The Proms a sense of ‘home’.

Similarly, Eurovison brings a great many old-familiars to the fore on social media and in the flesh year in, year out. There is something rather reassuring about that. The event still commands their attention; still motivates them the same way it does me. I see the same excitement on their faces come the Grand Final as I feel inside. For the afternoon in the run up to Saturday’s live Contest, I fell inexplicably at one with millions of people across Europe. It is the weirdest and the most wonderful thing.

Creativity

Now I come to think about it both the Proms and Eurovision stoke my creativity. I don’t pass a value judgment on the stuff I create. You may not like it. I’m certainly not expecting anyone to like it. The only member of the audience I feel I need to satisfy when I make stuff is me. Anyone else is a bonus.

But what I notice is that both institutions trigger my imagination. They make me think of seemingly impossible ideas which turn into challenges I find all too difficult to ignore.

Two examples. The first (above) inspired by a Prom concert dedicated to the musical theatre supremo Stephen Sondheim saw me travel up and down the UK making a film in which orchestral players did something they don’t normally do: sing. And the second, a trip to Azerbaijan to meet UK representative Engelbert Humperdinck ahead of the 2012 concert has the same simple storytelling techniques.

They are both moving picture postcards reminding me of utterly fantastic experiences. The Proms one in particular always brings a tear to the eye.

Both Events Remind Me Not To Take Them For Granted

The Proms has been running for over 100 years and the BBC has been involved in them since 1927. Eurovision has been running since 1956 (and the BBC joined in for 1957, a clerical error meant we missed Lugano). Both events have history dripping from their biographies. They are institutions. Nobody expects  institutions to stop existing. That isn’t what should be allowed to happen to an institution.

At the same time, both things which mean so much to me, prompt me to reflect on whether there’s a chance there could be a time in my lifetime when they’re no longer there? What happens if there’s no more money to make either? What happens if there’s no more audience interest to warrant the event’s production? Will there be a time in my life when I’ll look at my husband and say, “Do you remember when ….?

Jon Jacob is a writer, freelance journalist and blogger, who wrote a series of posts during his most recent Eurovision pilgrimage to Vienna this year. Find him on Twitter @thoroughlygood

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