Cultural apartheid?

The Proms remain a resolutely all-white, Middle English affair

Years ago, before politics intervened and I had a life, I was a regular at the BBC Proms. I was never a 'Promenader' as even when younger I could not stand the effort of standing or the attentions of the significant number of sad middle aged and elderly queens who occupied the floor of the Royal Albert Hall: it is supposedly the best gay pick up joint in London if you are looking for brains rather than body.

However, there I was the other Thursday at a sold out Prom featuring the Baroque music of Handel and Telemann. Thank goodness there was no "new BBC commission" of a ghastly modern piece or revival of some best forgotten rubbish by Tippett that you normally politely sit through in the first half before enjoying the rest of the evening.

Several months ago I was a guest at an excellent luncheon thrown by the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House to celebrate the arts in London (I could not quite work out my contribution Arts except the money I have paid out for theatre and opera tickets over the years) and one of the after-lunch speakers was the outstanding British tenor Ian Bostridge who proved that he had not just a voice but intelligence behind it as well.

He might well sing "Happy we!" from Acis and Galatea (although quite why he had his hand in his pocket whilst doing it I know not) during last Thursday’s concert as his acute business brain racked up the royalties on his new Handel CD and the free publicity the BBC were giving it.

But as I looked around a packed Albert Hall I saw barely one non-white face. The BBC Proms are entirely a white, middle class, suburban and Home Counties affair. As the concert over-ran due to endless changes in seating arrangements for the orchestra a significant contingent of the audience had to rush out before the encore to catch their trains to Dorking and all stations south.

Whereas a number of white Londoners flock to Notting Hill to view the Carnival (entirely as spectators), virtually no Black Londoners venture to a Prom. Classical music is just one area of London artistic life that shows no sign of an integrated society. Indeed, while the residents of Surrey, Hertfordshire and those London boroughs that cannot accept that they were incorporated into Greater London in 1965 feel safe venturing into Central London for a Prom, they would never dream of experiencing one of Ken Livingstone’s taxpayer-funded "cultural" extravaganzas in Trafalgar Square where they might have to mix with Londoners who think a movement is something their bowels do each morning.

Musicals may be for the West End queens and the foreign tourists, straight theatre for the artistic elite, and opera for the upper classes and the corporate sponsors but classical music concerts remain for the middle classes. The Proms are the BBC's way of keeping Middle England happy.

As London this week unveils its statue of Nelson Mandela our capital city’s cultural life continues to practise a firm apartheid system.