Family matters

When Roger Wright became the Proms' new director, debate raged even in his own household about wheth

It was a traditional bank holiday family gathering in the Wright household. The traditional British summer weather was much in evidence and the garden furniture was left outside in the pouring rain. Another tradition then took over: the family discussion that threatens to turn into something more heated. The subject in question was that most traditional of events, the Last Night of the Proms. "What are you going to do about the Last Night?" Jane helpfully asked, in that forceful way elder sisters have when they know what they want the answer to be. Before I had chance to say anything, other family members had put in their early "pre-buttals", giving dire warnings of life-threatening catastrophes if I changed anything about the Last Night.

So, clearly the debate still rumbles on about what is an appropriate way to bring the world's greatest music festival to a close. How many times can I say, "You can't please everybody"?

The blind acceptance of tradition in some circumstances is simply laziness. Tradition and heritage need to be examined and, where appropriate, maintained and celebrated. However, they also need to be made fit for our times. As T S Eliot commented: "A tradition without intelligence is not worth having." When I took over BBC Radio 3 almost ten years ago, I was reminded by the contents of my postbag from day one that change needs to be handled sensitively. Such feedback continues to this day: "I have heard that you are making changes to Radio 3. I don't know what they are but I ask that you reverse them immediately."

As such, I was ready for angry reactions to any changes we proposed to make to the BBC Proms. I was not, however, prepared for the culture minister, Margaret Hodge, singling out the Proms for criticism in a speech about national identity a few weeks before this year's Prom season was launched. Not least because, after a visit to the concerts last year, she had written: "It was a glorious evening which demonstrated yet again what a fantastic institution the Proms are. A wonderful part of summer in London, the Proms had the hang of broadening access decades before it became a government staple."

I don't know what had happened between September and March to make the minister change her mind, but it was extraordinary to feel the strength of response that her speech unleashed. The Prime Minister was quick to praise the Proms, and he wasn't alone. Indeed, such was the noise created that the questions I had anti cipated about the Last Night never materialised - a consensus seemed to have been reached about the position of the Last Night, namely that it was simply not an issue. Everyone was keen to debate the real innovations in this year's programming: the first free prom, the return of Nigel Kennedy, Stockhausen Day, and the arrival of Doctor Who at the Royal Albert Hall.

The culture minister was right to raise the question of audiences and access, but found the wrong target in a festival that has always been a model of linking quality with accessibility. Where else can you see a world-class concert for £5 (or £2.23 if you buy a season ticket, or even £0 if you come on Folk Day)? Whatever the state of the UK or the nations, there is a broad acceptance of the special place it holds in our cultural life.

In tackling the Last Night, we asked ourselves what exactly this much-vaunted tradition consisted of. This year, we have planned a number of re-creations, repeating programmes and ideas from previous Proms, as it is always fun to experience how programming used to be. Initially I thought we might re-create the Last Night from 1908 as a celebration of the Last Night tradition. When I looked into it, however, I discovered that with such a re-creation, there would be no "Jerusalem" or "Land of Hope and Glory". The "Fantasia on Sea Songs" was there (performed for the first time at the Last Night), as was an Elgar "Pomp and Circumstance March" (no 4, not no 1). What we think of as the "traditional" sequence was not performed. The rest of the programme was a splendid, if lengthy pick-and-mix typical of the period, including operatic arias, Franck's "Panis Angelicus", German's "Harvest Dance" and "West Country Lad", Offenbach's "Barcarolle" and the "Hungarian March" by Berlioz.

It was not until the 60th season of the Proms in 1954 that all four pieces we now expect to be in the second half of the Last Night programme appeared together, and even since then they have not all featured every year. So, replacing the Henry Wood "Sea Songs" in this year's festival with the Ralph Vaughan Williams "Sea Songs" is simply an additional celebration of Vaughan Williams in his anniversary year, and also a continuation of another grand tradition - the ongoing reinvention of the Last Night tradition itself.

I was also keen this year to link the Last Night more to the rest of the festival. It is the celebratory conclusion of the whole season and so, to have music linked to previous concerts (this year folk songs, Vaughan Williams and Beethoven) makes this final concert a fitting climax rather than a separate event tagged on at the end.

New music has always played an important part in the Proms and this year's Last Night is no exception. We have commissioned the young Scottish composer Anna Meredith to write a piece not only for the performers at the Royal Albert Hall but also for the musicians who will be playing at the Proms in the Park concerts in Hyde Park, Belfast, Glasgow and Swansea.

The audience for the first Last Night was a few thousand in the Queen's Hall; more than a century later, the event reaches a global audience of millions. As David Cannadine, the perceptive chronicler of Last Nights, wrote: "Whether it is derided as 'ossified' or applauded as 'traditional', perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Last Night of the Proms, beyond the extraordinary narrative of its creation and survival, change and continuity, has been the inexorable, exponential growth in its audience." Who knows how the Last Night will develop in the next decade? For the moment, I'll simply keep to hand Somerset Maugham's observation, that tradition should be "a guide and not a jailer".

The BBC Proms begin on 18 July. For more details, log on to:

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’