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Proms 2009: Prom 45 – Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

August 19, 2009

ukesLate Night Proms. The idea of them sounds great. A weekday concert starting late with an entirely different kind of programme sounds like a mid-week cultural indulgence I like to gush at. I normally listen to such things on the radio. I imagine the Royal Albert Hall, admire the hardcore fans who have stayed late to hear a cracking performance. It’s a different atmosphere. It always sounds good on the radio.

Attending a Late Night Prom – attending the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s Late Night Prom – was an entirely different matter. The sight of the arena day ticket queue having extended it’s way down towards the entrance of Imperial College courtyard (always a good indicator of a popular concert) as early as 8pm was unusual and impressive.

It was also – perhaps – to be expected.

Promotion on the Proms website, various radio appearances featuring Radio 4 Continuity Lovely Kathy Clugston and producer Roland Taylor, UOGB appearances on Radio 4 and (I understand) a handful of pieces on the news yesterday. Prom concerts don’t get attention like this. This is an unusual thing. But then the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain is an unusual thing. So too the enthusiasm their instruments provoke in officiandos.

Uke fans (they’re cool, inclusive, and an arrestingly wide range of ages) had downloaded music from the Proms site to learn for a special audience participation number in the live broadcast. 992 registrations. 992 signals of intent to come to the Royal Albert Hall and play a snippet from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Everyone gets a chance to play. This was flagship audience participation.

I have a problem with audience participation. It’s me, not the idea. I fail to get carried away with the atmosphere enveloping me. Everyone else around me might be getting ridiculously excited about what they’re hearing or what they’re doing or what the person on stage is telling them to think, feel or do but I remain steadfastly opposed to going with the crowd. I’m a control freak. I’m objectionable like that.

If someone tells me I ought to be doing something that’s usually my green traffic light to do precisely the opposite. This might account for why I turned up at the Royal Albert Hall last night lacking a Ukulele and it seemed to most of the Proms Cohorts, any vibe let alone enthusiasm. I was, essentially, a grumpy prommer. A grumpy prommer with a face like a smacked arse. This was flagged up by a number of independent observers. It might have been dark outside the Royal Albert Hall as we waited to process inside, but my mood must have appeared like a beacon.

I’ve been to the Last Night of the Proms. I know I can let myself go if I want to. I know I can have a good time – and enjoy having a good time. Those occasions are usually preceded by the consumption of a reasonable amount of cheap alcohol however. I did say I was a control freak. I’m a virgo who was teased mercilessly at school. I still have issues.

A wave from @petergregson and @stevebowbrick in the stalls in my direction in the arena reminded me that I was the only one who brought these issues to the arena. My internal dialogue presented stark choices: I could maintain my fear of participation, or I could just get over it and myself. I noted the good view @petergregson and @stevebowbrick had of the stage and the arena.

When the band came on stage and kicked off with an arrangement of Puffin’ Billy, my mood changed. Quite apart from the endearingly comical sound their instruments produce, the UOGB have a rare talent. Their effect is immediate.

They personalities exude on stage. The interplay between them is immediately engaging. They could be actors who happen to be really accomplished at playing the Uke. Instead, they come across as eight instrumentalists who have a typically British grasp of self-deprecation down to a fine art. They look like people who get on with one another, people who (if they don’t already) should really live in a house together. Their ensemble playing sounds intricate and complicated and insurmountably difficult, but it appears effortless. Every member gets a star turn too. We love each and every one of them because they’re cool and enthusiastic and brilliant.

Only the day before I unwittingly crossed paths with the radio producer responsible for the Ukulele gig. “All set for the big night?” I asked. “It’s just another day,” he replied as we parted company at the lift.

The reality was that hearing the seemingly unconditional love the capacity audience had for UOGB and seeing a thousand ukuleles held aloft like lighters at a Queen concert, the Ukulele prom was anything but “just a normal day”.

Even a grumpy prommer with a face like a slapped arse couldn’t fail to notice or be moved by that. I just find it difficult to let myself go. And I can forgive myself for that. I really can.

Keep an ear out for most adorably fluffy falsetto from the Uke bass player (“Uke’s are the future. Don’t fight it.”) in the plagiarism number. Like John Wilson, that man needs wrapping up and putting up on the mantelpiece. Listen out too for the longest note held by one of the other players in the Bond number.

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