Thursday, August 13, 2015

Big in Bedford

The Proms kept going, just about, through the Second World War.

The 1939 Season was abandoned after just three weeks. Having started, as usual, at the Queen's Hall on 12th August, Hitler's invasion of Poland came on 1st September, and broadcasting was put on a war-time footing. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Theatre Orchestra moved operational base to Bristol.

Henry Wood had to turn to the London Symphony Orchestra for the 1940 season, with the Proms opening during the Battle of Britain, but once again the season closed early in September. The Blitz started on the 7th, and London was bombed for 56 consecutive nights. The 7th September Prom was the last at the Queen's Hall - it was hit by a bomb in 10th May 1941, and destroyed in the subsequent fire.

The blitz also targeted "safe" Bristol from November 1940, but back in London, the 1941 Proms Season still started, as early as 12th July, at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time.  The London Symphony Orchestra shouldered the vast bulk of the work, with the whole orchestra or members featuring in all 37 Proms. Concerts started at 6.30pm, to avoid patrons going home in the full black-out.

Meanwhile in August 1941, the BBC deemed that Bristol was unsafe, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Theatre Orchestra were moved, in a specially-chartered train with buffet car, to Bedford, by a long and circuitous route to avoid London. Conductor Sir Adrian Boult, who was also BBC Director of Music, is said to have travelled by bike, breaking for lunch in Aylesbury.

The 1942 season opened at the Royal Albert Hall even earlier, on June 27, with the first 24 concerts featuring the London Philharmonic. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra travelled in from Bedford for the last 25.  The 1943 Proms went ahead with a similar 50/50 split, but with both orchestras coming together for the last night.

1944 was Henry Wood's 50th Anniversary with the Proms, and 55 concerts were scheduled, with,. once again the LPO taking the first half and the BBC SO the second. But, by 29th June, the threat from flying bombs in London was deemed too great a risk, and a number of the remaining concerts were moved from the Royal Albert Hall to the Corn Exchange in Bedford The pre-penultimate Prom was supposed to be Wood's Jubilee Event, but, aged 75, he fell ill after a conducting with the BBC SO in the Corn Exchange on 28th July, and listened to the special Jubilee programme from a hospital bed in Hitchin. Radio announcer Stuart Hibberd read a message from him to the audience 'Give my love to all my dear musicians and my dear friends of music. I am disappointed that I cannot be with them today, but tell them I shall soon be with them again and then we'll finish the Jubilee Season with a Victory Season.' He died nine days later.


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    1. More details on the BBC in Bedford here


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