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BBC reverses course in 'Rule Britannia' singing row

LONDON (Reuters) - The BBC has rowed back on a plan to omit the words from two patriotic songs at the pomp-laden climax of a classical music festival this month after critics including Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused it of seeking to censor Britain’s past.

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With COVID-19 restrictions limiting the size of the choir and preventing an audience from attending, the broadcaster planned to play orchestral versions of “Rule Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, which are normally sung by flag-waving fans.

On Wednesday it said a select group of BBC singers would now sing the words at the Last Night of the Proms after its initial plan prompted the prime minister to accuse it of showing a “cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture”.

Rule Britannia! includes the line: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves; Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”

The BBC said it had been looking for a solution. “While it can’t be a full choir, and we are unable to have audiences in the hall, we are doing everything possible to make it special and want a Last Night truly to remember,” it said in a statement.

The annual musical jamboree, normally the conclusion to a summer-long series of concerts, has attracted criticism in the past for being jingoistic, while its defenders argue it represents a joyful outpouring of tradition and patriotism.

The outgoing boss of the BBC, Tony Hall, had said the decision was taken purely due to COVID restrictions but a report in the Sunday Times said the principal guest conductor had wanted to modernise the evening.

As the publicly-funded broadcaster, the BBC often finds itself caught in the political and cultural crosshairs and has been accused by some members of Johnson’s party of being too metropolitan and out of touch with much of the country.

“Pleased to see common sense has prevailed on the BBC Proms,” Culture Minister Oliver Dowden tweeted.

The opposition Labour Party said it was the right decision.

Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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