The National Anthem in cinemas

The Brits have long been lukewarm about their national anthem. For one thing, it’s a bit of a tuneless dirge. No-one knows who wrote the tune — or perhaps no-one ever owned up to it — or the words.

In general, we only sing one verse. Not surprising. Some of the later verses of the anthem, which refer to “rebellious Scots” being crushed, have fallen out of favour.

Throughout my lifetime, it’s been God Save the Queen. (It’s God Save the King, when the gender of the reigning monarch alters.)

Go to the cinema in England into the 1970s, however, and, after the conclusion of the main feature, you might hear that ominous introductory timpani roll that signals the arrival of the national anthem. Why? Why?

Good reason, it turns out. Tradition.

In September 1745, as part of the Jacobite Rising, the “Young Pretender” to the British throne, one Prince Charles Edward Stuart, defeated the government army loyal to the Hanoverian King George II at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.

After news of this defeat reached London, in a fit of patriotic fervour, the leader of the band at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, arranged God Save The King and played it after that night’s performance. It was so well received that the band kept on playing it every night.

This practice soon spread to other theatres, so the custom of a nightly anthem got entrenched, even spreading to cinemas.

Were we all meant to stop rushing for our bus and train home and take a few moments to reflect on the glory of our monarch? Were we meant to forget the feature we had just seen and flex our patriotic sinews? Were we meant to remember Bonnie Prince Charlie before heading out into the night?

If we were meant to, we didn’t. As soon as the closing credits rolled, out we would hurtle, trampling ice-cream sellers in our wake, just so we didn’t have to stand transfixed for a few bars of music. Sometime in the 1970s, the practice died out.

It was never wholly popular. In the 1972 Dad’s Army episode A Soldier’s Farewell, the platoon are at the cinema watching a Greta Garbo film. Only Captain Mainwaring stands to attention for the national anthem at the end; he gets knocked over by the rest of the crew making a beeline for the exit.

In the UK, the anthem is played on Radio 4 on the birthdays of the Queen (actual — 21 April –and official — the second Saturday of June), the Prince of Wales and Duke of Edinburgh. That’s enough stirring.

Other countries have also decided that stirring is as stirring does.

In 2018, India’s Supreme Court reversed its previous order that the national anthem must be played in every cinema before the screening of a film.

Do we go to the cinema to profess our patriotism?

Nah, we have the football for that.


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