In a normal year, the Festival of Remembrance gains much of its emotional power from the sheer numbers involved. One feels overwhelmed by the crowds of soldiers of every age and regiment, all gathered with their families.
All of that has been banished by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first and one fervently hopes last time, the Royal British Legion has had to mount a socially-distanced Festival of Remembrance. That has meant a huge reduction in the numbers on stage, and without the never-ending procession of different regiments with their standards, the event was bound to feel somewhat muted.
A mere ten soldiers from all three forces processed down the aisles. As with the BBC Proms, the decision was taken to allow not a single-family or audience member into the hall, so the Festival was enacted entirely for the television audience.
It was a vivid reminder of the fact that, as Prince Charles put it in his address during the Festival, the pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives. “We have experienced anxiety and grief never known before in peacetime,” he said, but he added that the pandemic has had its positive side. The freedom for which war heroes fought was “more precious than we knew”, the Prince said, adding, “heroes and heroines are all around us.”
Lest we’d forgotten that fact this festival reminded us, in a series of moving personal stories recounted mostly in the form of filmed interviews. We heard from among others the Duchess of Cornwall, Commodore-in-Chief of the Naval Medical Services, about the engineers and medical personnel who’ve been responsible for erecting the Nightingale hospitals and joining emergency teams to care for critically ill patients.
But not everything was pandemic-related. This being the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, we saw stirring footage of the event projected on huge screens all around the hall and heard memories from veterans. We also heard moving eye-witness accounts of the Korean War, the “forgotten war” where over 90,000 British troops served and 1,000 lost their lives, and from the Iraq War.
Huw Davies presented with just the right level of seriousness, and in between the filmed tributes we heard songs of memory and gratitude from invited stars including Mica Paris and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, performing with crisply expert backing from the Orchestra of the Household Division (though the real show stopper was Laura Main’s medley of Second World War hit songs with the RAF Shades of Blue Big Band)
The near-emptiness of the hall was disguised with dazzling projected displays and the energizing presence of the Mark De-Lisser Singers, each hip-swaying singer placed inside a box around the perimeter.
Towards the end, the traditional muster of troops and the prayers from the Royal British Legion’s Chaplain re-established a serious mood, to which the Last Post added the final touch of solemnity. The pandemic may have changed this year’s Festival, but its essential message was as intense and moving as ever.