The final hoorah of the summer proms is every bit as much about the audience as it is about the music, and in Hyde Park, 45,000 prommers were Union Jack clad and fizzing with excitement for Last Night of the Proms' familiarly unique formula. 

This was the usual mix of long-held traditions and bizarre displays of patriotism; but the singular significance of the occasion, five days before the Scottish referendum hovered uncertainly over the proceedings. Depending on which way the vote goes, there may be an awful lot of blue, red and white beanies, wigs, scarves, hairbands and (yes) three-piece suits that will need amending before next year’s event. But in many ways, it was business as usual at Hyde Park’s Prom in the Park. Between the quiche feasts and emptied bottles of cava, there’s a joyously carefree spirit in the air: for one night only we are an uncharacteristically generous, sociable nation of cake-sharers and amiable photo-bombers.

Rufus Wainwright performing at Prom 74 © BBC | Mark Allan
Rufus Wainwright performing at Prom 74
© BBC | Mark Allan

Tony Blackburn was on hand in the early part of the evening to warm up the crowd. Even though the temperature was the very definition of British ‘fine’ weather (read, cloudy and cool), he didn’t have to work too hard. High on the prospect of actually dancing in September later on, the crowd readily joined in with the pop opera belters served up by Welsh brothers ‘Richard and Adam’. There were more pop classics to follow from the posturing, strutting cast of 20th Century Boy, the West End’s musical retelling of Marc Bolan and T-Rex. The stomping crowd were right with them, loudly chorusing I love to Boogie, and needing little encouragement to Get It On

Proms in the Park is a curiously programmed creation, designed apparently with the dual purpose of bringing classical musical to the masses, and rousing our sense of patriotic pride via a series of unsubtle reminders that we are an island nation. So, on with The Shires, a pleasing close-harmony country-duo from, you guessed it, the English counties, and stirring Cornish collective, The Fisherman’s Friends. Their crisp a capella trio of 'saucy fruity bally jolly rodgering' sea shanties rang across the park – an early allusion to ruling the waves that aroused vigorous jigging from the crowds, particularly to What Shall we do with the Drunken Sailor. 

Anglo-Indian fusion group The Dhol Foundation brought a welcome new vibe, introducing traditional Punjabi rhythms and contemporary beats which had the audience keenly shoulder-shrugging along. Arriving on stage directly after The Shires, (worthily ‘doing it for Britain’), the Dhol Foundation diluted what was elsewhere in the evening a wholly clichéd impression of British national culture. Their short set culminated in a fantastic Celtic collaboration: bhangra syncopations bouncing beneath harp and Irish fiddle melodies.

As the sky turned pinker and the revellers got merrier, it was time for Sir Terry Wogan to make his entrance and introduce the excellent BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor Richard Balcombe. This was the part of the evening where the classical focus which has occupied the Albert Hall for the past 10 weeks is brought to the masses, with a selection of pieces which you can comfortably air-timp to. Though arguably predictable in programming, both tenor Vittorio Grigolo and South African soprano Pumeza Matshikia both executed their performances with warm professionalism and clear enjoyment – Grigolo in particular clearly thriving from the audience’s tangibly appreciative response. He is a characterful presence, and brought a tantalising flavour of classic Italian opera with Donizetti’s “Una furtive lagrima” from L’elisir d’amore, and Rossini's La danza. Matshikiza too has a very natural stage presence – though chose not to wrench our emotions too deeply, opting instead for a very pretty delivery of Fadhili William's Malaika. At an earlier point in his career, Vittorio played the part of Tony in Bernstein’s West Side Story, and here joined Matshikiza for a luscious rendition of “Tonight”. 

Though billed as one of the headlining acts, Rufus Wainwright gave a modest performance of just three of his top tracks. Described by Wogan as a veritable ‘potpourri’ of songs, they exhibited the performer’s affect for the dramatic, and the influence of jazz cabaret on his music, with dreamy string arrangements and soulful, sometimes mournful melodies. 

But the real draw of the evening – judging by the number of greying prommers reliving their disco youth – was surely ‘mighty elements’ Earth Wind and Fire. Where other parts of the concert felt slightly chaotically staged with awkward entrances and unplanned pauses, the trio glided easily from classic hit to classic hit, spinning, sliding and yes, boogeying around with dazzling professionalism. Supported by a full funk band under Charles Floyd, this was the heart of the Hyde Park party, rolling through a psychedelic playlist of After the Love Has Gone, FantasySeptember and a synth-tastic cover of the Beatles Got to Get You Into My Life

“Hello parks!” cries the Royal Albert Hall. We wave and holler back at the screen, and accept it’s time for the annual link-up with the other park proms in Glasgow, Swansea and Belfast. The inevitable rousing chorus of Jerusalem is fast approaching, but not before a nation-wide Mary Poppins singalong. It’s 50 years since the Disney film was released, and its celebration here at the Proms is oddly apt alongside more conventional British anthems. The lyrics of Feed the Birds are as archaically moralistic as Land of Hope and Glory later on in the proceedings, and in this context, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious seems the epitome of polite British quirkiness that Last Night of the Proms traditionally celebrates.  

It is futile to criticise the occasion for straying from the ambition displayed by the rest of the Proms programme. The Last Night of the Proms cannot pretend to resurrect ties between Britain’s nations, just as it will never be a finale that encapsualtes the world-class quality of music displayed over the festival. Inside the hall, its fun induces merry titters: in the park, joyous whoops – a fitting end to a summer-long party.