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All hail the hall The Royal Albert Hall at 150: Lucy Davies on magical, history-making moments
As the nation’s favourite ‘village hall’ celebrates 150 years of hosting everyone from Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra and The Rolling Stones to Albert Einstein, Lucy Davies talks to the performers and behind-the-scenes staff who help make the Royal Al
‘THE ROYAL FAMILY HAVE KEPT CLOSE LINKS TO THE ALBERT HALL’
If you had ridden in a hotair balloon across London in the 1860s, drifting over Hyde Park’s leafy plane trees toward the River Thames, what might you have seen?
In among a sweep of arable fields and market gardens, a vast, clanging, sawing, hollering hive of construction would be rising up, strong and splendid, to meet you in the clouds.
This burst of building was – or soon would be – ‘Albertopolis’, named for Prince Albert of Saxe-coburg, from whose imagination it had sprung. The colossal success of his Great Exhibition of 1851 (it generated almost £25 million in today’s money) had allowed him and his friend, the civil servant and design advocate Henry Cole, to buy an 87-acre campus in South Kensington, on which the arts and sciences might flourish.
Their grand centrepiece was the ‘Central Hall’. You’d have noticed it right away, up in your balloon. It was huge, for one thing – 274ft by 240ft –
but what really stood out was its elliptical shape, inspired by Roman amphitheatres that Cole and architect Francis Fowke had seen at Arles and Nîmes in France. (The shape was so conspicuous that during both World Wars, pilots flying over London used it to navigate by.)
Albert did not live to see the first of the hall’s six million red bricks laid, but Cole, Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – cajoled his passion project to completion.
When it opened in 1871 – renamed the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences at the Queen’s request – Victoria, greeted by thousands of cheering spectators, was so overcome at seeing her husband’s dream made a reality that her son had to read out her speech.
‘Not many people understand that the story of the Royal Albert Hall is a love story,’ says musician Nile Rodgers, who was commissioned to compose a song in celebration of the hall’s 150th anniversary. ‘She always looked to me like a nun in her black clothing, but wrong, wrong, wrong. They were very romantic – I got really wrapped up in it.’
Rodgers, who has also played at the hall on several occasions, intended his song – or rather, his ‘humongous orchestral, choral piece, with penny whistles and bassoons and all sorts’ – to represent every corner of the British Isles. Scheduled to be performed in 2022, it is just one element of a monumental programme that the hall has been planning for a decade, and which opened earlier this month with A Circle of Sound ,a ‘musical snapshot’ of its history by James Bond film composer David Arnold. Headline sets from Patti Smith, Gregory Porter, James Blunt, Jonas Kaufmann and Nitin Sawhney are scheduled for later this year.
The hall has hosted nearly 35,000 events in its 150 years. Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, Kylie, the Von Trapp family singers… everyone who is anyone has belted out their best from its stage.
‘My dad took me to a concert
there when I was 11,’ says singersongwriter Jess Glynne, ‘and right then, it became my ambition [to perform there]. It’s like nowhere else. It has this incredible warmth and intimacy, even with all the grandeur.’
‘It’s really, really special,’ agrees the opera singer Katherine Jenkins. ‘When you step out there, it always takes your breath away. You look up, and just because of the way it’s built, it feels like you’re a little gladiator in a massive colosseum. The atmosphere is always amazing.’
Key to that magic, Glynne believes, is ‘this huge willingness from the people backstage to make sure the audience has the best, the most special evening of their lives’.
‘There is this electric feeling that all of us get backstage, when the hall is full of people, when the crowd is singing, clapping,’ says duty stewarding manager Karl Fluskey. ‘If I tell people I work here, always their faces will light up.’
Jenkins has performed an extraordinary 50 times at the Albert Hall, though Eric Clapton holds the record for a current performer, at 212 times. Even that is outdone by Sir Malcolm Sargent, chief conductor of the Proms, who stood on the rostrum 514 times.
Ah, the Proms. For many of us, the Albert Hall is synonymous with them. So named for the audience members who ‘promenade’ – stand without seats – the eight-week season of classical concerts has been held there each summer since 1941, when the Proms’ former home, The Queen’s Hall, was bombed.
To view the Albert Hall with only music-tinted spectacles, though, is to miss its significance entirely. If those elliptical walls could talk, they would tell of costume balls (most notoriously for the Chelsea Arts Club, from 1910 until 1958, at which thousands of revellers cut loose on carnival floats driven around inside the auditorium), Butlin’s holiday camp reunions and even, in 1985, a ‘wedding’ between Freddie Mercury and Jane Seymour (for Fashion Aid).
It gets weirder. At a seance in 1930, 10,000 spiritualists watched medium Mrs Estelle Roberts endeavour to summon the ghost of recently deceased Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (according to Time magazine, which had smuggled a reporter in, she succeeded).
The hall’s four-layer stage has been flooded with water (for Madame Butterfly), supported a boxing ring, a tennis court, a sumo dohyō and even, in 1919, a 23ft whaling boat while Sir Ernest Shackleton told the story of his Antarctic expedition. Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Albert Einstein have given speeches there; the suffragettes and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts held rallies.
The hall has also had some starring cinematic and TV roles. The steps outside featured in the 1965 film The Ipcress File and the series Minder, for instance, while the famous ceiling ‘mushrooms’ – acoustic diffusers installed in 1969 – made a recent appearance in Killing Eve.
Arguably its most famous cameo, though, was in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), in which a would-be assassin plunges to his death from the Royal Box. Hitchcock seems to have been quite familiar with the hall, as he suggested that his dizzy-making zoom effect in 1958’s Vertigo was inspired by his experience in the auditorium’s uppermost tier (at a Chelsea Arts Ball, no less).
Hitchcock has nothing to be ashamed of, though, explains steward Shirley Feshitan. ‘At nine events out of 10, I’ll take someone to their seats in the circle and you can see it straight away – they hesitate. They can’t sit there. We keep seats spare lower down just in case.’
But ask her – and Fluskey – where their favourite place in the hall is, and they agree it’s that same top tier. ‘You stand there, you take everything in below you,’ Feshitan says. ‘Even after 18 years I still shake. It does something to you. Sometimes when I’m up there, when everybody’s gone, I say to myself, “Look at it. This is one amazing place.”’