The Royal Albert Hall isn't really a hall. It's a monument. A cultural icon. A landmark. A "masterpiece of Victorian design". Who would think of demonstrating the shape of the Royal Festival Hall or the National Gallery? As for the Barbican, no one knows where it is, let alone what it looks like. Even the Luftwaffe could recognise the Albert Hall, flying over blacked-out London in 1941. Bomb the Albert Hall? You must be joking. It was a signpost.
People are passionate about the Albert Hall, from the hundreds of Prommers who queue up outside every summer for tickets to Bill Martin, who has tended the hall's four vast water boilers and 120 radiators since before the Beatles arrived in 1963. Mr Martin is so mad about the Albert Hall that he even wears polo shirts emblazoned with its picture.
Which is all right and proper, because the Royal Albert Hall was built with passion. Prince Albert had an idea for a Hall of Arts and Sciences, a great public building for the pursuit of knowledge, funded largely by proceeds from the Great Exhibition of 1851, to complete and complement the cultural Mecca he had founded, with Henry Cole, in 87 acres of South Kensington. Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861 before work had even begun, but Queen Victoria was determined that his wish be fulfilled, and laid the foundation stone on 20 May 1867. Dedicating the completed hall four years later, in a "black silk dress, and black bonnet in which there were a few white flowers", she was so overcome by emotion that she was unable to declare the building open - the Prince of Wales had to step in and speak for her.
As befits a building named after him, Albert's presence is everywhere. His monogram is wrought in iron on the stairways, carved into the keystones on the windows, moulded into plaster-work on the ceilings and engraved on interior panelling. The letter "A" is stamped so firmly within every fibre of the building that it would take a major revolution to remove it.
And a revolution is exactly what has arrived, in the shape of Patrick Deuchar, the chief executive. Under his guidance, the wind of change is whistling down the hall's elliptical corridors. By the millennium, if Deuchar achieves his aim, the Royal Albert Hall will be transformed.
Mr Deuchar looks like a man used to achieving his aims. Cosily rounded, with a technique of answering questions with an evasive but frostily precise manner, he inhabits his oak office like a headmaster.
"I have a vision," he says. Do not be deceived by the language; Deuchar is not a philanthropist. He is a man used to promoting businesses and events. Big businesses and big events. OK, so he started off as an agricul- ture graduate and began by running a farm in Berkshire, but before long he had moved to the Royal Show and then to the position of public relations manager, Earls Court and Olympia.
Before he went to South Kensington, five-and-a-half years ago, Deuchar was International Director of World Championship Tennis, which he nurtured into a vast enterprise of more than a hundred professional tournaments, with a prize fund of £20 million. He is now a trustee of the Albert Memorial Trust, and of the Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust.
Deuchar looks out of his window at the decorative brick surround. "When I arrived here, there was a lot of under-realised potential. I am not in the business of creating Art. This is a hard, commercial operation. I have a Mission Statement and that is for the hall to become the Venue of Choice. It's not the hall that's important, it's the performances. The hall could be a tin shed. The important thing is to do performances properly. The most important thing is to get the promoters on our side."
Mission Statement? Promoters? Was this part of Prince Albert and Henry Cole's official Charter, which firmly set out the type of uplifting science and artistic functions to be put on in the hall? Was it for this that Queen Victoria broke down in tears on the official dais?
"My number one task is to get good quality promoters," repeats Deuchar. He ensured long ago that the hall "stepped out" from the constricting "protection" of the Charter. Deuchar doesn't want to put on just Art or Science for the general public. He will put on what the promoters want, from trade launches for the Fiat Cinquecento to Sumo wrestling. "I am not Richard Eyre," he continues, as if to conjure up the most aesthetic name in the business. "I am not an artistic director. I want to attract business from banquets to charity shows and large-scale celebrations." Like the Holiday Inn private bash recently staged here? "Precisely." Isn't this a bit like treating the Albert Hall as a conference centre, rather than a foundation built by and for the people? "We want to be the Venue of Choice," says Deuchar again, smiling, clearly thinking I am an outdated arty-pants.
Deuchar's talk is of "mindsets", "customers" and "choice", and sometimes all three at once. He is not a man of Albert's time; he is a man of our time. His eye is not on cultural improvement; it is on selling tickets. "The hall is not a tourist attraction. It is a venue. I have a One-Year Plan, and a Three-Year Plan. After the Three-Year Plan, I hope to have achieved the position where, when a promoter wants to stage a show, they think of the hall first; when someone wants to go out for the night, I want them to see what the Albert Hall is doing first. I want to pump up the image of the hall."
He has a point. The building is somewhat shabby, to say the least, what with its cracked plaster, heating pipes and badly positioned fittings, all on public display. What's more, contemporary audiences have needs and expec-tations which exceed those of audiences a hundred years ago. "These facilities are crap," says Malcolm Walters, here from Worcester for a concert. "The loos are up three flights of stairs, and I only found the bar by chance." "It's kinda dungeony," agrees Jill Baker from Essex, who has arrived to see the American singer Cyndi Lauper. "And it's a bit grim inside, like a school. And it's really difficult to find your way around."
Indeed, throughout most performances at the Albert Hall, it appears that a significant percentage of the audience is wandering around the wind-swept circular corridors outside the auditorium wondering where the hell they are. In terms of geographical complexity, the Albert Hall, with its multiple staircases, lack of lifts and weird crowd control, knocks Heathrow Airport into a cocked hat.
"Where's the cloakroom?" asks one woman, storming past with her family. "'Ere, you're going the wrong way. Don't separate, Jim," she calls with urgency. "We'll all get lost."
"I think it's a bit like a hospital,'' says Jacquie Currie, from Edinburgh. ``All these lino floors and circular corridors. I keep looking round to see if a patient is going to be wheeled past on a trolley." "It's the name Albert, I think," says another woman. "It doesn't really help."
Patrick Deuchar gesticulates with impatience. "When was this place last rewired? 1957! In all the public circulation areas, the brightest light we can use is a 40-watt bulb. We must let people eat, drink and have a pee. We don't do any of that properly, yet."
His renovation plans are ambitious. The main entrance will be returned to the south of the building, currently the back. A new South Porch will include a foyer, a vast staircase, restaurants, bars, shops and lavatories. New loading areas, car parks and backstage technical facilities will be built as a basement under the South Steps. Within the auditorium itself, there will be improved seating and sightlines, more lifts and an art gallery running around the little-used promenade area at the top.
Deuchar's ultimate aim, which he hopes will be achieved for the millennium, and for which he has applied to the National Lottery for a grant of £15 million, is to sink part of the four-lane Kensington Gore through an underpass. The idea is to link up the Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens and the Royal College of Art next-door, providing a pedestrian piazza. Goodbye cold, lonely trips to the hall over a death-defying race track. Hello cafs, music shops, booksellers and bistros. Deuchar hopes the shops and a sculpture garden (which will display works from the RCA) will fill the area with a constant flow of people who would, significantly, have access to the hall all day. So committed is Deuchar to his plan, so convinced that he will pull it off, that, somewhat daringly for a proposal called Masterplan for the Millennium, he suggests it is even bigger than the year 2000. "What is the millennium?" asks the radical chief executive. "Just another day as far as business is concerned. The Mission Statement is our horizon."
Last autumn Deuchar flew in five top American promoters to meet him and the hall. The promoters were treated to concert performances from George Benson, and, 24 hours later, Meatloaf. In between, there were dinners, tours and lunches. And at the end there was a working breakfast. "That's when we did the deals," says Deuchar. "There is no such thing as a free trip."
To generate a further £9 million, the hall, an unsubsidised enterprise which has nevertheless generated a trading surplus of £1.2 million per annum for the past five years, will bump up its capacity for performances to 340 shows a year, rather than the current 280.
Deuchar has already abandoned the fusty attitude to popular entertainment, which at its worst caused pop shows to be banned for more than a decade after a particularly raucous concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Their riotous behaviour and apparently slanderous language about the Queen caused the then general manager apoplexy. "The Council has reluctantly decided...that it can no longer make the hall available for `pop', and `rock' concerts," reads the furious memo of 1972, "due to public danger created by...hysterical behaviour...abuse, threats and even physical violence."
"I am not an arbiter of quality," says Deuchar smoothly. "I want excellence without elitism; and I want commercial savvy. Elitism is not our bag." Hence the presence last month of the infamous American rock band the Black Crowes, hardly classic Royal Albert Hall material; indeed, their admirers, perhaps in the spirit of Frank Zappa, apparently got up to various illegal activities under the tables in the Grand Tier boxes. "There may be those who say the Black Crowes are not a quality show," Deuchar says, with a shrug. "But five-and-a-half thousand people disagree."
Under Deuchar, Prince Albert's temple to the Arts and Sciences is being turned into "Britain's Village Hall", a doggedly anti-elitist nickname that he is determined will stick. "The plan is to break down the image you had in your mind of the hall," he says. Hence his catch- all approach with regard to the booking sheet. One day, it's the Black Crowes, the next, the Faraday Lectures for schoolchildren; then an Israeli/Arab ethnic peace music concert. Truly democratic stuff: multi-age, multi-culture. All you need now is some sort of cult convention, and the formula is complete.
Which is what took place on the first weekend in February, when 11,000 Star Trek fans trooped into the Royal Albert Hall for the first official Trekkie convention in Europe. The Trekkies (or Trekkers, as modern-day aficionados prefer to be termed), simply loved beaming around the hall. Forget the Proms. This was Warp Factor Nine.
"I only knew it [the Albert Hall] from the telly," says Lynn Hartsham, a financial adviser from Leicester, currently standing by a Klingon mask stall. "I thought it was going to be really old-fashioned, and the staff would be surly, but it's great. I'm sure the general public would be appalled if they knew us lot were in here, but then the Albert Hall are out to make money, aren't they? They've got to widen their outlook."
Quite. In the eponymous restaurant, people wander about underneath a large equestrian portrait of the Prince Consort, sporting keep on trekking T-shirts and special communication pins which bleep when you press them. There are crowds of Klingons, who have arrived complete with mask, tin-foil sash and dual identity. "Do you want my Klingon name or my real name?" asks one. "I'm Togduj Zentai Jonwi." The Klingon pauses. "Or Andy Wilson, if you prefer." He waddles off to purchase a Vulcan Burger.
The truth is, the Royal Albert Hall is exactly the right place for the convention. In 1995, it is probably only Trekkers who are the rightful inheritors of Prince Albert's vision. "It's not just men with pointed ears," explains Martin Stahl, a biology student from Wurzburg in Germany, who is wearing a Captain Kirk jumpsuit. "It's about the beauty of creation, science and tolerance of other cultures. Star Trek is as important as the Bible."
Inside the auditorium, green laser beams flash down for the imminent arrival of Patrick Stewart, who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The hall is packed, a Trekker bum on every seat. "I like this hall being so old-fashioned," says Tom Brecht. "Star Trek has a peaceful philosophy which goes well here. The way things are solved, with diplomacy and morality." He looks approvingly around the red velvet glory of the Albert Hall's auditorium, with its curtained boxes and gold-leaf finery.
Eventually, Patrick Stewart walks on stage through the green lasers, to cascades of stirring Star Trek music. The auditorium rises to greet him. Some people are crying. Stewart raises a hand imperiously, as if to quell the noise, although the ovation goes on for minutes. "I'm sorry the organisers couldn't find a more dist-inguished building," he booms. Everyone rocks with laughter. "It's just not good enough."
It is for Cyndi Lauper. On the first night of her tour, Cyndi gets up on stage wearing an eccentric 18th-century outfit and high heels. I know she feels honoured to perform at the Albert Hall; she has told me so. Her arrival is a parody, complete with mock Elgar crashing from the speakers, and a flunky's cod Royal Welcome. Like Stewart, her opening greeting is not to the audience, or even "Hello London". "This is a classy joint," she says, and everyone cheers.
Over a ten-day period, the Royal Albert Hall fted more than 4,000 schoolchildren for the Faraday Lectures, 11,000 Tekkers, 7,000 Cyndi Lauper fans and 900 admirers of the Towards Humanity Arab/Israeli music show. Everyone was delighted, even the Towards Humanity crew who had paid £312,500 for the hall and only managed to fill one sixth of it. "We covered our costs with sponsorship," explains marketing consultant Sean Rourke, "and next year, when we are looking for sponsors, our future bene- factors will be impressed. Because we played the Albert Hall."
Despite its cracks, draughts, visible plumbing and duff cafs, the Royal Albert Hall still has kudos. We all know it; performers know it, promoters know it. It's just not fashionable nowadays to admit to it, but the Royal Albert Hall, with its grandeur and daring, still moves us. It is not hidden away under an office block, like the Barbican; it was not designed to "blend in", as was the Sainsbury Wing. Instead, it parades its purpose up front, with a seven-foot frieze on the outside depict-ing allegories of the Fine Arts. Designed to look like the Coliseum in Rome, built for the democratic pursuit of culture, and constructed by military engineers to an unshakeable degree of permanence, the Albert Hall dominates its environs with a confidence unusual in most modern arts buildings.
So when Patrick Deuchar talks about the Albert Hall being a "service" to its "customers", and says "The Royal Albert Hall is just walls and a roof," I wonder if he really means it.Reuse content