David Elliott: History in the round: why the Hall of hope and glory can start to showboat

The famous London venue was at risk of going the same way as the British empire, until its boss reinvented it
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The Independent Online

The show, as they say, must go on. After a last-minute cancellation, David Elliott, the chief executive of the Royal Albert Hall, gave over the 134-year-old venue to a charity gala last Tuesday for the Pakistan earthquake. Which means frantic rehearsals, as well as sound and light checks, are going on in the grand 5,222-seater hall as the interview takes place.

Yet as the photographer struggles to take his shots with the house lights flashing, and Elliott, perched precariously on the edge of a box, tries not to fall into the stalls, he happily answers questions to the sound of music and stage hands yelling orders at each other. In fact, the former Barings banker, decked out in a grey suit, looks positively at home amid the theatrical chaos.

"It's a fantastic job," says Elliott, 60. "People talk about recreation but there's something healthy about providing entertainment for people."

Having quit the City in the mid 1980s, Elliott joined the Hall - home to the Proms and Festival of Remembrance - in 1991 as head of finance. He became chief executive in 1998 and has overseen the Hall's biggest development since Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria, had the bright idea of an entertainment venue for the masses.

Around £70m was spent on the overhaul, £40m of which came from the National Lottery. Offices and a foyer were added to the front of the building, in strict keeping with the ornate exterior, and space was created underground - meaning sets no longer have to be brought in across the auditorium seats. Dressing rooms and rehearsal areas were expanded and public areas were spruced up.

It was a mammoth, eight-year programme, and badly needed: audiences were on the wane, and those still using it complained of being hot, cramped, unable to get a drink or find a free toilet, and of poor acoustics (these have also been improved).

But Elliott has no sense of the job being done. "You never finish," he says, sounding like a Forth Bridge painter. "We did the important things and they have made a difference. But the ambition has been to take the revenue we're generating and go on improving the building."

Including fundraising, he estimates, the Hall will make between £10m and £15m in the next five years, after wages and fuel bills have been paid. Around 35 per cent of that will be spent on the infrastructure of the venue.

Tasks on Elliott's "to-do" list include refurbishing restaurants, revamping the website, improving the box office, addressing energy consumption - "this is not the most energy-efficient building, not by a long way" - and tackling the lack of air-conditioning. The Hall has an air-cooling system but it tends to crash when the temperature rises.

"That's a big, ambitious, 30-year programme. It's been here for 130 years and will be around for another 130, maybe even 260."

He also wants to get the Hall involved with a local community initiative to improve the Exhibition Road area - a scheme, he says, that will give a "greater sense of coherence and identity" to the museum-laden region of west London. "Anything that helps publicise the fascinating selection of museums and institutions around here will be great."

Elliott is also on a mission to broaden the audience and is investing in an extensive educational programme, as well as free daytime concerts showcasing new music. No profits are ever taken out of the Hall; all cash is ploughed back in to the organisation.

The Hall also promotes popular events. It is staging Puccini'sLa Bohème "in the round" in February - a joint production with Raymond Gubbay (the impresario famed for his extravagant, amplified operas); and next June, the curtain goes up on the Hall's first musical, Showboat.

This will also be done in the round - with the action played out across a 360-degree stage - and the Hall will be flooded for the show's two-week run. "We wanted to do something a little bit different from a West End theatre," explains Elliott. "It's very exciting. We would love to do more musicals. We have ambitions to do West Side Story but the problem is getting rights. However, we hope this is the first of a regular run."

Ticket and programme sales will bring in the cash, but Elliott also wants a sponsor and is in talks with cruise liners. It is a move in keeping with his deal-doing banker days. After studying at Oxford University, on a scholarship from Vickers, Elliott spent four years at the engineering firm before decamping to Barings, the bank later brought down by rogue trader Nick Leeson.

With Big Bang looming, Elliott decided the City was no longer for him. "The nature of that business changed quite radically. I was more suited to the old world of banking, which was about relationships rather than transactions. I'm in this business because I like the people thing."

It was designing sets for the Oxford University Dramatic Society that sealed his love affair with the stage. "That's how I got a bit star-struck and probably ended up here." After leaving the City, he was hired by the English National Opera as finance director and helped get it out of some dire financial straits. Then he was called to the Hall.

The Grand I listed building has a rich and varied history. The cash to build it was raised by selling seats on 999-year leases, and around 300 people or groups still own their seats. In its time, Lloyd George has had speeches interrupted by suffragettes, pop stars and classical musicians have trod the stage, companies have hosted dinners, flags have been waved at 64 Last Night of the Proms, and even tennis matches have been played (balls can apparently be found in the famous acoustic mushrooms that hang from the ceiling).

Elliott's pride in the redevelopment is clear - particularly when, on a tour round the Hall, he does his "James Bond thing". He swipes an electronic card, a steel door swings open and we emerge out of the statue of Prince Albert. So it is perhaps not surprising he has no plans to stop. "Applause," as he points out, "is infectious."

BIOGRAPHY

BORN 6 April 1945

EDUCATION BA honours in politics, philosophy and economics, Oxford University

CAREER

1966: planning and marketing departments, Vickers Engineering

1970: corporate finance department, Barings

1980: head of US operations, Barings

1985: finance director, English National Opera

1991: director of finance and administration, then deputy chief executive, Royal Albert Hall

1998 to now: chief executive, Royal Albert Hall

Other positions: honorary treasurer, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith; member of the executive committee of the Royal Academy of Dance; chairman of the Benesh Institute of Movement Notation

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