The Nation's Village Hall

From Frank Zappa to the Sally Army, this hall is truly all things to all men. By Jonathan Glancey and Ben Summers

Share
Related Topics
"It looks like the British Constitution", said Queen Victoria of the Royal Albert Hall on the day the Prince of Wales declared it open 125 years ago. Quite what the Queen meant we will never know. But it probably was not that the great hall of arts and sciences named after her late and beloved husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (typhoid fever had done for him 10 years earlier), went round in circles, that its impressive facade hid little more than a thumping great hole, that no one knew exactly what it was for, other than being all things to all men.

She was certainly at odds with the journalist who described it as "a monstrous cross between the Colosseum and a Yorkshire pie". What we do know is that the Royal Albert Hall, designed by Captain Fowke and Colonel Darracott Scott of the Royal Engineers, is a cross between a Roman amphitheatre and the State Opera House, Dresden. We also know it cost pounds 200,000, took four years to build, comprises six million bricks, 80,000 terracotta tiles and five miles of steam heating pipes. We know its dimensions - 155ft to the top of its iron and glass dome, an elliptical circumference of 735ft - and that, although designed to seat 8,000 Victorians, it is limited, for reasons of safety, to 5,600 these days. Its interior has been described as "somewhere between a hospital, a boarding school, and a Soviet ministry". It was last rewired in 1957.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney said, a touch wistfully, that it would take 4,000 holes from Blackburn, Lancashire to fill it. Actually, what fills it is the annual Henry Wood Prom concerts, bouts of sumo wrestling, guitar riffs by Eric Clapton, the massed bonnets and tambourines of the Sally Army, paper poppies falling from the dome on Remembrance Day, 11,000 Trekkers (the number of buffs who turned up at last year's Star Trek conference) and the strains of Handel's "Messiah" at Christmas.

And, of course, there is Yehudi Menuhin, who made his first performance here as a 13-year-old in 1929. He got to the Albert Hall before Maurice Chevalier and Edward Elgar; before even the Ford Company made their booking to publicise the pounds 100 car in 1936. That was neither the first nor the last trade launch at the hall, which is a model of openness and tolerance. Virtually anything can go on within its walls - a full-length circular marathon, the nation's first gramophone concert (in 1906, attended by a 10,000-strong crowd), and at one time Indian civil service examinations.

There always has been some cosmic debris in the hall's galaxy of stars. This year on the bill are the wrestler Hulk Hogan, Beauty and the Beast on ice, and the Fiat Cinquecento for its launch.

In the words of its own publicity, this all-singing, all-dancing monument to the Prince Consort is the Nation's Village Hall. Corny, but close to the truth.

What in a village hall would require some stacking of chairs and trestle tables calls for serious lumberjackery at the Albert Hall. The floor may be built up and moved to suit an event. "It's slightly more advanced than scaffolding," says David Elliott, deputy chief executive, "but it's not hi-tech." With a lot of elbow grease the hall can be an ice rink, a conference centre, a 2,500-seater dining room and a concert venue all within a week.

Rock concerts were temporarily banned in 1972 after a memorable performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention which the management thought in poor taste. Today, the likes of Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton bring in a toe-tapping middle-class audience, the sort that worries less about turning on, tuning in and dropping out than about missing the last Tube to Waterloo.

It is not, nor ever was, a beautiful building (and certainly not revolutionary) and it remains short on lavatories, bars and decent acoustics. Millennium funding might yet improve matters, but the Albert Hall is no place to hear music more subtle than "Rule Britannia" or "Land of Hope and Glory". The hall was famous for its echo from the day it opened. "Amen", concluded the Bishop of London at the opening ceremony. "Amen", said the audience of 7,000. And "Amen", replied the echo, rumbling above their heads for a full minute.

Did Bruckner make use of this anomaly as he dug into the 150-ton steam- powered Willis organ (10,000 pipes, 146 stops) for the hall's premiere concert? What did Wagner make of it as he blitzed through eight performances of his own work in 1877? Sir Thomas Beecham, the populist conductor, said the hall could be used for a hundred things, but music was not one of them.

The acoustics were improved by the 135 glass-fibre baffles planted in the ceiling in 1969 (after extensive consultation with the BBC and various acoustics experts). The mushrooms' days may be numbered. The hall's owners say the time has come for "an aesthetically more pleasing way of achieving the same acoustic result".

This has hardly mattered to Prom concert audiences, who first came here in 1941 when Queen's Hall, their original home, was destroyed by bombs. It was said that the Luftwaffe left the Albert Hall untouched because its round form made it such a perfect marker for the pilots and bomb-aimers of Dorniers and Heinkels.

The Germans did, however, do for the Imperial Institute next door. Along with the Natural History Museum and the Imperial Institute, the Royal Albert Hall formed part of a gigantic Victorian development, built largely on the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which has survived more or less intact.

The Albert Hall has been self-financing since it opened. The money to build it was raised through the Great Exhibition committee (pounds 50,000) and from selling 1,300 seats at pounds 100 each to subscribers on a 999-year lease. Its affairs are overseen by a corporation which has charity status ("the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences"), established under Royal Charter in 1866 with the task of "maintaining and appropriating the hall for purposes connected with the arts and sciences". The harsh facts of financial life mean it must make money to keep itself afloat, something about which the Victorian founders were perhaps too optimistic. A series of Acts of Parliament have loosened restrictions on the hall's operation, the first of these giving the nod to sporting events such as boxing.

Although the hall needs money spending on it (it was last given a wash and brush-up on its centenary in 1971), it has made a trading surplus of pounds 1.2m each year since 1990. The remainder of a lease for a 10-seat box in the Grand Tier went on offer last year for about pounds 300,000. On top of this, seat-holders must pay an annual levy for each seat (currently pounds 556). This fee plays a large part in keeping the hall afloat financially. And Patrick Deuchar, its dynamic chief executive, plans to make it ever more popular over the next few years, raising the number of events from 280 to 340 a year.

Like some secular Mecca, it is one of those places that is far more than a building. Everyone in Britain is likely to visit it at least once. For once, you can believe the PR: the Royal Albert Hall is the nation's village hall.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms