11 things you didn’t know about the Royal Albert Hall
Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the Royal Albert Hall has a long and varied history. We celebrate the iconic London landmark’s sesquicentennial by uncovering 11 facts about the distinguished venue that might just surprise you
When the domed roof was fitted, the hall sank into the ground
Made of 338 tonnes of iron and 279 tonnes of glazing, the hall’s incredible domed roof is a weighty piece of engineering. After being constructed in Manchester, disassembled and then transported by train to London, it was reassembled and propped on top of the capital’s striking new event space – the building sinking into the ground by almost a centimetre in the process. Now settled (despite not actually being secured to the building in any way), it’s strong enough to hold up to 158 tonnes of snow – the same weight as a blue whale. So, next time you’re enjoying the 1812 Overture, remember to take a look up and enjoy the view in a whole new light.
The loading bay doubles as an art gallery
Chances are when you think of an art gallery, trucks, bins and concrete ramps aren’t what spring to mind – but RAH’s undeniably less glamorous/more practical rear entrance is trying to change that. Thanks to a 2009 commission for the LOAD exhibition, the hall’s loading bay has become an urban canvas featuring an array of famous faces who’ve performed at the venue. Everyone from Shirley Bassey, Frank Sinatra and Pavarotti to Jay-Z, The Beatles and Muhammad Ali peer out from the stone walls thanks to the skills of street art collective The Daydream Network. What’s more, the hidden space has also hosted poetry slams, silent discos, and chessboxing.
From 1896 you could listen to a live concert on the phone
More than a century before Zoom, Teams and Twitch, there was the Electrophone, a half phone/half radio that, for £50 a year, Brits could use to call the hall and listen to the evening’s concert from the comfort of their sitting room. Hundreds tuned in to a variety of events, but the most popular broadcast (attracting nearly 600 listeners) was Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s first public address as Prime Minister at the Liberal Party meeting in 1905. It also marked the first of many hall-hosted events interrupted by the Suffragettes, in this instance seeing two women waving ‘Votes for Women’ banners amidst a braying crowd.
The Royal Box isn’t as fun as it sounds
There are good seats, great seats and then there’s the Royal Box. Perfectly located, significantly sized (the double box seats 20) and offering incomparable views of the stage, this is the exclusive reserve of those with blue blood. However, there are downsides to decadence and, in this case, dancing and general jollity are severely frowned upon between these three walls as it offends regal propriety. We guess you can’t have everything, even if you are the Queen.
The hall hosted the first ever Sumo Tournament outside Japan
For more than 1,500 years, Japan’s national sport had been committed firmly to Japanese soil, making it a momentous occasion when, in 1991, The Grand Sumo Tournament landed with a thump in southwest London. The hall hosted the five-day event as part of a city-wide Japan Festival and had to make some serious concessions to do so. Hosting the athletes (including 238kg heavyweight Hawaiian wrestler Konishiki) meant the venue had to weight-test the lavatories, fit extra-large showers and reinforce much of the seating. Clay for the dohyō and a ceremonial drum and canopy also needed importing. The event was so popular that all five shows sold out and the hall hopes to one day host it again.
The Queen has her own private loo
Skipping the loo queue must be one of many perks of being a royal, and the Queen’s comfort is something the RAH takes very seriously. Originally built on the ground floor at the bottom of the royal staircase (now a storage cupboard) in 1916, Her Majesty’s royal latrine was part of a private entrance and staircase leading directly to the royals’ retiring room and the adjoining Royal Box. In an effort to keep the VVIPs from becoming separated, it was moved into the retiring room in 1932 and updated in the 1990s.
The hall hosted the Trapp Family Singers
Before the hills came alive on screens around the world in 1965, the family behind The Sound of Music were showing off their vocal prowess to the globe. Having achieved fame in Austria (and later the USA after emigrating during World War II) the family went on tour across Europe, opening their British circuit with an in-costume performance at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1950. The previous year, Maria von Trapp had published her book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which told the tale of the family’s escape from Europe and which would become the basis for the Broadway hit and Oscar-winning film.
Royal Albert Hall visitors really like ice cream
Many of us have a sweet tooth, but it seems visitors to the hall crave a sugar kick more than the average Joe. During the 2019 BBC Proms (its 125th staging), more than 35,000 tubs of Beechdean ice cream were sold. That’s a lot of brain freeze. The favoured flavours were vanilla (43,448 tubs sold), then salted caramel (40,817), followed by chocolate (39,844) and, finally, strawberry (26,867).
10,000 people attended a séance in 1930
Shortly after renowned writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s death, spiritualist medium Estelle Roberts and Conan Doyle’s wife, Lady Jean, hosted a séance at the hall in an attempt to contact his recently departed spirit. According to the widow, she received a message from her late husband via Roberts, proving his soul was present. It wasn’t the first spiritual event held at the venue. Its first science-fiction convention – ‘The Coming Race’ and ‘Vril-Ya’ Bazaar and Fete in March 1891 featured flying mannequins, a fortune-telling ‘Demon Dog’ as well as various séances hosted by ‘The Royal Conjurer’, magician Charles Bertram.
The hall’s organ is the second largest pipe organ in Britain
Bearing the nickname of ‘the voice of Jupiter’ comes with a lot of pressure but luckily this gargantuan piped instrument more than lives up to its moniker. On installation, the hall’s 9,999-pipe organ was the single largest instrument in the world. It’s since accompanied musical royalty including Pink Floyd, Anton Bruckner and Muse, as well as featuring on film soundtracks such as Rollerball and Tron.
The hall has doubled as a cinema for more than 100 years
The RAH is now synonymous with its Films in Concert series: screenings of award-winning films accompanied by a live orchestral soundtrack. However, its filmic history is a long one, extending as far back as 1905, during cinema’s silent era. After the introduction of sound, the hall featured orchestral concerts of film soundtracks, the occasional première and in the 1970s introduced the Filmharmonic Concerts. These featured the likes of Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein and Ron Goodwin and still continue today. In 2009, the hall launched the Films in Concert series, opening with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. To date, the fastest-selling concert has been Jurassic Park, which sold out all four performances in 24 hours.
The Royal Albert Hall has a number of events planned as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations including WOW Live at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 September, Nitin Sawhney: Journeys – 150 Years of Immigration on 29 October, a special anniversary concert on 15 July, and the return of Films in Concert kicking off in July. To find out more and book tickets, click here.
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