Friday, December 17, 2010

The Royal Box

I have learnt a very curious fact about the huge and famous Royal Albert Hall which I toured yesterday with an excellent and informative guide: about one quarter of its seats are privately owned. The people who own them have them on a 999 year lease starting from 1867, and they are entitled to use their seats at 75% of the performances at the RAH, whatever the performance. As the venue is a 'hall for hire', these could include classical concerts, opera, pop or rock, tennis, sumo wrestling, ice skating, fashion shows, dances, racing car promotions, or Cirque du Soleil (which has used the RAH for about the last nine years, as the only indoor event space in the world that doesn't have to be specially constructed - or reconstructed - for the circus. They have a new show called 'Totem' opening on 6th January).

Henry Cole, builder of the Royal Albert Hall
A fine looking Victorian gentleman

The people that own the seats these days have inherited them or bought them from the original purchasers (you too might be able to pick up a box of five seats for, oh, say£750,000.) Some owners are corporate concerns. No owner is obliged to turn up or re-sell their seat (although many do), so if you go to a 'sell out' concert at the RAH and a good proportion of the best seats are empty - this is why. A Special Someone owns 20 seats in a double box - yes, Queen Elizabeth holds these seats (in the Royal Box) because her great-grandmother Queen Victoria was one of the early subscribers when the seats were put on sale by the clever entrepreneur Henry Cole, as a way to raise money to finish the Hall. It had been a pet project of his friend Albert, the Prince Consort and much-grieved over husband of Victoria. The present Queen has a special entrance to the RAH, and a 'retiring room' with special chairs. When she or her family don't want to use the box - she usually comes along about two or three times a year - members of the Royal Household are permitted to use it (for a donation to charity).

Touring the corridors of the venerable RAH
There are rules about using the Royal Box: formal dress (including no leather jackets); no food or drink (a rule honoured more in the breach, apparently, via drinks behind the curtains); and no dancing. Some years ago Nelson Mandela was a guest of the Queen in the Royal Box, but no one had informed him of this last rule. In his exuberant African way, he stood during the performance (a Prince's Trust concert) and danced a sedate jig. Seeing this, and graciously wishing to avoid embarrassing her guest, Her Majesty herself rose to her feet and approximated a small dance-type sway. Naturally, since She had risen, everyone else had to rise to their feet also. Everyone in the auditorium, that is. It holds 5,222.

The Albert Memorial, from the RAH
(George Gilbert Scott, Architect)
The Royal Albert Hall is a magnificent building, justly loved by the inhabitants of London. Every year they flock there in their thousands for The Proms - concerts where you can still get standing room on the floor for £5 a ticket - but those tickets only go on sale on the day, and you can imagine the queues. The Hall (originally boringly named 'The Central Hall') was part of Albert's dream of a community in Kensington which would promote the arts, industry and science, beginning with the Great Exhibition of 1851, for which the enormous Crystal Palace was built in nearby Hyde Park. Surrounding the Hall are academies of the arts, dance, science, medicine and, er, organists. Opposite the main entrance to the Hall, in the Park, is the Albert Memorial, a High Victorian confection built by none other than George Gilbert Scott, whom attentive readers will recall was the architect of St Pancras.

Hyde Park: Site of the Crystal Palace, as it looked yesterday morning
The fabulous Crystal Palace, long since lost.
Victoria and Albert married when they were both 21, in an arranged marriage where love at first sight and lifelong devotion fortunately followed the dictates of state. They had nine children before Albert succumbed at the tender age of 41 to typhoid fever. Victoria famously wore black ever after in mourning, though she lived another forty years. Portraits of the handsome young couple adorn the RAH; in fact all the reiging monarchs from V & A onwards are memorialised in etchings in the Royal Retiring Room - some autographed.

The huge auditorium
The RAH auditorium itself is massive and beautifully designed. It is - like most successful theatres - a horseshoe shape based on the design of Roman and Greek ampitheatres. There is a huge pipe organ, built by the famous pipe-organ builder Henry Willis (he also did the one in St Paul's Cathedral - his company is still in business, if you need a pipe organ: Henry Willis & Sons Ltd). The RAH instrument has 9,999 pipes (I don't know what happened to the one-thousandth). It is 21 metres high, 20 metres wide,and weighs 132 tonnes; and is fondly known as 'The Voice of Jupiter'. The dome of the Hall is made of cast iron and glass, and is attached to the structure of the building by nothing but its own weight. When construction was finished, there was an unfortunate acoustic problem - a annoying echo! Many years later, after a variety of dodgy solutions (calico hangings, aluminium flutes) in 1969 they put in accoustic diffusing discs, and I'm told that all is now well.

'The Voice of Jupiter'

This I will have an opportunity to test soon, since  I have tickets to a BIG 'Messiah' - just the place to hear a BIG 'Messiah'. I wonder if Her Majesty will be there?

Triva Question: name Victoria and Albert's nine children.

Answer: Princess Victoria, Edward VII, Princess Alice, Prince Alfred, Princess Helena, Princess Louise, Prince Arthur, Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice.

The stencilled Victorian frieze, recently renovated, used throughout the RAH

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting review of what sounds like an excellent tour.