From Arthur Conan Doyle’s appearance from beyond the grave to the UK’s first sumo wrestling match, the Royal Albert Hall has hosted an extraordinarily eclectic range of events since it opened in 1871.
The vast venue was Prince Albert’s idea, part of his vision for a centre for the arts and sciences, but he never saw it. Queen Victoria pushed ahead with the plan as a memorial after his death. The grieving widow also had an extravagantly gilded statue of her late consort erected in Kensington Gardens directly opposite.
This week sees the launch of new daily ‘Secret History’ tours that mine a rich seam of historical anecdotes about the people and events connected with the domed hall-for-hire. Time Out had a sneak preview conducted by Richard Dacre, who also guides themed tours of the building during the Proms and the annual Blues Festival.
The tour offers access to spaces normally off-limits to audiences, from the loading bay (scene of that sumo contest in 1991) to the temporary gym set up in the gods for the super athletes of Cirque du Soleil. And the stories come thick and fast.
It was here, addressing a conference of the Institute of Directors in 1991, that high-street jeweller Gerald Ratner made the remark about the quality of one of his company’s products which wiped £500 million off Ratners’ balance sheet. ‘Doing a Ratner’ subsequently entered the language as shorthand for making a colossal cock-up.
The venue is also where John Lennon and Yoko Ono prefigured the phenomenon of the onesie with their Bagism concept, donning full body bags in a bid to encourage people to abandon their prejudices and open their minds to fresh ideas.
In July 1930, spiritualist Estelle Roberts insisted that, one week after his death, Conan Doyle was present at an Albert Hall seance she conducted in front of 10,000 people. She claimed he occupied what was ostensibly an empty chair to deliver a message for his widow.
Dacre’s diverting narration offers endless insights into an iconic building. Possibly the most impressive is the fact that until 1920, the hall had no audience loos. It has a maximum capacity of 6,000, so that’s an awful lot of people nipping across the road in the interval to have a pee behind poor old Albert.
Find out more about the tours now at royalalberthall.com.
By Sara O’Reilly