29 March, a day to be celebrated as one of the stages in the easing of lockdown, is also a day to be celebrated for the 150th birthday of the Royal Albert Hall. The grand old elliptical masterpiece, the final piece of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition vision, is 150 years old. There were probably people at its opening by Queen Victoria on 29 March 1871 who fought at the Battle of Waterloo.
Sir Henry Cole, the man who drove the project forward, even when money was scarce and the doubters were many, is credited with creating and sending the first Christmas card in 1843. The Hall is so old it comes from another lightyear.
Yet there it is, still standing, still flourishing, like a wondrous treasured flagship for so much of British culture, awe-inspiring in its girth, and lavish in its decor. My family have owned seats in the Hall since it was built.
Before my time, it played host to Sir Winston Churchill making wartime speeches. And in 1963, music legends The Rolling Stones and the Beatles shared the billing in one night.
My personal experience of the Hall is an anthology from childhood through to adulthood – Phil Collins; Eric Clapton; Frank Sinatra; Elton John; Oasis; Coldplay, and sitting behind grown men weeping with emotion at Adele. Too many Proms to mention, and The Last Night of The Proms, a celebration of the end of 70 nights of the best classical music in the world. The swans of Swan Lake in the Round. The opera of Carmen and a dazzling Madame Butterfly. I’ve been to the Albert Hall with friends, lovers, children, colleagues. I remember special family nights, treasured evenings with my parents and siblings for Neil Diamond, Shirley Bassey and Barry Manilow.
I love the feel of the Hall, how it has changed in my lifetime, becoming sparklier, less dowdy, more glamorous. I love the size, the height of the auditorium, the fibreglass acoustic ‘mushrooms’, as they are known, hanging from the ceiling, the grandeur of the Royal Box (the only box that is a double, on the insistence of Queen Victoria), the way the Hall hides its presence, tucked in among the grand flats of Albert Mansions and the Royal Academy’s Kensington campus. I wonder how many first-time visitors to London have been astonished to drive past it along Kensington Gore.