Royal Albert Hall celebrates 150th birthday

One of the world’s most famous and prestigious venues, The Royal Albert Hall (RAH) in London, celebrated its 150th birthday earlier this week (19 July) with a full-capacity anniversary concert – but its chief executive also revealed that its finances had been “devasted” by the pandemic.

“Financially, Covid has been devastating not just for the Royal Albert Hall… for the whole creative sector…for the whole world,” Craig Hassall told the Reuters news service. “This is the worst situation we’ve been in for an awful long time. But I’m confident now that we’re back on our feet and performing again, we can trade our way out of our deficits,” he added.

The Royal Albert Hall is an independent charity, making virtually all its money from ticket sales, catering and donors. During the pandemic, Hassall says they lost £60m in income and took a £20m loan from the UK government’s Culture Recovery Fund. The venue has also spent almost £1m updating its ventilation system to help keep audiences safe: “There’s an awful lot being done beyond what the government says we should do to make sure the hall’s a really safe place,” Hassall commented.

The concert on Monday coincided with the English government’s lifting of most of its main Covid restrictions meaning concert venues and theatres can sell all available seats. The Albert Hall sold around 80% of its 5,200 capacity for the concert, which featured Nicholas Dodd conducting the Albert’s Orchestra performing the premiere of David Arnold’s work ‘A Circle Of Sound’. The production featured 300 performers, including the orchestra, actor Michael Sheen, singer Melanie C and boxer Nicola Adams.

Arnold said that he and the rest of the cast had taken great care to isolate themselves in the run-up to the show: “I’ve locked myself away for two weeks because there is no way that I would ever miss this. The cast have been extra cautious as they wanted to avoid having to isolate, as has happened to other shows.”

The production, which also features star guests including actor Michael Sheen, musician Melanie C and sports star Nicola Adams, sold about 80% to 85% of the available tickets.

The RAH was opened in March 1871 by Queen Victoria and named in memory of her husband. In March 2020 the venue was forced to close its doors for the first time since the Second World War due to the pandemic. Over its 150 years it has hosted the biggest names in classical, pop and rock music, including the annual Proms festival, Wagner, Antonin The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Lady Gaga, as well as tennis, boxing and even sumo wrestling competitions.

“We pride ourselves on the diversity of genres we have. I would be disappointed if we were just a classical music venue, or just a rock and pop venue,” Hassall said. “If it’s boxing, it’ll be the best boxing in the world. The finest orchestras on the planet perform here. We’ll always go for the best in every genre.”

Hassall said the RAH will “seek to promote young artists as well as chronicle its storied past”, with a partially-unveiled programme of celebrations set to last until the end of 2023.

“I would hope in 150 years, however high-tech the world becomes, we never lose that live performance and the excitement of that human interaction.”