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A Circle of Sound – 150 years of the Royal Albert Hall

An appropriate colour of light for its address on Kensington Gore

The day before yesterday (19 July) marked the first full-capacity concert at the 5,000 seat Albert Hall since March 2020. It was a piece called ‘A Circle of Sound’ composed by David Arnold, known for his soundtracks for Bond films, Hollywood movies (Independence Day) and TV dramas (Sherlock), to mark the 150th anniversary of its opening on 29th March 1871. In 10 parts, it addressed the history of this very special London venue through various lenses – pop music, the Proms, sport, remembrance, activism, etc.

It was set up as the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, a direct result of Prince Albert’s brainchild, the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the success of the Exhibition, he proposed a permanent presence for Science, Art and Learning near the Hyde Park site. He didn’t live to see its fruition, but it ended up bearing his name when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1867 in memory of her beloved husband who died six years before the Hall finally opened. (The foundation stone sits under Block K of the stalls.)

David Arnold and special guests – Mel C (white suit), Jemma Redgrave (white dress), Helen Pankhurst (between them in Suffragette scarf)

It’s an important spot for London architecture because you see juxtaposed at close quarters the two main influences on modern London – the Classical as represented by the coliseum-like circle of the Albert Hall and the Gothic as represented by the pointy, churchy Albert Memorial, just the other side of Kensington Gore. 

Circle of Victorian red brick

Highlights of the celebratory evening included:

  • Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia, great-granddaughter of Emmeline, introducing a speech of her great-grandmother given in the USA (Hartford, Connecticut) known as the Freedom or Death speech, considered one of the great speeches of the 20th century.

we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death

  • Jemma Redgrave, daughter of Corin, son of Michael, in that English acting dynasty, performed the speech with great energy, bringing a tear to the eye – the achievement of the British Suffragette movement is one of the most admirable and proudest moments for this country
  • Mel C of The Spice Girls introducing the section on all the pop music that has been played at the Hall, featuring a young band invited from the Rhythm Studio in W10 including the drumming talent of Finlay Gee (nephew), who provided the only fist pump of the evening he had gotten such a kick from playing this huge venue at the age of just 18
  • Brian Cox helping us all feel like an insignificant speck in the universe as he framed the perspective of the Science section, Science being as much a part of the original conception of the Hall as Arts
  • Charles Dance receiving a warm welcome as a national treasure with an edge as he introduced the Remembrance section – he stole the show thanks to that edge when we made Was It Something I Said? at Channel 4 
  • Michael Sheen performing in Welsh barnstorming style as he introduced the final movement looking forward to the next 150 years

With regard to pop music played in the Hall the landmark shows include:

The Great Pop Prom // 15 September 1963 (the week I was born)
The first time The Beatles and The Stones performed on the same bill. Paul McCartney remembered the night like this: “Up there with the Rolling Stones we were thinking: ‘This is it – London. The Albert Hall.’ We felt like gods.”

Bob Dylan // 26 & 27 May 1966
The tour when he “went electric”. Ironically the concert famously known as the Albert Hall concert actually took place a few days earlier in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester – that’s the one where an outraged audience member accused Dylan of being “Judas!”

Bloke in audience: “Judas!”

Dylan: “I don’t believe you!”(reference to the title of a song he had played earlier in the gig)

Dylan: “You’re a liar!”

Dylan (to band): “Play fucking loud!”

Jimi Hendrix // 18 & 24 February 1969
The Jimi Hendrix Experience first played the Hall in 1967. They returned two years later to play some blues rather than their hits. The fans were appeased with an encore featuring ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Wild Thing’ and Hendrix on the floor playing the guitar with his teeth.

Pink Floyd // 26 June 1969
Pink Floyd excelled themselves by getting a lifetime ban from the Hall on their first gig there. During the song ‘Work’ Rick Wright constructed a wooden table on stage wielding hammer and saw. After that a gorilla burst into the auditorium, that is a man in a gorilla costume. As a finale, two cannons were fired and a pink smoke bomb exploded. The Hall’s management swiftly banned the Floyd from performing there ever again. Then in 1972 they decided to ban all “pop and rock concerts” because of the “hysterical behaviour of a large audience often encouraged by unthinking performers.” But Rock triumphed. The Floyd were back playing there just a year later, and the blanket ban was similarly short-lived, although The Who’s 1972 show fell victim to it. 

David Gilmour & David Bowie // 29 May 2006
When Bowie was invited onto the stage by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour in 2006, it turned out to be both Bowie’s first & only appearance at the Hall, and his last ever UK public performance. The two  duetted on the songs ‘Arnold Layne’ (a nod to the influence on both of Syd Barrett) and ‘Comfortably Numb’. 

 

One of the many magical moments at the Albert Hall – Gilmour & Bowie

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