Albert Speaks! Capturing 150 Years of Performance

Our June blog comes from Alex Duthie, Project Officer for the Albert Speaks! Oral History Project at the Royal Albert Hall Archive. Here Alex shares the aims of the project and some of the many memories of performance at the Hall he has captured.

In 2017 the Royal Albert Hall Archive launched a unique oral history project, Albert Speaks! in preparation for the organisation’s 150th Anniversary in 2021. This would be the Royal Albert Hall’s first ever oral history project and the aim was to capture the fascinating stories of individuals who have staged, performed and attended events at the Hall. For the last year I’ve been responsible for carrying out a series of oral history interviews averaging 1-2 hours each. Now more than 50 interviews have been collected which have provided us with a wealth of knowledge about the organisation, the Grade 1 listed building and history of performance which would have been otherwise lost forever.

I’m delighted to share a few snippets from the project which showcase the diversity of performance-related memories we’ve captured.

Interviewee:      Sir Peter Blake, artist whose graduation from the Royal College of Art was at the Hall and who celebrated his 80th birthday at the venue.

Memory:             Wrestling, 1950s

I went to a lot of wrestling and boxing at the Albert Hall… Whilst I was at the Royal College I used to go with my sketch book and sit in the gods. I enjoyed the theatre of the sport and the wrestlers themselves…Quasimodo, the Wildmen, Sky High Lee, Billy Rivers, Little Beaver, Ivan the Terrible and Kendo Nagasaki. “

Alex interviewing Sir Peter Blake, 2019. Copyright Royal Albert Hall

Interviewee:      Martin O’Gorman, former Royal Albert Hall employee

Memory:             John Lennon at the Alchemical Wedding, 1968

One night we had John Lennon with Yoko. It was a hippy night… Do you remember peace and love? They got in a bag and started rolling around on the stage. After they were finished, I picked up that sack and threw it in the bin! I could have held on to that, god knows what I would have got for it!”

Poster from counterculture event, ‘Alchemical Wedding’, 1968. Courtesy Royal Albert Hall Archive.

Interviewee:      Louise Halliday, Royal Albert Hall Director of External Affairs and former ballerina

Memory:             English National Ballet’s premiere of Derek Deane’s production of ‘Swan Lake’, 1997

The opening night of Swan Lake was extremely nerve-wracking! There was a real sense of something momentous happening… ballet in the round was new and different. I remember that night, the response from the audience gave me goose-bumps… There was no barrier between us and the audience.”

1997 poster for English National Ballet – Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Albert Hall. Courtesy Royal Albert Hall Archive.

One of my most memorable interviews was with impresario Victor Hochhauser CBE and his wife Lilian, who from 1945 onward programmed classical performers at the Hall from Shostakovich to the Bolshoi Ballet and who, in a wider context, forged a vital line of communication between the UK and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Two months after the interview, Victor died aged 95, underlining the importance of the project’s aim of capturing memories before it was too late.

Interviewee:      Victor Hochhauser CBE

Memory:             Red Army Ensemble, 1968

Of the many hundreds of companies we brought from Russia during the Cold War we never had any problems, with one exception; The Red Army Ensemble. It was 1968 and the Russians had just invaded Czechoslovakia. We had booked the Red Army Ensemble for the Royal Albert Hall during this time. We had already advertised the event and someone came along and wrote on our poster ‘Now appearing in Prague!”

1967 programme from Red Army Singers, Dancers and Musicians – Soviet Army Ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall. Courtesy Royal Albert Hall Archive.

The Hall’s Archive now has a historically significant collection of oral history interviews which will be preserved and made accessible to the public for the long term. In addition the memories captured will provide engaging new content for tours, exhibitions, publications and events both leading up to and for the Hall’s 150th birthday.

The project has been made possible by a generous donation from the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

To find out more about the Royal Albert Hall’s history of performance visit the Hall’s History pages and to search the Archive and performance database visit catalogue.royalalberthall.com