London's Royal Albert Hall celebrates 150 years with full capacity show

The imposing historic building, inaugurated in 1871, was forced to close for the first time since the Second World War owing to the coronavirus pandemic

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London's beloved Royal Albert Hall concert venue on Monday celebrated its 150th birthday with a special anniversary show and opened at full capacity for the first time since March 2020.

The imposing historic building invited 5,000 spectators to attend the concert, A Circle of Sound, unmasked, and featured nearly 300 performers including star guests actor Michael Sheen, musician Melanie C and sports star Nicola Adams.

Inaugurated in 1871, the Royal Albert Hall has hosted the biggest names in classical, pop and rock music, including Wagner, Antonin Dvorak, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Lady Gaga, as well as sumo wrestling competitions and ATP tennis tournaments.

"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," chief executive Craig Hassall told AFP.

"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," he said.

The concert hall has also provided the backdrop to films such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much and historic events like Charles de Gaulle's speech to French compatriots in London resisting Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Inspired by Rome's Colosseum, the building's eclectic nature goes back to its founding goal "to be a forum for the democratisation of ideas and learning. It was never designed to be elitist", said Hassall.

Royal Albert Hall chief executive Craig Hassall. Reuters

Hairdressing competitions, boxing matches and a spiritual seance led by the wife of author Arthur Conan Doyle, who tried to bring the dead writer back to life, feature in the venue's "weird and wonderful" past.

Hassall said all events were designed to be cheap and accessible, with ticket prices for Monday's concert starting from £9 ($12).

A Circle of Sound was composed by David Arnold, who has produced soundtracks for films including the James Bond series, Independence Day and Sherlock.

"I've locked myself away for two weeks because there is no way that I would ever miss this," Arnold told Reuters ahead of the show.

He said he and the cast have been extra cautious as they wanted to avoid having to isolate, as has happened to other shows.

The Royal Albert Hall, which makes most of its revenue from ticket and drinks sales, has lost £60 million because of pandemic-induced closures.

"Financially, Covid has been devastating not just for the Royal Albert Hall … for the whole creative sector … for the whole world," Hassall said. "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."

The Royal Albert Hall was opened by Queen Victoria and named in memory of her husband. It was forced to close its doors for the first time since the Second World War owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

The venue 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," Hassall said.

– Additional reporting by AFP and Reuters

Updated: July 20, 2021, 8:30 AM