Company: Royal Albert Hall
Impact: Customer Engagement
Sponsor: Canongate and SunnyMarch
Timescale: Originally launched in 2013
Inspired by Shaun Usher’s international best-selling ‘Letters of Note’ series and Simon Garfield’s ‘To the Letter’, Letters Live has, since December 2013, been a live celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence. Each show always features a completely different array of great performers, reading remarkable letters from all around the world and through the ages.
On 3 October 2019 Letters Live staged its biggest show yet in the iconic surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall co-produced by Benedict Cumberbatch. The evening paired amazing performers from the world of showbiz with remarkable correspondence and celebrated the power of the letter. The event was co-promoted by the Hall, which meant there was some influence on production and content, which is where the Hall’s archive got involved.
Who is going to take to the stage or what letters they are going to bring to life is kept under wraps until the day of the performance but when the Archive Team heard about the event being contracted we did our best to get letters from the Hall’s archive collections. This would be an incredible way to immediately introduce the archive to an audience of 5,000 plus a wider audience through social media afterwards.
My team researched our collections to find an array of letters covering different decades and topics from the Hall’s unrivalled performance history and then sent these to our Programming team with much enthusiasm.
On the night we sat anticipating what letters, if any, had been chosen. We didn’t have long to wait. Immediately Stephen Fry kicked off proceedings with a letter from the Hall’s archive reporting indecent behaviour of a girl ‘mooning’ during a Prom in 1977 written by the controller of the BBC to the Hall’s manager. The audience were enraptured as Fry brought these 50 years old, never-before-seen archived letters to life making the audience howl with laughter. And then another! Louise Brealey, read a letter written by Emmeline Pankhurst to her supporters asking them to make an upcoming Suffragette meeting at the Hall a great success. An incredible atmosphere filled the auditorium as her words from over 100 years ago echoed around the Hall where she stood on multiple occasions to rally support for Votes for Women. This was one of those rare moments when history really was brought to life and with such immediacy and power. In the words on one audience member on Twitter:
“Your Emmeline Pankhurst letter, especially read at the RAH, was a goosebumps moment.” @liberkari
More letters from the archive were published in the event’s souvenir programme and via the Hall’s blog and social media channels – a call even went out for who the ‘bare-bottomed’ girl at the Proms had been! The letters showcased the breadth of events held at the Hall, showed as an organisation we have a sense of humour and could laugh at ourselves, and importantly for us, that the Hall has an archive full of voices from the past that are able to be used to speak to audiences today.
This was an easy win in terms of raising the profile and advocating for the archive. All it took was some imagination, proactivity and forward–thinking on our part to have the vision to see how we could involve the Hall’s heritage in a fun, moving, electrifying way to enhance the business of making unforgettable memories for our audiences. We’ve learnt that in a fast-paced performing arts environment we need to be a few steps ahead, experiment and not be afraid to making suggestions about using the archives in new ways. The success of this event has led to further integration with our Programming team so that we weave the Hall’s history into all our own promoted performances to create inspiring, unique, unforgettable experiences.
Business archives used by the team
- Historic letters from the Royal Albert Hall Archive.
Outcomes and business benefit
- A sold-out event at the Royal Albert Hall featuring live performances of Archive letters.
- A souvenir programme featuring letters from the Archive.
This case study was produced by Liz Harper, Archive Manager at the Royal Albert Hall.
Image: Letters Live, photographer Andy Paradise, copyright Royal Albert Hall.