My secret life in the Albert Hall: Backstage at the Proms

The first rule of presenting the Proms is.. No one wears red at the Proms.

The second rule of Prom club is.. No one wears open toed shoes on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. (This is apparently a health and safety thing, rather than a Victorian taste issue about British men in sandals).

I am presenting my first Proms this month. While I’ve attended one as an audience member last year, my  experience of them, like most people’s has been of watching them on the telly.

But I have a secret. The Royal Albert Hall haunts me. It is like Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I may not have sculpted it out of mashed potato like Richard Dreyfuss, but it has drawn me to it inevitably. It has been the scene of wild visions — watching, late at night, and  already half dreaming, as Michael Caine battled an assassin on its steps in The Ipcress File. Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, whose Bernard Hermann music opens Prom 38 on Friday, also features an attempted assassination at the top of the Victorian dome.

It has also been the setting for, amongst other things,  one of the most terrifying nightmares of my life, a meeting with the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and my one and only singing performance on a major world stage.

Let’s start with the singing.  Because I am one of the lucky few, whose first entry to the Royal Albert Hall was to perform there. A 15 year old south London school girl first wallked up the Bull Run entrance onto the stage on December 21st 1983 as part of the Wimbledon High School Choir, singing at a concert for Save the Children.

Folksinger Roger Whitaker - Born in Kenya. Still v big in Germany

While New Romanticism and synth pop dominated the charts we were on the same bill as cellist Julian Lloyd Webber,  Brideshead Revisited star Anthony Andrews, who came on stage with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse (both unbilled) and world renowned folksinger, Roger Whitaker. He  was (indeed is) a bit like Rolf Harris, but born in British East Africa, not Australia, couldn’t draw cartoons and, according to the concert programme, had recently had a number one on the German Hit Parade.

That first visit in the depths of the 80s recession was formative. I remember only darkness outside. Four days earlier an IRA bomb had exploded very close by, outside Harrods in Knightsbridge, killing 6 people and injuring 90. And my seminal memory of the Albert Hall that day is of running round and round its shabby dark pink circular backstage corridors. Decor wise it seemed as thought it had been frozen in time since the late 60s. The colour was exactly the dark pink on the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears.

Albert Hall backstage wall colour circa 1983

The other choir, the Goldsmiths’ Choral Union behaved very well, but the possibilities of running round a circular corridor, trying all the doors was too tempting for us.  Two of the wilder girls (and believe me we weren’t very wild in the early 80s in Wimbledon) claimed to have burst in on Mickey and Donald getting into their costumes.  I learned later that Disney “characters” are NEVER left without security,so I think this was unlikely.

Photograph: Graeme Robertson (Guardian)

I know what it is to stand high on that stage, gaze out at the blurred array of an audience spread along the curved fringes of its cake tiers. Princess Anne was a shimmering pale blob directly ahead. Red programmes, with the words to the carols bobbed everywhere. I felt both far away and incredibly intimate with every other person there.  The lamps glowed, the red velvet seemed to pulsate. It’s appeal, with hindsight is simple. It is a massive mothership, a womb, welcoming us back home.

It was to be 12 years later before I came backstage again, as a BBC News Correspondent   to report on the UK’s first (and I think possibly only ever)  full scale Star Trek Convention.  Steampunk was still nascent then, but watching Lieutenant Uhura walk out onto the stage of this Victorian dome amid spotlights and dry ice seemed a most appropriate pairing.

Not long after, when I was working as a news anchor on the BBC World news channel,  I had my worst ever work anxiety dream that woke me up, heart pounding in a panic. It involved me presenting  a special news bulletin, that went hideously wrong  high in front of the organ, in the Albert Hall to an auditorium packed with the most important people in the world including the then Director General of the BBC and the Queen.

The Albert Hall, I realised,  in my subconscious, was the ultimate seat of  judgment.

A few years on again — it was 9/11 that brought me back to the Albert Hall again, interviewing Nicholas Kenyon for Channel 4 News about why they had decided to change the programme of the Last Night of the Proms, dropping Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory (though not Jerusalem). Some of the hardcore Prommers were rather grumpy about it, but the decision to insert Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, was widely appreciated. I got to sit in an almost empty auditorium listening to American Leonard Slatkin rehearse the BBC Symphony Orchestra  just 4 days after the world had changed. My news piece never ran because of the usual timing issues that scupper a longer film when news is breaking all around.  But I went home grateful for the experience.

And here I am again, for Prom 26 — a night of French music by Debussy, Ravel and 95 year old Dutilleux. On a hot August morning, I catch the bus from High St Ken tube station, to the waiting Victorian mothership. From the stage door, once the pass has been issued it is but a few steps down to the basement level — no longer Disraeli Gears’ Pink — and it, seems, a lot more bustling, to find Dressing Room 12 which has become the cramped BBC TV Proms production office.

Even at 10am the call sheet reveals a world and a day timetabled to the minute with meetings and rehearsals for the broadcasters and performers. Rehearsals for Proms performers playing on subsequent nights are scheduled into small spaces in the day.

Rule 3 of the Proms seems to be there are no retakes at the Proms. Even though the concert is being recorded for broadcast 4 nights later on BBC4, there will be no more than the 3 allotted minutes for each of my interviews, which have to take place during  the interval. First principal clarinettist  Yann Ghiro and principal cellist Martin Storey on stage, during which Yann is also going to illustrate the difference between French language and music and German, with a couple of phrases on his instrument. Then a hasty scoot to Dressing Room 6, to interview Chief Conductor, Donald Runnicles.

The fourth rule of Prom club is… there is no autocue at the Proms. And wild ad libbing is not an option. With the rapid flow of the programme (sometimes only a minute or so to fill between pieces) our scripts and agreed question areas are pared down as tightly as possible  and printed off to be cut up with scissors and  stuck on cue cards. They are re printed and restuck as necessary.The experience of  memorising cue cards is a strangely liberating one for a journalist used to the fill-the-airtime- pressures of rolling news. The editor of Channel 4 News was obsessed with the idea that we should never call it a “show”. “It’s a programme.”

But The Proms is proudly a Show. Dressed in a nice 50-style black and white frock, with my black and white 50s TV panel game style cue cards, I am in the right mood. My co-presenter, Proms regular Suzy Klein, up in the Box, shows how it is possible to keep things informal without betraying the special sense of occasion. I learn how even turning around to draw the viewer to look over your shoulder — at an orchestra tuning up  — must be done much, much slower than I’m used to, covering a breaking news event.

Meanwhile experienced Proms’ director John Kirkby,  is having to deal with problems I’d not anticipated. The televisual challenge of shooting Ravel’s Bolero; a love it or hate it crowd pleaser. You might underestimate how satisfying it is to watch a Prom on TV. How the mix of shots engages you, especially on the more complex pieces like tonight’s Dutilleux. But Bolero, says John Kirkby, is like directing a pop video. You’ve got no option but to cut on the beat. And for 15 minutes. Not just 3. Somehow he finds a way.

There is one more rule of Prom club. “Watch out,” warns one of the production assistants as the concert start time approaches. “Some of the men in the orchestra tend to strip off in the corridors because they don’t want to wait to get changed.” I am on high alert thereafter, but the male members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are most gentlemanly; somehow miraculously transforming as the afternoon turns to evening through the rehearsals from t-shirts and jeans to smart black suits and shirts without so much as a bared ankle on show. The ladies dazzle, many in Grecian style dresses.

If you’re lucky and have time, the researcher tells me, one of the best perks of working on the Proms is to sit in on the rehearsal. I do. Inside the Albert Hall it is always Saturday and the rehearsal is like a child’s Saturday afternoon, anticipating the excitement of the night out ahead. But the intimacy of sitting in that giant almost empty auditorium, listening to a great conductor and his orchestra work through ideas out loud,  only for you is almost more joyous than the night’s public performance could possibly be.

By 7pm I am ready  — standing at the start of the Bull Run, for a rehearsal of the opening, when Suzy and I give a sense of the concert being about to begin.  It is fun to be the one facing the camera, as the musicians walk past you up onto the stage, the full auditorium glimpsed beyond, and realise I am not the one performing for that audience.

Watching the conductor from my vantage point, in those moments where he is concentrating hard, before walking on stage to the unique roar of Albert Hall applause is again, strangely intimate. And a privilege.

The interviews in the interval go well. I have no time to revel in being on stage as my back is to the noisy chat-filled auditorium. I have 4 minutes to get to Dressing Room 6, while Suzy interviews her guests in the box. Donald Runnicles comes in in time and gives real insight in just his allotted 3 minutes, into what to expect of the post interval piece — Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and convincing me to set aside my doubts about the ballet’s “plot”. (A nymph nearly gets raped.By pirates.) He is immediately off, and I find myself staring at his surprisingly fragile looking baton, sitting on the counter. There is a moment before I think to remind him not to leave it behind.

My work for this Prom  is done and I must watch the rest of the concert  on the monitor in the Proms’ office. It’s frustrating however beautiful the music. However it turns out  I am fortunate enough to miss the Double Bassists stripping off in the corridors after the encore.

And I get to do it all over again on Friday.

Samira presents Prom 38 on Friday August 12th 730pm on BBC4, featuring the film music of John Barry, John Williams, Bernard Hermann, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Ennio Morricone. Available to watch on i-player here.

This post was written for The Spectator arts blog.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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