A few weeks ago members of the OAE Office team were lucky enough to have a special backstage tour of the Royal Festival Hall. Now ordinarily this wouldn’t be *that* interesting, because we all get to see backstage whenever we have a concert. But this tour went beyond backstage, past the dressing rooms into the real guts of the Royal Festival Hall!

First off we were led up to a room near the roof, where an array of antique machines were whirring away. Turns out they are original 1950’s air circulating equipment, maintaining fresh air (but not air-con) to all the backstage areas. They are so well made and reliable they didn’t need to be replaced during the hall’s recent refurb. After this we climbed up onto the roof of the hall and then through a small door into the part of the roof that sticks up above the rest. It looked like we were inside a spaceship, as every surface was covered in foil. This was in fact the air-con plant for the hall, maintaining it at a steady temperature – all this is brand new equipment as before the refurbishment the hall didn’t have any air conditioning.

Section of original ceiling, held to the struts by cloth soaked in plaster!

Now onto one of the more fascinating/terrifying parts of the tour as we were led above the very ceiling of the Royal Festival Hall. Here we could see how the acoustic sails above the stage can be moved and sound and light equipment be lowered in. A series of metal gantries runs over the ceiling now, which was completely reonstructed during the refurbishment but looks to the observer (from below) exactly the same as before. This would have all been a good deal more scary before the refurbishment as then there were no gantries and instead technicians had to carefully slide on wooden boards over the metal struts holding the ceiling ups. One slip and their legs would have gone straight through the horsehair and plaster ceiling – which in any case was only tied to the metal struts with bits of cloth dipped in plaster! Luckily in 50 years there were no accidents. The last two sections of ceiling have been left as they were and you can see how fragile they are. As we walked over the roof you could glimpse the hall below, which personally I found pretty terrifying!

After this we went to the ‘follow spot’ area at the back of the hall to see the powerful lights used for this. Back in the day they used burning lime to get a really bright white light – and above you can see the blocked up ventilation shafts to let the fumes out – these were filled in during refurbishment. This, of course, is where the term ‘in the limelight’ comes from. Operating the follows spots is quite a tricky job and our tour guide Eddy, who is Head of Technical Services at the Southbank Centre, told us of a few amusing instances where the spotlight ended up in completely the wrong place…

After this we were back out onto the roof, enjoying the amazing views, and also saw the Festival Hall’s resident bees – yes there are a couple of beehives on the roof, including one which is a replica of the hall itself. Apparently the bees preferred a more traditional design though.

From here we descended to the bowels of the building to the area where the kitchens used to be (I actually remember these before the refurb, and they were vast and VERY old fashioned). We saw the huge boilers and water tanks and also where the inlet for the borehole comes in – this supplies cold water (I think I am right in saying) for the hall’s air-con, making it very eco friendly. What amazed our party was the size and amount of machinery needed to service the building. We also were shown the original 1950’s control room, full of vintage dials and switches. It had been intended to rip it all out but luckily it was saved.

Down at this level we were below the Thames, and the whole Southbank used to be marshland, so there is an amount of water that comes into the building – this has to be pumped out all the time, otherwise it would soon build up…

A last highlight of the tour was a mystery tunnel that veered off into the distance. Eddy led us through it…and suddenly we were backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall!

So beehives, horsehair ceilings and secret passages – a pretty fascinating afternoon at the Southbank.

Here are a selection of pics, thanks to OAE Finance Director Lisa Sian for these.

William Norris, Communications Director.