Theatreland Tour with Ian McKellen
Royal Opera House
Lovely, isn’t she? But give her your apologies and turn your back on the statue. Because we’re stopping here for a moment to take in the front of the Royal Opera House. It’s the white building with the impressive columns and triangular pediment on top.
Like many buildings around here, the Opera House started life as a theatre dedicated to drama. It was called the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, and was part owned by the leading tragic actor of his day, John Philip Kemble.
But disaster struck when the Theatre Royal Covent Garden burned to the ground. This was in 1808. Poor Kemble was ruined. And so he increased the ticket prices for the audience.
Now, Kemble knew that raising the prices was a risk. So, his first night of the new theatre. Kemble is playing Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Even with the new prices, every seat is taken. And all seems to be well.
...Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair-
We want the old prices! Give us the old prices!
Er...And make my seated heart knock at my ribs-
These became known as the Old Price riots. For two whole months, every audience at the theatre jeered and disrupted Kemble’s performance of MacBeth. After much anguish, he relented and reduced the prices.
This was a personal tragedy for Kemble. His fortune had been lost in the fire. And perhaps mercifully, he would die a few years before seeing that his new theatre was lost in the same. But that building was resurrected, hopefully for the last time, into the structure you see today.
Now turn your back to the Royal Opera House again, and walk straight down this pedestrian walkway, past the row of telephone boxes.
You might notice that the windows on your right have bars across them.
Well, that building was once one of the most notorious courthouses in all of England. We're going to turn right just past it. Go through the barriers and into the back street of Crown Court.