When Freemasons’ Hall welcomed actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Ian McKellen and Tom Hiddleston into the Grand Temple, Jessica Hopkins was in the audience to listen to messages of love and anguish in Letters Live
Without words we’d be forever fumbling in the dark; letters throw light wherever they are cast.’ And so opens a night of extraordinarily moving literary entertainment at Freemasons’ Hall.
It began as a simple idea: a website dedicated to photos of remarkable letters from the past, accompanied by transcriptions and introductions. Letters of Note then became something of a Twitter sensation before becoming a hardback anthology and then morphing into Letters Live. This year’s five-night live performance spectacular at London’s Freemasons’ Hall in April saw a glittering line-up of performers read against the glorious Art Deco backdrop of the Grand Temple.
While events at Freemasons’ Hall do tend to be bespoke, one-off occasions, Letters Live offered the chance to do something quite different. ‘It was unique and like nothing we had done before,’ explains Karen Haigh, Head of Events at the Hall. ‘Even though I knew we could do it, I also realised that we had never done anything on this scale.’
With 7,500 tickets sold, more than 40 performers treading the boards and some 100 letters read aloud – not to mention an unexpected fire blazing beneath the streets of nearby Holborn – it was no small feat to pull off. When the Holborn fire forced Freemasons’ Hall to cancel the Wednesday performance, many of those scheduled to read that night came along to the Thursday show instead, creating a dream playbill: a who’s who of the stage and screen scene.
The audience didn’t know who was performing until the moment they appeared on stage, so whoops of surprise and delight were heard as Sir Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Sir Ben Kingsley, Simon Callow, Sophie Hunter and Clarke Peters stepped up to the podium, to name but a few.
With opening and closing music by newcomer and one-to-watch Kelvin Jones, as well as a passionate solo cello performance by Natalie Clein, the evening – like the whole run – had been thoughtfully curated to match performers to letters. Subjects spanned the arts and politics, love and loss, family and friendship, longing and rejection.
There were letters filled with advice and encouragement, such as Kurt Vonnegut to Xavier High School, read with McKellen’s wise drawl: ‘Practice any art… no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.’
There were letters filled with furious rejection, like Hunter S Thompson’s to Anthony Burgess on receipt of a ‘50,000 word novella about the condition humaine…’ instead of the Rolling Stone thinkpiece he had commissioned. Performed by Dominic West and full of language far too colourful to reproduce here, it was one of the more spirited readings of the evening.
The Grand Temple buzzed with energy from the performers, while the splendour of the venue was equally captivating – visually beautiful and acoustically fantastic, it became an enhancer when it could have been a distractor. Those attending were left with the feeling of having witnessed something truly magical. It’s an effect Karen was keen to achieve: ‘We wanted people to enjoy the experience of going to the theatre but also be somewhere completely unique,’ she enthuses.
It certainly didn’t disappoint.
Evocative and emotional
For Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter to her husband, Leonard, the Grand Temple turned to darkness with only a single spotlight on reader Greta Scacchi: ‘I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time… Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.’ A visceral, desolate performance.
Benedict Cumberbatch drew on his best David Bowie impression to read a letter written from the musician to his first American fan in 1967, when he had no sense of how famous and renowned he would become, which added to its innocent excitement and humility. In a duologue performance, Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey – facing one another across the Grand Temple and very much in-the-round – read letters from Chris and Bessie: two everyday British civilians who fell in love via ink and paper while separated during World War II. The collection showcased quite beautifully how letters written by ordinary people with passion and something to say can contain just as much poetry within their pages as those written by thinkers, artists and academics.
Perhaps the performance of the evening came from 87-year-old actor Joss Ackland, who read a letter he’d written to his future wife Rosemary, who was engaged to another person at the time. Either side of the reading he performed the part he was rehearsing when he first met her: Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s soliloquy from the Capulet’s orchard, ‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’
‘I might be a trifle old, but I think this is the way I played it,’ he told the audience before reciting from memory a speech full of lust and longing. And then, after the letter: ‘This is how I would play it now, with Rosemary no longer with me.’ In a breathtaking performance, the longing remained, but it was cloaked in sorrow rather than driven by lust.
With considerable media coverage, Letters Live has been one of the more high-profile events hosted at Freemasons’ Hall, generating only positive sentiment according to Karen. ‘Events such as this are a way of saying to people that we’re not what you think we are,’ she explains. ‘Because when we open our doors people’s preconceptions are completely blown away.’
World of his own
When the red carpet was rolled out at Freemasons’ Hall for A Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, 1,400 devoted fans came to see the king of epic fantasy fiction. Sarah Holmes takes a trip to the Seven Kingdoms
Staff at Freemasons’ Hall are accustomed to seeing visitors explore this glorious Art Deco building from time to time. They’re even used to seeing fashionistas queue around the block to get a glimpse of the latest sartorial creations during London Fashion Week. But when a medieval warrior showed up on the steps this summer… well, that was something they weren’t quite prepared for.
Wielding an old-fashioned war hammer, the bearded warrior lumbered back and forth, drawing a fascinated crowd on the piazza opposite. Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will have, of course, recognised him as Robert Baratheon, the ferocious ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and a central character in George RR Martin’s wildly successful fantasy fiction series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
The actor portraying Baratheon on this occasion was one of a medley of costume players tasked with bringing Martin’s captivating world to life as part of an elaborate publishing event in late August.
‘Harper Voyager presents George RR Martin and Robin Hobb in conversation’ sought to unite two of fantasy fiction’s greatest exponents in an exclusive interview that saw more than 1,400 fans descend on Freemasons’ Hall. A further 5,000 people tuned in online, courtesy of a Blinkbox live-streaming service.
‘It garnered a lot of attention,’ says Karen Haigh, Head of Events at the Hall. ‘More than one million people tweeted and posted about the event on social media, and inside, the Grand Temple was filled from the main floor right up to the balconies.’
The live streaming aspect posed a new challenge for the team at the Hall. ‘It takes a lot of equipment to produce a live webcast, so it was a feat trying to integrate that into a Grade II listed building,’ says Karen. ‘But our IT specialists worked tirelessly to make it happen.’
While the fantasy fiction community convened upstairs, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the man dubbed the American Tolkien, in the rest of the building it was business as usual. ‘We organise our events so there’s no disruption to the meetings,’ says Karen. ‘The members are used to seeing queues of people, but for this event I think they were quite fascinated. Many would have liked to have attended themselves.’
Remarkably, very little was added to the temple to distract from its intricate features. Three golden thrones were mounted on a stage, but otherwise there was a refreshing lack of gimmickry. From the carved illustrations on the hefty bronze doors to the vivid mosaic cornice depicting Pythagoras and Euclid, the rich architecture of the Hall was enough to capture the audience’s attention.
‘We wanted somewhere grand and fantastical,’ says Jane Johnson, longtime editor of both authors and chair for the event. ‘Great halls and exotic palaces feature in both writers’ literature, so it felt very apt. Although it’s fiction, there’s a historical element to the books, which was beautifully channelled through the Grand Temple.’
‘It’s fiction, but there’s a historical element to the books, which was beautifully channelled though the Grand Temple.’ Jane Johnson
Martin’s intensely constructed saga of a wealthy dynasty overthrown by popular revolt draws inspiration from history – defying the magical expectations of the genre. It is this penchant for antiquity, from an author who used to submit historical fiction instead of academic essays to his college professors, that helped to endear his novels to a mainstream audience.
Back in the Grand Temple, visitors craned their necks to get a better view of the magnificent artwork on the ceiling. It was a heartening sight for Karen. ‘It proves that it’s not some secret society,’ she says. ‘Freemasonry is a modern organisation with traditional values. It has an incredible history that everyone is welcome to discover through places like Freemasons’ Hall.’
That message rang true for Johnson, who had always harboured an interest in the Craft: ‘I’ve always been struck by the beauty of Freemasons’ Hall, but I never expected to go inside, let alone host an event. I’d always thought women weren’t allowed into the inner sanctum, but we were made to feel incredibly welcome. I know George and Robin loved it.’
For Robin Hobb, this was the latest in a long line of events promoting her most recent novel, Fool’s Assassin. However, it was a rare appearance for Martin at a time when there were concerns over his health and whether he would finish the last book in the series. All rumours were deftly quashed as he cut a spry figure on stage.
It wasn’t long before conversation turned to the inspiration and lives of the authors, with both Hobb and Martin providing candid insights never volunteered in an interview before.
‘I’ve been to sold-out events before,’ remarks Johnson, ‘but none could rival the atmosphere of this one. It was bigger and yet intimate – a truly marvellous evening.’
From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Spooks, the stunning corridors, Grand Temple and distinctive exteriors of Freemasons’ Hall have played a crucial supporting role on screen. Ellie Fazan goes behind the scenes
In 2009 a member of the public, concerned by the presence of American soldiers loitering on the steps of Freemasons’ Hall, phoned the police in panic. Had the relationship between the UK and US broken down? Were the soldiers about to declare the Hall a forward operations base?
‘We were filming with Matt Damon for Green Zone,’ remembers Karen Haigh, Head of Events, who has overseen the film career of Freemasons’ Hall thus far. While things can get surreal, her first priority is to ensure filming does not obstruct the Hall’s primary function. So while Matt Damon was saving the world downstairs, meetings were going on upstairs as usual.
Karen has been working with Jenny Cooper from Film London to promote Freemasons’ Hall as a location. Funded by the Mayor of London and The National Lottery through the British Film Institute, and supported by the Arts Council England and Creative Skillset, Film London operates as the city’s film agency. It works to promote London as a major international production centre, attracting investment from Hollywood and beyond.
The agency looks after the capital’s most iconic backdrops, including The Savoy hotel and King’s Cross St Pancras station, but the Hall has also become a star, playing MI5’s base, gentlemen’s clubs and even Buckingham Palace. ‘Its versatile nature and flexible, friendly management, as well as the unique and lavish interior and central London location, have made it a firm favourite over the past ten years,’ says Cooper.
In 2012 Film London launched a tiered membership scheme, of which Freemasons’ Hall is a Gold Member, but the relationship goes back much further. Cooper explains: ‘Around seven years ago we got organisations, including the United Grand Lodge of England, to agree to work with Film London in promoting the city as a film-friendly destination.’
The response has been ‘tremendous’ with a notable rise in filming in London, where seventy-five per cent of the UK industry is now based, making it the third busiest production city behind New York and LA.
So expect sightings of US soldiers and alien landings to become more common on Great Queen Street.
‘Its unique and lavish interior and central london location have made Freemasons’ Hall a firm favourite’ Jenny Cooper
Take five: These days you’re almost as likely to see Robert Downey Jr in Freemasons’ Hall as another Freemason. Karen Haigh picks her top five films and TV shows at the Hall over the past ten years
1. Green Zone (2010)
The high-octane war thriller starring Matt Damon used the Hall as a bombed-out palace in Baghdad. For this role the building had a bit of a make-under, with debris everywhere and blown-out wires hanging from walls. ‘It was a great example of how even when a huge Hollywood production is here, our first priority is that the Hall can function for its members,’ says Karen. ‘So while Matt Damon was running around saving the world downstairs, there was a big provincial meeting going on upstairs.’
‘Johnny English was such a fun film. It was the first time I thought, This could really work’ Karen Haigh
2. Spooks (2002-2011)
Freemasons’ Hall played MI5 headquarters Thames House in this clever and compelling spy drama, focusing on the undercover work of a team of super spies. ‘It was amazing to have a starring role in such a groundbreaking TV show.
It showcased the Hall in such a fabulous way,’ recalls Karen. The only downside of being so involved in the production of the show, she says, was that the traditional end-of-series cliffhanger never had quite the same impact for her.
3. Johnny English (2003)
Peter Howitt’s action comedy parodies the James Bond franchise, with Rowan Atkinson playing an inept spy. The opening credits take a veritable tour of the building. ‘It was such a fun film and there was a lovely atmosphere. Rowan Atkinson is a British institution, and for many of our members he is the most exciting actor that we have had here,’ says Karen. ‘I think it was the first time I thought, this could really work. Film London gave us lots of support, because they knew we had potential as a film location.’
4. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Some of the exhilarating scenes of the first Sherlock Holmes movie, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr, were filmed in the Hall. ‘Guy Ritchie had been to the Grand Lodge before and really wanted to use it as a location,’ Karen reminisces. ‘You could see during filming that it was going to be really good.’ Karen and her team built such a strong relationship with the film-makers during shooting that the star-studded press conference was held at the Hall on the day of the premiere.
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Douglas Adams’ comedy tells the story of hapless Arthur Dent after aliens destroy Earth. The Grand Temple took on its first starring role, as the Nose, the base for John Malkovich’s character. ‘I carefully pick the films that shoot here,’ says Karen. ‘This film is very tongue-in-cheek and seemed a wonderful way of saying that we can laugh at what people say about us. We built a great relationship with Disney, so they held the premiere party here.’
Twice a year, Freemasons’ Hall plays host to shows for London Fashion Week, with press from around the world in attendance. Ellie Fazan finds out what happens when fashion and Freemasonry come together
Visitors to Freemasons’ Hall on London’s Great Queen Street are being greeted by a stylish young woman bedecked in a studded leather jacket. With a clipboard in one hand and wristbands in the other, she is very much in charge.
Upstairs in one of the 21 lodge rooms, frantic preparations are under way for design duo Leutton Postle’s Spring/Summer 2013 show. It is not a scene you would expect to find in Freemasons’ Hall: there is an impossibly tall model having her make-up done wearing nothing but underwear and sparkly high heels, while a team of assistants hurriedly make final adjustments to various hairstyles and outfits.
In the midst of it all, two young women are trying to control the chaos. They are Jen and Sam, otherwise known as Leutton Postle, and this is their third show at Freemasons’ Hall. Their work is being showcased by Vauxhall Fashion Scout – an initiative that offers young designers a space to show their collections. ‘Hello, we’d love to stop and say hi but…’ Before they can finish, they are swept away in a sea of assistants.
‘The building hosts such a vibrant and eclectic mix of people... but it still maintains the elegance of the purposes it was built for’ Karen Haigh
The frenzied atmosphere permeates the room. The majestic corridors are full to the brim with brightly coloured clothes, with fun oversized collars, playful patchwork and lots of glitter. A photographer is shooting a catalogue for the designers today, and has set up a makeshift studio in the cleaning cupboard. Meanwhile, the cleaning lady leans on her mop looking unfazed. She watches on while the call ‘Girls in shoes please’ sends everyone into a panic.
Start the show
Outside Freemasons’ Hall, the fashion crowd is queuing around the block: it’s one of the most anticipated shows of the season, and the designers here are the ones to watch. The Temple vestibule starts to fill with guests, and techno music begins to blast. The clothes are the main attraction – big, bold and attention grabbing – but they don’t detract from the space. Three models at a time appear in the three carved archways before taking to the perfectly polished floor. The contrast between the futuristic collection and the stately, solid building is powerful.
One of the finest Art Deco buildings in England, Freemasons’ Hall has been available for use as a location for television productions and photoshoots for more than a decade. ‘One of the location managers I’d worked with on a film project asked if we hired the venue to outside events such as fashion. We hadn’t before, but I just said yes,’ remembers Karen Haigh, UGLE Head of Events. ‘That led to us piloting the first London Fashion Week shows for Vauxhall Fashion Scout in 2009. All events are special in their own way, but working twice a year with Vauxhall Fashion Scout has become part of the venue. It’s bigger than ever now and it has been wonderful to see it develop each year. It’s like being a parent!’
Offering an opportunity
Freemasons’ Hall is an integral part of London Fashion Week, placing it alongside Somerset House as one of the most important events spaces in the capital, hosting the most cutting-edge shows. The designers here are the ones to look out for. This year fashion’s punk princess Pam Hogg showed, with celebrities and fashion editors alike coming to watch.
For Karen Haigh it’s an exciting time, with no friction between the long-term residents and the temporary inhabitants. ‘The building hosts such a vibrant and eclectic mix of people during this time, but it still maintains the elegance of the purposes it was built for. It really makes me smile when members come into the building during that period and can’t hide their surprise at some of the outfits on display!’
Vauxhall Fashion Scout is helping young people in their chosen fields – one of Freemasonry’s founding principles. Hand in hand they are offering young designers a space. Sam and Jen agree. ‘We couldn’t do this without their support,’ the pair say. ‘It means that as designers we can grow. We’ve learnt so much since last year.’ And what do they think of the building? ‘It’s intense! Even though we have permission to be here, it’s so awe-inspiring it makes us want to run around here at night!’
Hundreds of young people descended on Freemasons’ Hall when it hosted the launch party of a kids’ TV show set in an English boarding school. Anneke Hak reports
It’s a balmy spring day and for anyone enjoying the sunshine near Great Queen Street, a sense of intrigue must surely have caught them. For, snaking around the corner of the Freemasons’ Hall front entrance, is a queue of young children and their parents, hundreds long. Some have been there for hours, others have made their way to Covent Garden from as far afield as Chester, and they are all here for one thing: the launch of Season Two of a teen-mystery series called House Of Anubis that will air on the Nickelodeon television channel.
In the grand building, through the Tower entrance on the corner of Wild Street, stands a man dressed in long black robes, with thick eyeliner framing his eyes and completing his Egyptian god get-up. Photos are taken and the children are given orders to pass up the stairs and try to unlock the secrets to the temple. Some children quake with fear as loud, doom-laden music blasts through the stone building, others take it in their stride, keen to get going on their quest.
‘This kind of looks like a church, it’s so cool!’ one child exclaims. He’s right. Freemasons’ Hall couldn’t have been a better location for the party – its high ceilings, temple-like atmosphere and brilliant ambience fit perfectly with the show’s theme about children at an English boarding school who discover hidden mysteries and House Of Anubis’s secrets.
Running up the stairs, the children head eagerly towards the first section of the temple, where they receive the riddle sheets they must complete to gain the sacred access. Two figures dressed in black robes explain the rules. ‘We’re actually Egyptian cult followers of the fearful brother Eden,’ the gentleman tells me, staying in character and refusing to divulge his real name. ‘We are in charge of making sure that only the very wise can enter the inner sanctum of the Temple of Anubis’, he explains, adding ‘We’ve set them a series of difficult challenges, and I don’t think all of them will make it through. Those who don’t will, of course, be sacrificed. Or else they’ll probably just have to leave.’ After this gruesome revelation the cult follower did come out of character long enough to confide, ‘I didn’t even realise non-Freemasons were allowed in. I mean, there’s a gift shop. It’s not what you imagine Freemasonry to be, is it?’
It really isn’t. A lot of work has gone into the event, which includes popcorn stalls, magicians, themed characters from the show and, of course, a dress rehearsal. ‘It’s funny,’ laughs the robed one, ‘because when we were rehearsing, we were told to take our cloaks off as there was a guided tour coming through and they were worried that the tour group would believe all the silly conspiracy theories that Freemasonry was some sort of cult, which this event being held here today disproves.’
science and riddles
As the children march around looking for the next answer, riddle sheets in hand, it becomes clear that not all of the answers are obvious and some are even hidden. On entering one room, I come face to face with a herd of children huddled around what looks like a science experiment as they try and guess how long it will take a piece of metal spinning on glass to stop – will it be shorter or longer than the time it takes to stop on wood? I leave, not confident about my GCSE physics, and bump into another Egyptian Cult Follower in the Hall.
‘I used to fly but now I’m stuck on the ground, black as night in the caretaker’s office I can be found! What am I?’ he crows. Yet again completely stumped, I move on swiftly. That’s the delightful thing about these riddles: you need to be a big House Of Anubis Season One fan to understand them, and therefore gain entrance to the main temple, where House Of Anubis Season Two’s first episode will be screened at 4pm.
A crowd gathers outside the hall, and I ask a few of the children about the fun they’ve been having while we wait. ‘We’ve had a great time,’ says Millie, aged seven. ‘The best bit has been meeting Jamie and Hannah from the show, who were walking around too. We got to speak with them!’
‘I like the mystery of today. I’m kind of good at solving the riddles,’ says Kerry, who is nine. ‘We’ve got all the clues today. Meeting all the famous people has been great – we’ve had our picture taken with Heather from EastEnders.’
Of course, this wouldn’t be a launch event without some well-known faces, and soap actors can be seen flitting around with family and friends. I stop to have a chat with Patsy Palmer, who plays EastEnders’ Bianca. ‘I know nothing about House Of Anubis, you’ll have to ask my children,’ she laughs as they run up to tell her about what they’ve seen. ‘This place is pretty impressive though.’
Finally the clock strikes four and the doors open. We all lurch forward, keen to get a look inside the Grand Temple. I find a seat behind eight-year-old Ryan. ‘I’m really brave, so the building hasn’t been that spooky,’ he tells me. ‘But I thought it would be a bit smaller than this – this is probably the biggest room I’ve ever been in!’
It’s also the first time a screening has been held inside the Grand Temple. Head of Events at Freemasons’ Hall Karen Haigh tells me that the venue is well prepared for the influx of hundreds of young people into the building. ‘Nothing’s going to go wrong,’ she smiles. ‘We’ve checked and double-checked everything – and it’s great to be able to hold new kinds of events. Especially ones like this, which the kids enjoy so much.’
The characters from the show are introduced to screams of applause as they gather on stage to answer questions from a compere, and the audience buzzes with anticipation of what is to come. It’s time for the lights to go down and a hush instantly falls over the 1,400 crowd of young children, teenagers and parents. The premiere of Season Two of House Of Anubis begins and another event at Freemasons’ Hall can be claimed a roaring success.
When Freemasons’ Hall hosted the launch party for West End musical Rock of Ages, Anneke Hak slipped past the celebrities to find out what goes on behind the scenes
Jeremy Clarkson schmoozes with paparazzi on the purple carpet while Ronnie Wood’s ex-wife Jo Wood mingles with friends in the foyer. Glasses clink together, Champagne flows and loud chatter fills the room as the band takes centre stage in the Grand Temple. All the while, everyone is wholly oblivious to the fact that just one hour ago their spectacular venue, Freemasons’ Hall in London’s Great Queen Street, was a picture of organised chaos.
Having hosted some of the biggest events in the British social calendar, including London Fashion Week catwalk shows, Freemasons’ Hall isn’t afraid of glitz and glamour, it oozes it. However, the Rock of Ages launch party was a very different beast.
On 28 September, the production team had only a three-and-a-half hour slot between the departure of 700 Freemasons visiting from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Hertfordshire at six in the evening, and 1,000 party guests arriving at 9.30pm. In this small time frame, they had to transform the building into a venue fit to celebrate a musical that takes audiences back to the times of big bands with big egos playing big guitar solos and sporting even bigger hair. The Grand Temple in Freemasons’ Hall needed to be fitted out with a dance floor, disco ball and stage for a rock band to perform on. No mean feat, especially considering how precious the Grade II-listed building is to hundreds of thousands of Freemasons.
Helping smooth the proceedings was Lee Batty, Production Manager at Stoneman Associates. As Freemasons left the Grand Temple, Batty’s team moved in, quickly assembling their scaffolding to start the mammoth task of hoisting the lighting and glitter ball 93ft to the top of the Temple roof, before focusing their attention on the dance floor and rock band sound check. ‘We did a little bit of prep work the day before,’ Batty reveals. ‘Well, I say a little bit, we worked eight hours to programme all the lighting, and then when we got into the venue we had to go hell for leather to get it all up and working.’
Technicalities of transformation
Of course, moving scaffolding, heavy lighting and sound equipment around an 80-year-old building, and one of the finest Art Deco creations in the country, can prove challenging. ‘I’ve not worked at Freemasons’ Hall before,’ says Batty, ‘but I’ve done events in historic palaces and English Heritage properties over the years. So I’m aware that you have to look after furniture and any element of the building that’s been there for a long time – you have to be very careful.’
As a result, every little detail is thought about months in advance, and some elaborate ideas are thrown straight out. Karen Haigh, Head of Events at Freemasons’ Hall, explains, ‘There was talk about hanging some Harley Davidsons from the ceiling at one point. I feel anything is possible, so long as I know it’s going to be safe.’
As the last piece of purple carpet is laid, the Rock of Ages signs go up and the façade of the glorious building is lit from below, Matthew Quarandon, Director of Moving Venues, makes sure all of his staff are in place to welcome the guests with food and drink, and one thing he can’t help but notice is how easy-going everything is. ‘Freemasons’ Hall seems to be very liberal,’ says Quarandon, who’s used to working in old, protected properties. ‘They’re allowing us to push cages across old stone floors and serve red wine on their marble floors upstairs.’
Most excited about tonight’s event has to be Grand Secretary Nigel Brown, who praises the great job Karen Haigh does booking events for the Hall and thinks these nights are the perfect opportunity to show the public that Freemasonry isn’t about secret handshakes. ‘Can you imagine, you’re at a dinner party and the lady next to you says, “You went into Freemason’s Hall? What did you go in for? A fashion show!”’ laughs Nigel. ‘It’s breaking all these myths and, although being teased about Freemasonry doesn’t matter much, people are often making a decision based on false impressions. I think hosting these events is changing people’s preconceptions.’
Batty admits that the mystery surrounding the organisation is a great reason to hold events like the Rock of Ages party at Freemasons’ Hall. ‘It’s nice that people come in and see it in a different light,’ he says. Karen Haigh agrees: ‘The best thing about it is that you bring a group of people that have never been in the building before and they come in and say, “Oh, wow!” It’s like opening a little package.’
So, after months of planning, which began back in June, how does it feel when it all finally comes together? ‘You get a massive buzz from the final product,’ admits Batty. ‘The response that we got when we opened the main doors to the Grand Temple was worth all the pressure.’
As the guitar amplifiers and purple carpet are packed up and glasses of half-drunk Champagne cleared away, all the hard work and preparation has paid off – the Rock of Ages launch party has been a brilliant success. So, the only question left now is when’s the next one?
Do you remember when twenty bombs went astray in Liverpool? Or what about the time Britain was on the brink of a deadly plague? Luckily, Harry Pearce and his MI5 officers are always on hand. From rogue states to ruthless assassins, Spooks has thrilled millions of television viewers every week as they see the British Security Service safeguarding the nation.
Now in its tenth and final series, much has changed since the BBC drama was first broadcast on 13 May 2002. One thing, however, has remained the same: the location of MI5’s headquarters, Thames House, where Harry Pearce runs his counter-terrorism department – Section D, for those in the know. In real life, Thames House is an office development on the bank of the River Thames, but in the Spooks universe, Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden has played the part for the last decade.
‘There was a big search years ago for a building that could double as Thames House,’ reveals Spooks producer, Chris Fry. ‘We were trying to find the right architecture that would match it. The Grand Lodge has worked brilliantly.’
Over the years, the lodge has become synonymous with Spooks. The opening sequence in an average show will often feature a bomb exploding or a similarly dramatic set-up. As often as not, the next shot will be of the Grand Lodge. ‘We need to settle the story down, so you’ll get a wide establishing shot of Thames House,’ explains Fry.
The lodge’s impressive interiors have also been used to great effect on the show. ‘Spooks does gritty terrorism but it also shows the corridors of power,’ says Fry, pointing to the visual distinction drawn between the wood panels and polished floors of the building, where high-level decisions are made, and the disused warehouses where the Spooks team execute orders. ‘We see the serenity in the meeting rooms but then our spies have to go out into the real world.’
And, when the Freemasons’ headquarters isn’t playing Thames House, it can easily double as a planning room or plush embassy. ‘When we are filming here we have to make a day out of it, so we will try and get the most out of the building,’ says Fry. ‘the actors love it because it feels special.’
FACT MEETS FICTION
Karen Haigh, who manages events at Freemasons’ Hall, has worked with the Spooks production team since the start. ‘I was laughing with the director who did the first two and last two series of Spooks about what the show has become. I remember him walking in for the first time and saying there was this new drama about MI5 – I thought it sounded really exciting. The show has been such a success and we’ve grown with it as a venue.’
So is there any sensitivity around the fact that Spooks is a show about an undercover organisation and uses the Freemasons’ headquarters? ‘The fact that it’s a spy programme and people have preconceptions about the Freemasons is quite ironic. It’s a nice twist,’ says Haigh. ‘The funniest thing for me is that the MI5 say on their website that the Spooks version of Thames House is Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden.’
MI5’s concerns about putting the record straight seem to be well-founded. Fry recalls an incident: ‘I was on the phone and this couple walked past. One of them said, “That’s the Spooks’ headquarters.” I thought that was brilliant – lots of people think that the Grand Lodge building is Thames House.’
With the final series revolving around tensions in the Middle East, the UK’s special relationship with America and Harry Pearce’s old Cold War connections, Spooks devotees can look forward to seeing a lot more of the Grand Lodge this autumn.
From blockbuster launch parties to glitzy fashion shows, Karen Haigh has seen it all as Head of Events at Freemasons’ Hall. She talks about meeting Matt Damon, Antony Gormley statues on the rooftop and building a giant bathroom outside the Grand Temple
How did you find yourself working for the Freemasons?
My father was a Freemason and we saw this newsletter advertising the position, so I wrote in. The Deputy Grand Secretary Michael Higham invited me to an interview and I got the job. There were only five women when I joined in 1979 and the building wasn’t open to the public. Where I’m sitting now used to be like a Dickensian office, with 24 desks and men sitting behind them with big ledgers. On a Monday, the housekeeper to the Grand Secretary would give us our hand towel for the week and a carafe of water. Twice a day we’d have tea breaks. I remember after six weeks I was allowed to type a letter on the new electric typewriter.
What does Freemasonry mean to you?
It’s never been a big mystery to me because of my dad. I’ve gone to ladies’ nights from a young age and haven’t had any preconceptions. People I called ‘Uncle’ were from my dad’s lodge, so it didn’t seem weird and wonderful.
When did you start the events business?
I started as a Girl Friday [aide] in 1982, and when I was 21, I became the Deputy Grand Secretary’s secretary and began doing masonic events. I did that until 1999, then went into admin, doing things like purchase ordering, and in 2005 I started the events business. We’re averaging between 30,000 and 50,000 non-masons visiting every year now. The day I don’t enjoy it is the day I should leave.
Why host events at Freemasons’ Hall?
There’s the commercial contribution that the events make, which pays for the upkeep of the building, but the main reason is to get as many people as possible coming into the building.
The openness is so important and has made such a difference. In the 1980s, the TV series Poirot could only film in two or three areas within the building, so you’d see the same area being rebuilt as a sweet shop or a hotel lobby. The first time we were allowed to shoot in the Grand Temple was in 2003 for a Westlife video.
Who else comes through your doors?
Last Monday, we had a graduation for the Istituto Marangoni fashion school. Before that we had De Montfort University doing a student fashion show for lingerie. Next week we’ve got the Good Egg Awards, celebrating companies who only use cage-free eggs or egg products. The events have changed with the times. A couple of years ago, every American movie would have a big premiere followed by a major party. These days they don’t want to be seen to be throwing money around in a recession, so it tends to only be the really big Harry Potter-type films that get such launches.
What kind of event wouldn't you host?
We avoid contentious events – anything too political. Guy Ritchie wanted to shoot the film Revolver here, but when we looked at the plot we saw it was about drugs and gangs. This Hall is a peace memorial, built to commemorate the masons who died in World War I, and if members saw it in a gangland film they’d be upset.
Do you get nervous when celebrities walk in?
If you don’t have nerves you’re missing something. The very first event we did was for the film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was standing there wondering what I’d done when 1,200 people arrived. I thought, ‘You’ve got to go with it.’ When we did Spamalot we’d get Eric Idle visiting and I loved that. We had nine weeks of filming for and I loved that. We had nine weeks of filming for Green Zone with Matt Damon, and after a while we just got used to him walking around the building.
Are you a Freemasons' Hall fanatic?
I love the building but I don’t talk to it! ! There are others who probably know it a lot better than I do. Many of the building’s nooks and crannies are still a mystery to me so I have a lot more exploring to do. My favourite area is the vestibule, as I think it sums up the majestic feel of the building perfectly. ! ere’s so much tradition here.
What's the strangest request you've had?
The weirdest thing was when the director of Kevin & Perry Go Large asked us to make the area outside the Grand Temple into a bathroom. Then we were one of the locations for the Antony Gormley project, Event Horizon. When the statue arrived in the front hall, I didn’t realise that it was going to be so anatomically true to life, and I’ll never forget an old lady walking into the lodge and staring at it. When they approached us, I think they expected us to refuse – but it did us good taking part in the project, helping change perceptions of what Freemasonry is all about.