Today (October 3) in London History – The Russians Are Coming

On October 3, 1956 the famed Bolshoi Theatre Ballet company performed abroad for the first time in 200 years. Performed in London. At the Royal Opera House. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s shot through with “feel good.” October 3rd, 1956. Romeo and Juliet performed at the Royal Opera House by the famed Bolshoi Theatre Ballet Company. It was the first time in 200 years that the Bolshoi had performed abroad.

It was a consummation devoutly to be desired. There was so much excitement, so much anticipation.

I see this story as a gonfalon. You know that word? A gonfalon is a banner or pennant, especially one with streamers hung from a crossbar.

Well, if that October 3rd performance of Romeo and Juliet is the main part of the gonfalon, the streamers – the sidebars – are pretty interesting in their own right.

One streamer would be that the Russians came over six months before the tour to measure the stage of the Royal Opera House. Turns out that Covent Garden has a much smaller stage than the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The proscenium opening is 42 feet, compared with the Bolshoi’s 69 feet and six inches. And the Royal Opera’s stage depth is 56 feet, a lot less stage than the Bolshoi’s 128 feet. Smaller, more restricted space necessarily meant new versions of the four ballets the Bolshoi performed in London. 

Another streamer hanging from the gonfalon –  the amount of scenery the Bolshoi shipped over to London. 80 tons of it. More than twice the amount Covent Garden officials were expecting. The English ballet company Sadlers Wells paid a return visit to Moscow in November and they only took 45 tons of scenery with them.

A third streamer would be the desperate scramble to get tickets. The Bolshoi’s London season ran from October 3rd to October 27th. There were a total of 53,000 seats available. And they were like the proverbial gold dust. The box office had 24,000 seats to sell. The queue for those box office tickets began to form up 72 hours before the tickets went on sale in late August. The queuers arrived with sleeping bags, blankets and eiderdown. That first night when the queue formed up it poured down rain. The queuers were nothing daunted. Charmingly, movingly, one of them was a White Russian exile whose parents had fled the Bolsheviks in 1917. She said, “art knows no political barriers. Russian ballet is still the world’s greatest, whoever rules Moscow.”

I love it. I’ve got a mini-theory that queueing brings out national characteristics. An Englishman who was near the front of the queue – and thus facing that 72-hour wait – said, “I am waiting on my own. I shall rely on the unwritten laws for queueing here, under which you can take an hour away for washing, eating and other necessities, without losing your place.” Only in England. Wouldn’t wash in Italy, for example.

As for the postal booking tickets, applications began arriving in March. By late summer they were coming in at a rate of 2,000 a day. And this is a really succulent London historical detail: the postal applications were stored in wooden fruit baskets borrowed from Covent Garden market.

Needless to say, they were allotted by ballot, two tickets to each name taken from the hat. 

After August 28th there wasn’t a seat available but a Covent Garden official said they were still getting about 1,000 requests a day for tickets. And in case you’re wondering, the Grand Tier seats were £3 each. The next best were £2 and 15 shillings. The nosebleed seats were 16 shillings and 12 shillings. And, yes, I know. But, goes without saying, £3 was worth quite a bit more in 1956. About £85 in today’s money. Those same seats would be about twice as expensive today. What the evidence is telling us in this instance is that ballet’s got more expensive, a lot more expensive, since those days. 

A ruminant for one of those discussions about what’s got more expensive, what’s got less expensive. You know the kind of thing – a shoot the merde session. Invariably somebody will say “20 years ago you could fork out 15 quid for one LP  – today 15 quid gets you no end of music.”

My favourite streamer hanging from this gonfalon was the Russian woman discus thrower, Nina Ponomareva [pron. puh-nah-mar-YOVE-uh] who was charged with shoplifting five hats from a down-market Oxford Street emporium. She was a big deal to the Russians. She’d set a world record, she’d won the first gold medal the Soviet Union bagged in the 1952 Olympics. Store detectives had nabbed her. She was ordered to appear in court the next day. Instead she disappeared. One British newspaper called it the case of the Slipped Discus. The resulting hoo haw became an international incident. The Russians threatened to pull the plug on the Bolshoi visit because the Brits were treating their great national hero like a lowlife common thief. All’s well that ends well, though. Nina surfaced. Went to court, was found guilty, fined three guineas and was set free. 

And the Bolshoi Ballet visit was back on course. As for Nina – she came to be known as the lady of the five hats – in late November she was off to Australia to compete in the 1956 Olympics. When she got off the plane in Melbourne hecklers called out, “watch your hats girls, here comes Nina.”

So thanks to the slipped discus the Bolshoi ballet visit – which was already a huge story – got an extra amphetamine charge of drama and suspense.

But yes, all’s well that ends well. The uphill, 11-year-long endeavour by Covent Garden to bring about the Russian visit to London came to fruition on October 3rd, 1956. The famed Russian company did its thing before a glittering first-night audience that included Prime Minister Antony Eden and his wife, Lady Eden, British ballet stars Dame Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova and Miss Beryl Grey, the famous actress Vivian Leigh… well, you get the idea. 

At the end of the performance – this is another nice touch – there was tremendous cheering, the so-called standing ovation. And the Russians returned the compliment – cheering and clapping the audience. Giving them a standing ovation. 

And the good feeling even spilled over into the strained diplomatic relations. That performance that night was said to mark an important milestone in Anglo-Soviet friendship.

And a Today in London recommendation. Easy. Treat yourself to a behind-the-scenes of the Royal Opera House, London’s grandest theatre.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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