In December 2013, I was incredibly frustrated to learn I had missed an event featuring two of my favourite actors (Benedict Cumberbatch & Gillian Anderson). That event was the first Letters Live at the Tabernacle in London. However, due to their high profiles, it meant that the event was then on my radar for any future shows, the first of which arrived on World Book Day 2014 at the Southbank Centre and what a thrilling experience it was, as I wrote about on my blog at the time.
For those not familiar with Letters Live, the event is a celebration of the enduring power of the written word and letter writing, through the reading aloud of correspondence across the decades from both well known figures and ordinary individuals leading their lives, captured by authors Simon Garfield and Shaun Usher through their respective books To The Letter and Letters of Note, both published by Canongate Books . It’s an incredible insight in to our history and certain historical events, but also a wonderful way to simply explore the intricate fabric of human emotions, whether love, friendship, anger or humour, all of which seem so much more poignant and powerful in the form of a letter, especially in an age in which so much of our communication with one another is via short text messages, tweets or emails, often lacking in a depth of emotion.
After the success of previous Letters Live events, this week has seen a huge undertaking by its organisers, in conjunction with publisher Canongate Books, as rather than a one off night, there will have been four unique evenings, during which a variety of incredible letters will have been read from some of the finest actors and writers we have (sadly Wednesday’s event was cancelled otherwise it would have been five nights). Adding to the thrill of each evening, the letters to be read and their readers (with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey) have been a surprise for the audience.
Last night’s penultimate evening was the only one I could attend (I’d have been at them all if I could!) and so I made my way to the Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden, perhaps best known to the British public as being the external location of the MI5 office in Spooks! Not normally open to the public, other than for special events, it was certainly a beautiful building to admire while waiting for the show to start. The venue was packed and the atmosphere was certainly one of excitement and anticipation.
As for the event itself, it was a wonderful evening and rather emotional. Tonight’s line up comprised of: singer Tom Odell, Geoffrey Palmer, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gemma Chan, Colin Salmon, Samantha Bond, Louise Brealey, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Joanne Froggatt, Tom Sturridge, Olivia Colman, author Andrew O’Hagan and cellist Natalie Clein. I have listed the full programme of letters at the end for anyone interested, but wanted to draw out some of my highlights of the thirty heard. The only minor gripe I had (and it is a minor one) was that the block of seats we were in, were behind the lectern, meaning we didn’t get to see any of the facial expressions of the readers, with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch, who each time he read, at some point angled himself briefly for the benefit of those behind him. As these weren’t the cheapest seats, it seemed to be a point that should have perhaps been made clear on the seating plan when booking.
Each half began with the supremely talented Tom Odell, whose voice carries so much passion and emotion as he plays the piano. It was a lovely touch to add music to the event and each song played by Tom had a link to the writing of letters, setting the tone perfectly. He also ended the event with the song “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” by Fats Weller, which brought the evening to a wonderfully poignant and moving end.
Personally, certain readings had a greater impact on me than others, whether due to the subject or the circumstances in which they had been written. Some were funny, others affectionate, some sarcastic and others angry, highlighting the breadth of our emotions. One of the most powerful was a letter read by Benedict Cumberbatch, written in 1935 by Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish novelist who had escaped Nazi Germany to live abroad and whose home had been given away by the Third Reich, while still requiring him to make payments on it. His letter, “To the Occupant” was written to whoever now occupied his beloved home and through his writing we feel his pain, anger and contempt for the Third Reich and those supporters who reaped the benefits of the dreadful treatment of others. I can’t help but wonder how such a letter has survived and was not destroyed at the time, making me wonder about the person who must have received it.
Another touching letter was that of John Steinbeck to his 14 year-old son Tom, who in 1958 wrote home about his love of a girl called Susan, to which his father had responded with his thoughts on love and all it brings. Contained in volume 1 of Letters of Note, it was wonderfully brought to life by Colin Salmon and contained a wonderful quote I will try and remember – “Nothing good gets away.”
Tom Sturridge was also incredible to watch, as he filled his readings with as much emotion as possible and seemed to truly become the people on the page and his reading of Henry James’s letter to his close friend Grace Norton in 1883, trying to bring her hope and support, as she suffered from what was likely depression following a bereavement, was very special.
Following his moving portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch also read a brief letter from Turing to the mother of his school friend Christopher Morcon after his death and his poignant request for a picture so that he could remember his face was all the more powerful after seeing the film.
There were of course lighter moments in the evening, including the hilarious letter written by Elvis fans to President Eisenhower, begging them not to cut his hair or side burns in the Army! Olivia Colman delivered it brilliantly (including apologising for using a Deep South accent, as she did not know what people from Montana would sound like)! Samantha Bond also read three short online responses from Tina Fey to internet commentators. Her wit and sarcasm in response to some of the nasty comments made about her were brilliant. The oldest letter, written in 856 AD, also read by Olivia Colman, was a standard form response letter from the ‘Dunhuang Bureau of Etiquette’ in China, which insisted that local officials use the letter template when sending apologies to offended dinner hosts if they had embarrassed themselves at an event! It was also wonderful to hear Geoffrey Palmer read his two funny anecdotes, including a blunt response from Private Eye to representatives of someone who felt the magazine owed him an apology and damages.
There was also a rather magical moment, as Louise Brealey read a letter by Beatrix Potter to a five year-old boy from 1893, which marked the creation of Peter Rabbit, his siblings and Mr McGregor’s garden. Looking back on this short and sweet letter, sent to entertain a young child, knowing how much magic that little rabbit and the world of Beatrix Potter would create for so many children for years to come, was gorgeous.
Lastly, I couldn’t reflect on the evening without touching on what I assume will always be a highlight of Letters Live events for me and that is the love story of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, who began writing to each other during the Second World War and who fell in love through their letters and went on to marry and remain happily together for the rest of their lives. Their letters, read as if a conversation between two people, were a highlight of my last Letters Live. Capturing the hearts of many who have heard them, this year also marked the publication of a book of just these letters – My Dear Bessie, for which I attended a launch event attended by their sons. Louise Brealey read Bessie at both of these events and it was lovely to see her do so again last night, together with Benedict Cumberbatch reading Chris. The two have such a perfect chemistry and were able to bring to life the romance, beauty, love, concern and silliness captured in their letters over the war. Their words, written in such a different time, but so filled with emotion that we perhaps express to each other less easily now, never fail to bring a tear to my eye and tonight was no different (and I saw many others in the audience wiping away a tear too). I reviewed My Dear Bessie on this blog here and I cannot recommend it highly enough, whether you’ve been to a Letters Live or not.
All of those participating in Letters Live bring their talent to the material, but ultimately what makes these events so special is that it isn’t about those reading, it’s about the power and emotion of the words, some of which were written hundreds of years ago and yet which, when brought to life from the page, still have the ability to capture the imaginations and hearts of those hearing them.
I am so pleased Letters Live has become the success that it has, guaranteeing that these events will continue, drawing a new audience and reminding us of the power of words. Jamie Bing of Canongate Books began last night by saying that “Letters throw light wherever they are cast.” That certainly proved to be the case in the Freemason’s Hall this week and I’ve no doubt tonight’s final show and future events will continue to do the same. Those behind Letters Live hope it will continue to promote the importance of literacy as well as being “one of the most powerful ways in which the joy and pain and humour and tragedy of being human can be shared.” I certainly think they’ve succeeded and created something truly special and if it also helps to inspire its audiences to delete their short text or 140 character tweet and put pen to paper in order to make a connection to those in their lives, then that too is something that should certainly be celebrated.
Full List of readings from Friday 3rd April
- “The Letter” by Wayne Carson Thompson, sang by The Box Tops, performed by Tom Odell
- Evelyn Waugh’s 1942 letter to his wife Laura, o how not to blow up a tree stump, read by Geoffrey Palmer
- Robert Crumb’s letter to Mats Gustafsson “Torturing the saxophone”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- Rachel Carson’s letter to Dorothy Freeman “Dear One”, read by Gemma Chan
- Bill Safire’s pre-prepared speech sent to H.R. Haldemann in July 1969 “In the event of Moon Disaster”, to be read by President Nixon if Apoolo 11 did not land safely on the Moon, read by Colin Salmon
- Tina Fey’s response to internet commentators “Dear Internet”, read by Samantha Bond
- Michael Powell’s letter to Martin Scorsese, after he read the script for Goodfellas, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- Beatrix Potter’s letter to Noel Moore “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, read by Louise Brealey
- V.S. Naipaul’s letter to copy editor Sonny Mehta “Every writer has his own voice”, read by Sanjeev Bhaskar
- Zelda Fitzgerald’s letter to her husband F.Scott Fitzgerald “Come quick to me”, read by Joanne Froggatt
- Mark Twain’s letter to J.H. Todd “An idiot of the 33rd degree”, read by Tom Sturridge
- “Chinese Form Letter” from 856 AD “I was ready to sink into the earth with shame”, read by Olivia Colman
- Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to Charles McCarthy “I am very real”, read by Andrew O’Hagan
- “Dialogue” by Gyorgy Ligeti, performed by cellist Natalie Clein
- Chris Barker & Bessie Moore’s “My Dear Bessie”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey
- “Love Letter” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, performed by Tom Odell
- More of Chris Barker & Bessie Moore’s “My Dear Bessie”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey
- Hugh Dowding’s letter to Winston Churchill, 1940, “Final, complete & irremediable defeat”, read by Geoffrey Palmer
- Carl Jung’s letter to James Joyce “A string of veritable psychological peaches”, read by Andrew O’Hagan
- Three Elvis fans’s letter to U.S. President Eisenhower “Don’t touch his hair”, read by Olivia Colman
- Alan Turing’s letter to Mrs Morcon “You could not have had a greater loss”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- John Steinbeck’s letter to his son Tom “Nothing good gets away”, read by Colin Salmon
- Clementine Churchill’s letter to husband Winston Churchill “You are not so kind as you used to be”, read by Samantha Bond
- Henry James’s letter to Grace Norton “Sorrow passes and we remain”, read by Tom Sturridge
- Private Eye’s letter to Goodman, Dorrick & Co “Arkell v. Pressdram”, read by Geoffrey Palmer
- W.C. Lathrop’s letter to Thomas Edison “Thanks Mr. Edison”, read by Joanne Froggatt
- Spike Milligan’s letter to Stephen Gard “Oh Christ, the cook is dead?”, read by Sanjeev Bhaskar
- Charlotte Bronte’s letter to her sister Emily’s publisher W.S. Williams “Like a tree in full bearing”, read by Louise Brealey
- Lion Feuchtwanger’s letter to the occupant of his home in 1935 “To The Occupant”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” by Fats Weller, performed by Tom Odell
For information about ticket availability for tonight’s Letters Live and future events visit the Letters Live website. Simon Garfield’s To The Letter and Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note Vol. 1 are published by Canongate Books and available through all the usual stockists. Volume 2 will be published later this year and details can be found on the Letters of Note blog, which also contains some of the above letters.