Warning: some of the clips in this post are incredibly sad.
The website Letters of Note is staging another of its Letters Live seasons next week at London’s Freemasons’ Hall. The event, like the website, is based on a simple premise, that other people’s correspondence is fascinating. So having collected various letters and notes—including Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones and a job application from Leonardo da Vinci—Letters Live simply asks actors and celebrities to read them out loud.
This year’s season is a five night affair, and will feature readings from a truly exceptional cast, including Joss Ackland, Samantha Bond, Russell Brand, Simon Callow, Olivia Colman, Sophie Okenedo, Geoffrey Palmer, Colin Salmon, Andrew Scott and Dominic West.
As with last year’s readings, Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey have also agreed to appear, and they’ve made some promotional videos to capture the spirit of the event beforehand. Here are a selection:
We start with a letter Bessie Moore wrote to her former work colleague, signalman Chris Barker, replying to a friendly letter he sent her from his posting in North Africa, during September 1943. Her replies, and his in turn, became far friendlier over the following two years:
And how about this, a letter written by Alan Turing in 1952 after having been charged with gross indecency for having a relationship with a man. This letter was written to his friend Norman Routledge, and sent before he pleaded guilty:
This one requires some deeper context. A bacteriologist by the name of Almroth Wright had written a letter to The Times in 1912 arguing that women should not be allowed to vote, as they suffer from psychological and physiological deficiencies unique to their gender that would impede their ability to make a reasoned decision. Among the replies to this controversial view came this superbly snarky letter from “C.S.C.,” the nom de plume of Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston:
But this is the killer. This is the letter that will undoubtedly fiddle with your perception of time. This is the letter that will stop all the clocks. It’s Virginia Woolf’s last note to her husband Leonard, written shortly before she took her own life on March 28, 1941.
Terrified of the return of her mental illness—now believed to have been bipolar disorder—Woolf left Leonard this most tender of notes on their mantelpiece.
Her body was found in the river Ouse a month later:
Speaking about his appearance in a press release for the event, Benedict said: “Letters Live makes us pause and imagine the lives behind the letters read and the circumstances of their origin… They are windows into the love, beauty, pain, and humor of their creators and recipients. It’s a privilege to read this most ancient of communications live to an audience.”
And Louise had this to add: “I love letters. I can never bear to throw them away. I have a big tin in my attic: the billets doux I used to fly down to my pigeonhole at college every morning to read and reread; postcards from my French pen-friend who wrote passionately of his feelings for Australian pop sensation Killy Minnow; a post-it note in a padded envelope of motley biros signed ‘A selection of pens. Luv Mum’. And, most precious now, a sheaf of letters that begin “Dear Louisey”, from my friend who died two years ago; the ones from her last months in strangers’ hand-writing because she’d dictated them to a series of carers, but still irrepressibly her.
“Some of the letters we read out on the night ache with longing, rage, love, or the hope that we are not alone. Some are just brilliantly funny or profane. Standing up there and speaking words written during the Second World War by Bessie Moore – words that were not meant to be spoken aloud even to her lover – is an electrifying privilege. It doesn’t feel like acting, you have to try to get out of the way; I have rarely felt so close to someone I’ve never met.”
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