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Stars give voice to historic letters at literacy fund-raising event

Published 05/10/2016

Noma Dumezweni reads a letter during the first night of the Letters Live series at the Freemasons' Hall, London
Noma Dumezweni reads a letter during the first night of the Letters Live series at the Freemasons' Hall, London

If letters "cast powerful spells", then actress Noma Dumezweni enchanted an audience with her reading of a deaf-blind author's letter describing the Empire State Building.

The Dirty Pretty Things actress read Helen Keller's 1932 missive to a doctor, describing being "whizzed" up the tower and how constant darkness makes you realise "how divine a thing vision is".

It was one of a series of historic letters read by a string of famous actors, musicians and writers at Freemasons' Hall in London on Tuesday night.

Veteran actor Michael Palin drew a roar of laughter when reading a producer's letter on making cuts from Monty Python And The Holy Grail to secure an appropriate age rating, recounting: "I would like to retain 'fart in your general direction'."

Not to be outdone, Jude Law put on his best American accent to read Frank Sinatra's attack on a "pimp" Chicago newspaper columnist whose "source of information stinks".

Inspired by Shaun Usher's best-selling Letters Of Note series and Simon Garfield's book To The Letter, Letters Live sees actors and performers reading out literary correspondence to a live audience.

The event was first held in December 2013 and is now established as a sell-out fixture.

It has since travelled to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Los Angeles and even the Calais Jungle.

It was started by the publishing house Canongate to raise money for literacy charities and to celebrate the "pain, joy, wisdom and humour" of the written word.

Charities supported by the event - which runs for five nights from October 4 to 8 - include the Ministry of Stories, Help Refugees and First Story.

Canongate chief executive Jamie Byng said: "Letters cast powerful spells. When you sort thoughts into the written word, you suspend thoughts in time."

Other speakers included comedian Omid Djalili, actor Charlie Heaton and satirist Julian Clary.

Other highlights from the night included Mariella Frostrup reading Sinead O'Connor's letter urging Miley Cyrus to stop "prostituting" herself for the music industry.

Frostrup read: "When you're in rehab they will be sunning themselves on their yachts ..."

Julian Clary read a moving message from a soldier in the Second World War to his deceased lover - a fellow soldier - holding the audience in complete silence throughout.

Television presenter Nicholas Parsons read correspondence from Roald Dahl to a little girl called Elizabeth who hated her new school, encouraging her to never grow up.

The night finished with Law reading a long message from the poet Ted Hughes to his son Nicholas on the importance of embracing his childhood self.

Law read: "The only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough - nothing else really counts."

Letters from figures such as Groucho Marx, Maya Angelou, Kurt Vonnegut, Gene Wilder and James Baldwin were brought to life by the speakers.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who appears regularly at Letters Live, has said of the event: "It's a privilege to read this most ancient of communications live to an audience. A truly inspiring event."

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