Meeting Past Pleasures, the UK's leading historic interpretation company, at their Surrey village retreat
PUBLISHED: 16:28 16 August 2015 | UPDATED: 10:56 17 August 2015
The UK's leading historic interpretation company, Past Pleasures recreates characters and scenes of old at castles, palaces and stately homes across the country. Claire Saul heads to the group's Surrey base in Witley, near Godalming, and discovers that learning about our heritage has never been so much fun...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2015
Whether it’s watching early 19th century housekeeping staff diligently applying themselves to their tasks or listening as an oft-married king woos a potential new love at court, learning about our historical past has certainly come a long way since the days of the humble school textbook. Traditional teaching methods will always have their own role to play, of course, but to engage, enthuse and educate in a multi-sensory way, and to fire the imagination of young and old, then let the curtain rise on the mighty phenomenon of costumed interpretation. Except, well, there is no curtain.
Instead, these talented performers populate historic venues and events, presenting respectful portrayals of the personalities associated with them, from the most famous names of our past to characters without any recognisable name at all. Each interpreter speaks, acts and dresses completely in character, drawing upon considerable performance skills and an impressively in-depth knowledge of that personality too.
“How much is it theatre?” muses Mark Wallis, founder and co-director of the UK’s leading historic interpretation company, Past Pleasures, who are based here in Surrey in Witley. “Well, of course, you are pretending – you are not really those people – but it certainly isn’t theatre in the traditional sense. We don’t use scripts for example. While they are wonderful in traditional theatre, they are not suitable for the way we work as they don’t allow you to interact with and adapt to the visitors.”
So, ‘visitors’ rather than an ‘audience’ and the setting is an historic location and not a stage. Past Pleasures performers are also ‘interpreters’ and not ‘actors’, even though actors are represented among the team of 20 full-time staff and the additional 80 who are called upon for regular work. There are also historians, writers, teachers, academics, journalists and even scientists, spanning ages 21 to 80. Musicians and people with specialist knowledge in areas such as architecture or religion, or skills such as jousting, may be added to the performance roster too, when the location or the character demands it.
“It’s an occupation that requires very diverse skills and many different talents,” says training and development manager Mike Bradley. “You wouldn’t be able to do it without a desire to perform or without the depth of knowledge – or certainly the willingness to learn. What we are doing is to continue the storytelling tradition that began right the way back when man first strung an articulate sentence together. We have to convey what are often quite complex facts in as simple a way as possible, also ensuring that visitors enjoy it and that they understand what is happening. It needs to be accessible to all – we don’t want a professor of history to think that a particular interpretation is a child’s event but at the same time we don’t want children to go away thinking, ‘I didn’t understand any of that!’”
Since Past Pleasures was established in 1987, the client base has grown to include heritage heavyweights such as Historic Royal Palaces, the National Trust, English Heritage and organisations such as the BBC. The company also conducts educational work in schools, museums and galleries and training and consultancy work has taken Mark all over the world. With a rich timeline of 2,000 years covering “Stonehenge to Sainsbury’s”, the scope for interpretation is considerable and the potential cast of characters, endless.
“Our research manager, Lauren, has a double first in history from Oxford,” says Mark, who regularly performs himself in the ‘cast’. “She conducts research on the characters and then gives the interpreters an information pack to which they must add their own details to show that they have read and absorbed it.
“The question is, is it better to play someone like Florence Nightingale, whom we know lots about, or to play a woman who worked for her, about maybe whom just a name exists and how much she was paid per year? In fact, they are both very difficult to do because for one you have to do the best intellectual guesswork possible and, for the other, there is so much known that people have a very specific idea. I think Henry VIII, George Washington, Jesus and Father Christmas are the four hardest ones to portray because people already have an idea about how they should be.”
Among the other specialists in the company is Julian Farrance, who has worked at the National Army Museum for many years and occasionally performs in roles requiring military expertise. True to form, Julian recently performed a key part in the 200th anniversary celebrations of victory at Waterloo.
“Live interpretation is a very immediate way of getting your hands on history,” says Julian. “It is suitable for people who are prepared to be quite gregarious because you do need to address big crowds and you do have to be prepared to put yourself ‘out there’. However, it is a fantastically rewarding role. To be able to portray these people from history is such a privilege, especially when actually representing them in their original locations. To play part of Henry VIII’s court actually at Hampton Court Palace is an amazing opportunity.”
The company also had a high profile role in last month’s celebrations at Runnymede marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. While Mark performed as the leader of the rebel barons, Robert Fitzwalter, Mike appeared as the notorious King John.
“Certain individuals like John and Richard III have ended up with black reputations when other historical characters are undeservedly ‘heroes’ and ‘great kings’,” says Mike, who has done all manner of interpretations covering every century, from being a Bronze Age man to a 1970s fashion icon. “There is a human tendency to see someone as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but invariably, if there is anything that studying history has taught me over the years it is that, with one or two exceptions, pretty much everyone is a mixture of both.
The history boys
The Past Pleasures team members are recruited on the basis of both academic and performance based skills and the ability to communicate complex information. A genuine passion for history is, of course, vital for interpretation, as are huge amounts of patience, good humour and empathy. Mark’s own passion for the past was awakened in childhood by his grandfather’s wartime songs and exciting tales told by a history-loving elder brother – although, perhaps like many of us, he endured rather tedious history lessons back at school.
“History teaching was crashingly dull, although one thing it did do was to give me a sense of chronology and structure and that is important to be able to understand cause and effect and how things happen,” he continues. “But there’s nothing like the power of storytelling, the oldest human art of entertainment. I would have loved what we do now, back then when I was a kid.”
• Throughout July and August, Past Pleasures interpreters will be in action daily from 11am to 4.30pm around different Hampton Court Palace locations in Time Plays, a special programme of performances to commemorate its 500th anniversary. For a full schedule of the company’s appearances over forthcoming months at Hampton Court, as well as other historic venues such as the Tower of London, Dover Castle in Kent and Audley End in Essex, pay a visit to their website at pastpleasures.co.uk/events
All dressed up and, er, 19 centuries to go...
Also one of the foremost historical costumiers in the country, Past Pleasures has all its outfits and accessories researched, designed and created in-house by a highly skilled team headed by company co-director and nationally-recognised costume authority, Stephanie Selmayr.
Great care is taken to produce faithful reproductions in all aspects, from design and fabric to the colour, including for undergarments such as linen shifts, which provide the right shape and fit for outerwear. Costumes such as heavy cloaks or laced corsets can prove physically demanding for the interpreters who inhabit them, although they consider this to be part of the transformative process.
“You will be restricted in your movements in certain ways depending on what time period you are portraying,” says Stephanie. “I am told by interpreters that this actually helps them get their mind to the right place. I marvel at how some of the interpreters don’t feel comfortable until they have reached a certain level of being bound, although things are very adjustable with lacing and pinning and so forth, so it is possible for them to have the right shape without being horribly squished.”
Concealed modern construction methods are often used to provide durability to withstand daily wear and occasional concessions are made for the purpose of health and safety. ‘Tudor’ shoes, for example, will be handmade, leather reproductions of a 16th century design, but sometimes with an insole for extra comfort or a discreet, rubber sole to resist the effect of slippery wet cobbles or grass.
“I have to create costumes worn by people as a vehicle for explaining and interpreting,” says Stephanie. “They have to be made to a budget and I do the best I can in a given timeframe.”
Care for the extensive costume collection is a major operation in its own right. Five people are dedicated to maintaining the costumes on-site where they are worn, managing the dry cleaning rota and organising their transportation where needed or their return to storage.