Monday, 7 December 2015

Gettin' Wiggy With It

Waving goodbye to another year always prompts a bit of a look back. I know it's early to do that but I've got a busy December coming up.I consider myself a lucky lady because I have two jobs I genuinely love.

This year I was delighted to progress to a new role at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse, and working for Norfolk Museums remains a complete joy (if anyone doubts that, they've obviously never tried a 'normal' job). But this blog is about my other identity; dressing up and showing off.

As far as my freelancing goes it's always interesting to chart the peaks and troughs in popularity of my various characters.

As 2015 draws to a close Marie Lloyd is still top of the pops, with Queen Elizabeth I running a close second. 

'The Seven Ages of Women' is gaining steadily in followers -now people know what it is (explanation here)- and Queen Victoria is very much in repose. 

The surprise 'new entry' this year was Edith Cavell. I keep trying to retire her but people keep wanting to book her, so I've decided to keep her going as long as there is  demand.

In looking back, I'm also looking ahead (a 'head'...excellent pun) because 2015 has been a year dominated by wigs. Here I am without any wig at all; who will I become?!

I still haven't found a very suitable Queen Victoria wig, and of course Edith and Marie both wear hats-  but I'm on wig Mk IV for Queen Elizabeth I.

The first Elizabeth wig (pictured here when new) finally died this year after a long, matted and tangled illness, and was given a decent burial along with my original headers (just visible). 

The second one is the long wig I wore plaited for the Elizabethan Pageant in Cambridge the first time I visited, and I can't wear that again unless I have a hairdresser to do it for me. I loved that hat with the feathers, too!

Number three was a beautiful late Elizabethan style fuzzy one from the pragmatically named Wigs Up North, which I wore for my return visit to Great St Mary's, Cambridge, this year. It looks fabulously authentic because it pulls my hairline right back, but look awful! 

And number four is a relatively cheap but comfortable wig which is more Drag Queen than Tudor Queen until I add my glorious new headdress by HatsPeriod...
It's Number Four that will be accompanying me on all my bookings for the foreseeable future.

And talking of future bookings, next year's QueenieLives calendar is already pretty full, but I can usually squeeze more in if asked. I also already have a booking for 2017, so thankfully it looks as if I won't be hanging up my wigs and hats any time soon.

Contact details are on my website linked here, and for more regular updates you can also follow me on Facebook (Queenielives) and Twitter (@WhatQueenieDid).

Thanks are due to all the people who keep booking me; it is enormously appreciated. For me, an appointment with 'Dr Footlights' cures nearly all ills!

All my personas join together in wishing you a 
Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year. 
Now I think its time to...

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Importance of Being Edith

Any freelance live interpreter will be used to changing character and costume with improbable frequency, and dashing from venue to venue, but this October I have experienced a whole new level of identity crisis. Here are some personal reflections on the serious business of keeping historical entertainment respectful and accurate.

About a year ago, Norfolk WI ladies pointed out to me that 2015 was the 100-year anniversary of their organisation AND the death of Nurse Edith Cavell, and please would I put together 'one of my talks' on those themes. I was intrigued. Like me, Edith Cavell is a Norfolk girl- coincidentally born in Swardeston, the village right next door to mine. I also do a lot of work for the WIs, so I was keen to oblige...

I researched lots, put together a costume, and began to assemble a talk. I learned loads about Miss Cavell and gained enormous respect for her.

Firstly, creating the talk was a challenge, because this was subject matter I couldn't handle with my usual light touch; no place for jokes about knickers- this is a tragic story, and one still just about in living memory. Edith has living relatives. 

Secondly- What about presentation style? My tried and tested technique is to hop in and out of character for my set-piece talks, which means I'm able to explain the broader context for the characters. That didn't seem right for Edith. No matter how much research on the facts I did, or how much empathy I felt for her, or the fact of my authentic Norfolk accent (at last- it's come in handy!), how could I presume to 'be' Edith? 

I guess that initially, I just wasn't comfortable with the idea of pretending to be the lady herself. So I put together a talk in which I not only traced her life story but also explored her upbringing and her character in an effort to understand how she could 'give her life happily for her country', as she said herself on the eve of her execution. To illustrate the narrative I wore a replica WW1 nurse's costume and also decided to use quotes from original historical source material like diaries and letters, secondary resources like autobiographies of those that knew Edith, and examples of music from the time. 

Other people paid tribute to Edith in a variety of ways through plays, re-enactments, artworks and exhibitions. There was a festival in Swardeston and a series of events in the Norwich Forum. I participated in both- I have to say it was extremely weird to meet numerous 'Ediths' in one place! Personally I struggled with the idea of Edith being played by anybody -however well- who doesn't at the very least share a passing physical resemblance to her. I strongly believe that a geographically close or neutral accent is important too, as is a realistic 'playing age', for any re-enactments. Or maybe that's just my nerdy re-enactor side showing through a bit! Perhaps the actor's intent is more important?

As it happened, I was grateful to have chosen to speak about Edith, not as her, because her family came to see one of the talks I did at the Forum. Her great-niece, Claire Wood, was very complimentary about my work. Phew!

However, in spite of my best efforts NOT to to 'be' Edith, most people who saw my talk still thought that was what I was doing, probably because I was in costume! 

Eventually I was hijacked (in a friendly way) by local historian Neil Storey for a sunshiney photo-call at Norwich Cathedral on the anniversary date with a group of WW1 military re-enactors. This kind of sealed my fate; the photos are beautiful- but they did cast me firmly in role as Edith (again, slightly oddly, paying respects at 'my own' graveside...). 

After it all, in the end I found I was glad to have 'been' Edith for this once-in-a-lifetime commemoration. I've done many talks for lots of WIs since, and audiences have taken the opportunity to share their own stories about their connections to Edith. One lady even showed me her family treasure; a book signed by Edith herself.

To use reality tv parlance, I'd had a bit of a 'journey'. I discovered it had become more important to me than I realised that this ordinary lady, who made an extraordinary sacrifice, was remembered with the respect and accuracy I felt she deserved. 

I also surprised myself to find that I had a turnaround about 'being' Edith. In the course of doing these talks it had become personally -as well as professionally- important to me to be Edith, as a mark of my own identity as a Norfolk woman. It wasn't just about appearance or accent, and indeed, I don't have much in common with Edith Cavell in terms of character, religion or vocation. But this broad, flat county with its big fields and wide skies is our shared birthplace, and like Edith, it's the place I'm proud to call home. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Pants on Fire? Bring on the Incendiary Blondes

For my next entertainment offering I'll be time-travelling to the 1940s to take on the singing personas of several fabulous ladies from around the wartime era; Dinah Shore, Peggy Lee, Betty Hutton and Doris Day, to name but a few. I'll be calling the show 'Incendiary Blondes' in reference to Betty Hutton's 1944 film, and it will be available for performances from September 2016.

(I realise I may be subjected to chants of 'Liar Liar Pants on Fire' for this, after all, I said I wasn't going to do any new characters for the duration of my Voices From the Workhouse job, but it turns out I was mistaken. Maybe it's more a case of 'ants in the pants' than 'pants on fire'). *
Liar Liar- Really Big Pants On Fire

When Betty Hutton was suggested to me as a subject, I must confess I didn't really know who she was. Then I watched this, Betty's original of 'Oh So Quiet', a song I previously knew from Bjork's hit in 1995. Then I watched this, and I was convinced. I even had an idea to do a whole show on her and call it 'I Can't Believe it's Not Betty'...

Doris needed no such introduction. I'll be focusing on songs from her early career such as Sentimental Journey and Day to Day (the song from which she took her stage name).
Peggy Lee is well known as Disney's voice of the Siamese Cats, but was a talented lyricist and composer as well as a voice actor, and a singer in many genres. In the 1940s she sang with Benny Goodman and appeared in the film Stage Door Canteen. I'll be presenting some of Peggy's 'Big Band' numbers from her early career.

Dinah had success in 1940 with My Man -notably reworked in French by Edith Piaf- and she recorded regularly throughout the decade: You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To, Buttons and Bows, The Best Things in Life are Free...the list is extensive. 
Dinah Shore was once introduced as "Mademoiselle Dinah 'Diva' Shore, who starts a fire by rubbing two notes together!". An Incendiary Blonde indeed!

That should be enough to keep me busy. I'll be taking bookings for 'Incendiary Blondes' with immediate effect, for September 2016 onwards. Contact details can be found here, usual fees apply.

*See, I really can get knickers into any topic.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Well, just the statistics actually. But I got your attention. First, a news update.

Just after I debuted as Edith Cavell, I took Queen Elizabeth 1st to the capital to perform before an assembly of past and present London Blue Badge Guides. A thoroughly indomitable bunch, they are the folks who take tourists around the Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Palace, Hampton Court and many other world famous landmarks. 

To be perfectly honest, I don't think I told them anything about QE1 that they didn't already know! But they loved the costume, the general spectacle, and were extremely complimentary about my talk structure and presentation skills. They also took me out to lunch in a local restaurant- my first experience of an authentic Turkish meal. It was a delight...

Back in East Anglia, I was due to perform Marie Lloyd to a group of elderly Norwichers who at the last minute requested that Marie wasn't too bawdy, because they're a church group. My heart sank- I mean, if you take the bawdy out of Marie Lloyd there's not much left! In the end I concentrated more on the biography and reduced the emphasis on the innuendos in the song lyrics. I kept in the famous -but unproven- story about cabbages and peas, which raised a chuckle.  It was ok, and they all enjoyed it, but I did feel very odd standing there in full costume when we had to stop for a prayer half way through! 

In April I performed Marie Lloyd for each of the four 2015 NCC Pensions Forums: total audience of about 600 council retirees. Difficult acoustics, no set-up time, large venues, terrible sight lines, and Marie had to use a very anachronistic handheld microphone because the clip-mic couldn't cope. But I was rewarded with a lovely bouquet and fantastic reviews, so all was instantly forgiven.

So, to statistics. Marie Lloyd is currently my most popular character, by a long way. In the last six weeks I have performed her nineteen times, compared to five times for each of the others. Of course, I've been performing QE1 since 2007, so there can't be many Norfolk WIs who haven't seen her. Queen Victoria is not far behind.

Surely I must run out of WIs soon?! 'Seven Ages' is building momentum and I have a lot of future bookings for that one. I'm not including Edith Cavell in any of these figures, because she's only a temporary fixture on my list.

My current average across the year is 2.5 talks per week. 

The average wasn't that high when I started eight years ago in 2007, but I'm happy to say the work has steadily increased ever since. A very quick calculation estimates that I've given over 600 talks! 

Audience numbers vary wildly- I can have anything from 15 to 200 people watching me. I never know exactly how many will be there until I arrive, but I'd guess the average WI is roughly 35 people. 600 x 35 is 21,000 people! If I halve that amount to take into account repeat visits, it's still 10,500 people! I can't actually believe I have performed to that number! 

Busy-ness has its down side. Mistakes can happen. I'm proud to say that in eight years of doing this, I've only had to cancel one talk through illness, I've only ever forgotten to turn up once (!!!!!!) and I've only ever turned up with the wrong 'Queen' once. 

That is, until a fortnight ago, when I arrived as the entertainment at Old Buckenham WI's Centenary celebration with all my Marie Lloyd kit, only to discover they had booked 'Seven Ages'. We delayed the start time by 15 minutes while I broke several land speed records driving home to get the right kit. Oops.

Four mistakes out of 600 performances isn't bad going (0.6%, in fact). And I've never (well, hardly ever*) forgotten my words.

People are always nice about what I do, and I genuinely appreciate all the kind words and thanks I receive- let's face it, for a natural show off like me, all ego-polishing is gratefully accepted! However, I was particularly thrilled and touched to receive a vote of thanks from Humbleyard WI group this week after my performance of 'Seven Ages', which summed up exactly what I aim to do with my talks. The lady said I never failed 'to encourage, inspire and entertain' them: praise indeed. 

Thank you to everyone who's ever booked me! 
Long may it continue.

*the phrase "watched the ladies swimming in the sea" once came out as "washed the babies singing in the sea". Right vowels, wrong consonants. Marie Lloyd was quite tired that night!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Cavell Update

After a dress rehearsal before an audience of long-suffering friends, my Edith Cavell talk made its formal debut in front of 124 Norfolk Federation WI ladies at Northrepps Village Hall on 13th March 2015.

Remember, these are the women who heckled former British PM Tony Blair. This was a brand new, no-music-or-antique-knickers-included, serious talk. 

Was I scared? You bet I was.

To my great relief, reviews were extremely positive! 

As a result, I have been invited to repeat the performance for a further large WI audience in October, close to the 100-year anniversary of Edith's death.

I'll also be presenting live interpretation as Edith herself as part of the Swardeston Centenary Festival, and performing my talk several times at The Forum in Norwich during October this year- more details will be published nearer to the time.

There are currently no photos of me in my Edith costume, but I am told I look simply angelic in it...(!)

The WI is also celebrating it's centenary year with a special exhibition at my other place of work, Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse. Click on this link for further information.

While I'm on the subject of Gressenhall, there is more news. For the next two and a half years I will be working as the Learning and Engagement Officer there for the big redevelopment project, 'Voices From The Workhouse' (BONUS: if you click on the link to the website, you will see me looking outstandingly glamorous as a workhouse inmate in the photos).

It is worth mentioning that during the past year I have received many excellent audience suggestions* for new talks in addition to my current characters of Queens Bess and Vicky, Marie Lloyd, Edith Cavell and The Seven Ages of Woman.

However, because of my new responsibilities within Norfolk Museums, I will be sticking with my current talks for the foreseeable future.  

I am fully booked now for talks and musical evenings until the end of 2015. Luckily the diary is already open - and rapidly filling- for 2016. Book now (contact details here) to avoid disappointment!!

* Not those sorts of suggestions...

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Cavell Broadens the Mind

I discovered recently that 'the gal from Swardeston' -Norfolk martyr Edith Cavell- deserves to be upgraded in my estimation. Read on to find out why...

2014 was a superb year for QueenieLives. Marie Lloyd has proved extremely popular with my usual audiences of WIs, U3A, and social groups, and I've averaged 1.5 Marie performances a week since the first talk in September 2013. 

Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I are still in demand too, and my last blog post describes the amazing day I had last year as Bess in Cambridge.

2015 brings a whole new challenge. This year is the centennial anniversary of the execution of Norfolk's famous nurse, Edith Cavell, by German soldiers on the 12th October 1915.

Another centenary happening this year is that of the Women's Institute. Their slogan is 'Inspiring Women for 100 Years'. I've been asked by the Norfolk Federation of WIs to put together a talk about Edith's life and death as part of their celebrations, so I have been busily researching that particular local lady.

I found out that Edith was indeed an inspirational woman. During 1914-15 she helped hundreds of Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium to neutral territory. One of the men she assisted betrayed her to the Germans, and she was summarily executed as a warning to others.

Edith's story, told in part through propaganda like the picture above, inspired thousands of British men to sign up to fight in the Great War- in fact, numbers doubled in the two weeks after the announcement of her death. 

But what of Edith's life? The daughter of a rural vicar (in Swardeston, the village next to mine, as it happens), she lived a fairly typical Victorian childhood, presumably in expectation of a suitable marriage. How could such unremarkable beginnings in Norfolk lead all the way to that dramatic ending at the Tir National in Belgium?

My personal preconceptions about Edith Cavell were wrought mainly from three things: 

  • a 1980s Norfolk education in which we wrongly emphasised the 'vell' rather than the 'Cav' of her surname. 
  • a vague acknowledgement of her status through Norwich pubstreet and building names.
  • the statue outside the Cathedral inscribed 'nurse, patriot & martyr'. 

As a Norfolk Broad myself, I'm now ashamed to admit I always thought Edith Cavell was heroic, but a can I put this? - Dull.

Let's face it, my choice of previous talks has been inspired by bright, gaudy, naughty, or powerful women in splendid outfits, and there's always been an element of Showing My Knickers. 

Somehow, Edith Cavell didn't seem to quite fit in with any of those things! 

So, my quest in researching this new talk has been to find out how Edith's life, as well as her death, was inspirational. The results? Astonishing. My preconceptions? WRONG!!

If you'd like to find out what I found out you'll have to book the talk (contact details on my QueenieLives website here); it will be on general release from April 2015.