Sunday, 1 May 2016

History and The Greystones Press by Mary Hoffman

Now that Shakespeare Month on the History Girls is over, some of you may be breathing a sigh of relief! But I'm going to crave your indulgence a little further. You see, on 23rd April, the big Shakespeare day, five titles came out with my new independent publishing house, The Greystones Press.

One of the titles, pictured above, was the reason we chose that date. You can read a bit more about that on the piece I wrote for Authors Electric, which by a nice bit of serendipity came out yesterday. Incidentally, I was very happy to write a guest blog for AE, as its creator, Susan Price, is one of our wonderful HG Reserves, and has written many "anytime posts" for me to bank and use when there is a crisis here.

On our launch list, four out of the five titles have an element of history in them. Shakespeare's Ghost is a YA novel with a paranormal twist but it is buttressed by an enormous amount of historical research. Just off the top of my head, this involved:
The Winter's Tale
The Tempest
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado about Nothing
The Globe theatre
The Blackfriars Theatre
The King's Men
King James and his family
Boy players in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre
Acting companies on tour
Elizabethan Fairy and folklore
The Rollwright Stones
Renaissance magic
The Shakespearean stage
Symptoms of the plague etc. etc.

Of course I knew the plays well already - not just those listed above. I wouldn't have tackled a novel about Shakespeare if I hadn't. But I had an early piece of luck about his indoor theatre at Blackfriars. A friend was able to put me in touch with one of the architects working on the Sam Wanamaker theatre at the Globe, who kindly answered all my questions, showed me plans and took me to see the building in progress. It was as close as a modern theatre could be to the no longer extant performing space in Blackfriars that enabled The King's Men to play in winter as well as summer.

Since then I have seen several productions in this gorgeous indoor theatre, including The Winter's Tale and The Tempest this year.

Another of the Greystones Press d├ębut titles is the reissue of a novel I originally wrote as YA but which we are now publishing with the subtitle and cover I always wanted:

It was because of David that the History Girls blog was born. The novel was coming out in July 2011 and I was doing a 30-stop blog tour. Then I began to wonder why there wasn't a blog mainly for historical fiction. Maybe there was; if so I couldn't find it.

Of course David required a lot of historical background research too: one of the things that attracted me to the subject was that we knew so much about Michelangelo's famous statue. We have the contract commissioning him to sculpt it, we know the date when his chisel made its first cut; we even have the minutes of the committee meeting which was called to decide where to place the finished "Giant" - a committee whose members included Leonardo da Vinci.

And in the middle there was a great big hole about who the model was or whether there even was one! That sort of situation is pure catnip to a writer of historical fiction and of course I had to learn everything I could about Michelangelo, Renaissance sculpture techniques, Florentine politics, the Medici family, Savonarola and many other things.

Our third title grew out of a blog. Not this one, though the author Katherine Langrish is a History Girl. She had created another blog, in 2009, called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, with wonderful short essays on fairy and folk tales. I felt these deserved a wider and less ephemeral platform. So we asked Katherine if she would expand some of these posts into a full-length non-fiction book for adults.

It is proving enormously popular and we have already had to reprint, so I think our instincts were sound. Katherine herself had to do an enormous amount of research, which she writes a bit about here.

The fourth title, The Moon, by Jules Cashford had been published in hardback in 2003. It had taken me months to read because after a paragraph or two I had to put the book down and let the material percolate. Every page gave me ideas for books I'd like to write. The only other book I've read that gave me this sensation was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

So when we were offered the chance to re-issue this book in paperback, it was too tempting to refuse, even though we had said firmly that we were NOT going to publish illustrated books. It has the subtitle "Symbol of transformation" and, we think, a much better cover than the original. The breadth and depth of Jules' knowledge of myth, symbolism and imagery across a range of cultures makes the book a delight.

The brief of the Greystones Press is to publish adult and YA fiction and adult NF "in areas that interest us." These are art, music, literature, mythology, fairy stories and of course history. You can find out more about us at

And in time I hope very much that some of the essays you have read here over the years might be expanded and combined into another book that The Greystones Press could publish.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

April competition

To win one of five copies of Alison Weir's new book, just answer this question in the Comments section below:

"Which of Henry VIII's wives would you most like to meet, and why?"

Then copy your answer to

Closing date: 7th May

We are afraid our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen? by Alison Weir

Our April guest is Alison Weir, a prolific historian and novelist. We welcome her warmly to The History Girls.

Alison Weir is the top-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian overall) in the United Kingdom, and has sold over 2.7 million books worldwide. She has published seventeen history books, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Katherine Swynford, The Lady in the Tower and Elizabeth of York. Alison has also published five historical novels, including Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth. Her latest biography is The Lost Tudor Princess, about Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. She is soon to publish Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, the first in a series of novels about the wives of Henry VIII. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Life Patron of Historic Royal Palaces, and is married with two adult children.

Katherine of Aragon was the first of Henry VIII’s celebrated wives, but he was not her first husband. In 1501, at sixteen, she had been married to his elder brother, Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, who was nine months younger. The marriage lasted just six months, and the young couple shared a bed on only six or seven occasions, because Arthur was dying.

Katherine’s physician, Dr Alcaraz, later explained that she had emerged from her marriage a virgin because ‘the Prince had been denied the strength necessary to know a woman, as if he was a cold piece of stone, because he was in the final stages of phthisis [consumption]. [Alcaraz] said his limbs were weak and that he had never seen a man whose legs and other bits of his body were so thin.’ In this period tuberculosis was common and Dr Alcaraz would easily have recognised it, so his diagnosis is almost certainly reliable.

It has often been asserted that the traditional view of Arthur being sickly from birth is incorrect, but the historical evidence would appear to support it. Arthur had been a premature baby, born at eight months, and the accounts of the bishops of Winchester for 1486-7 show that his nursery household was established for at least the first six months of his life at Farnham, Surrey, not far from Winchester, where he was born. This was probably because he was weak and needed careful nursing until he was strong enough to be moved elsewhere.

There is no evidence to suggest that Arthur experienced the learning difficulties that can affect premature children, but new research, based on a study of a million births, shows that prematurity can have consequences into adulthood, and that such children have an increased risk of dying in late childhood compared with babies delivered at full term; in late childhood, boys in particular have a seven-fold increased risk of dying. That may not impact greatly on today’s low mortality rates, but it would have had serious implications five hundred years ago. Thus it is likely that Arthur had a lifetime risk of poor health because he was premature.

In the summer of 1500, his father, Henry VII, expressed concern about Arthur and Katherine living together, because of Arthur’s weak constitution. The King was then in favour of them consummating the marriage but living apart thereafter until Arthur was older. In 1497 Katherine’s brother, the Infante Juan, had died at nineteen – disastrously for the Spanish succession. The cause was perhaps tuberculosis, but it was generally held that over-indulgence in the marriage bed had proved fatal, which no doubt informed Henry VII’s decision.

Paul Workman, owned by the author 
(The above portrait, supposedly of Katherine during her first marraige, is now thought to be based on one of the first Mary Tudor, Henry Vlll's younger sister)

Katherine remained a widow for seven years, until Arthur’s brother succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII and married her. Some churchmen feared that the marriage was uncanonical and forbidden by Scripture. The Book of Leviticus warned: 'If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an impurity: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.' But Katherine’s duenna had been adamant that the couple had not had intercourse, and her mother, Queen Isabella had informed Henry VII that her daughter remained a virgin. The Pope had accordingly issued a dispensation for the marriage.

Years later, when it became clear that Katherine would never bear him a son, and he was pursuing Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII began to have doubts that his marriage was lawful. He had even discovered that, in the original Hebrew, Leviticus warned that a man would be without sons, rather than childless. But Katherine swore publicly that she had come to him ‘a true maid, without touch of man’, but he was determined to divorce her. To achieve that, he wrangled with an unaccommodating Pope for seven years, and in the process severed the English Church from Rome, establishing himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England and bringing about the Reformation. Through all this, Katherine remained adamant that she was the King’s true wife, and to defend her position she was prepared to endure exile from court, house arrest and separation from her beloved daughter, the future Mary I.

In 1533 Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s new Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the union of Henry and Katherine incestuous and unlawful, and confirmed Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Still Katherine refused to be called by any title other than queen, and she was vindicated in 1534, when, at long last, the Pope ruled that her marriage to Henry was valid. But it was too late. Henry refused to take her back. She died in 1536, signing herself to the last ‘Katherine the Queen’.

So was she the true Queen of England? The new evidence we now have shows that it is highly unlikely that her marriage to Arthur was consummated. That being the case, Henry had never gone so far as to ‘uncover his brother’s nakedness’.

Furthermore, there was a counterweight to Leviticus in the Book of Deuteronomy: ‘Where brethren dwell together, and one of them dieth without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry to another; but his brother shall take her, and raise up seed to his brother.’ These conflicting texts were the subject of much debate at the time, but for all Henry’s arguments that Deueteronomy did not apply to Christians, passages in Genesis, Ruth and Matthew give weight to it, showing that it was customary in Biblical times, and seen as ordained by God, for a man to marry his brother’s childless widow. Even Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, was the offspring of such a union.

This was not incompatible with the ban in Leviticus, which did not apply when the brother had died childless, as Arthur had; and this was understood by many theologians, notably Juan Luis Vives and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, two of Katherine’s great champions. Thus Henry’s argument was flawed, whether Katherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated or not.

Even so, that marriage had created an affinity, or close kinship, between Katherine and Henry, which constituted an impediment to their marriage, by virtue of the fact that she had become his sister. This was why Henry claimed his marriage to her was incestuous. However, such an impediment was not seen as contravening divine law, so the Pope could very properly issue a dispensation. Henry challenged this, insisting that his marriage was prohibited under divine law, in Scripture rather than by canon law, but there were many precedents, and the King’s interpretation of Leviticus, as we have seen, did not stand up to close scrutiny. It was Henry who insisted that Leviticus applied to a marriage that had been consummated, erroneously concentrating the whole focus of the case on what had actually passed between Katherine and Arthur in their marriage bed.

The conclusion is inescapable: the grounds put forward by Henry VIII to secure an annulment were baseless and weak, the marriage was valid, and Katherine was the true Queen of England.

For excellent and much fuller discussions of Henry VIII’s annulment, see J. J. Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII (London, 1968) and Philip Campbell: The Canon Law of the Divorce Case (2009,


Thursday, 28 April 2016

What's in a Letter by Julie Summers

I’ve always been fascinated by communication. Not just in its literal form but in what it says about the human condition and how important it is to people to communicate and be communicated with. Throughout my many years of research into the history of the Second World War I have been struck by how much of a difference it made if people could talk to one another, if not face to face then by letter. In fact, sometimes it was enough just to write the letter, as it was in the case of one of the soldiers I wrote about who was a prisoner of the Japanese for 3 ½ years. In February 1942 he wrote to his wife: ‘I am a Prisoner of War.’ The letter goes on to describe the fall of Singapore and then he wrote the following:

'We are going to be linked together through the medium of pen and ink and pencil and paper as we always have been; we are going to continue to put our thoughts on paper. So long as I am able, I am going to write you at least one letter each week. One day you will read these letters … And know without doubt that you are with me … now and always.' 

Charles Steel wrote 182 letters to his wife, Louise, over the period of his captivity but he could only send them to her when he was finally freed in August 1945. He posted them from Rangoon in September and soon received his first letter from her expressing anxiety about how difficult it would be for them to reconnect after so much time apart. He replied: 

‘To hear you talking about cooking for the family is as balm to my soul. . . I am sure that we shall come together quite naturally because I see, quite clearly, a scene in our garden in forty years’ time. You will be reading these letters and I shall be gardening, and I shall come over to you with the loveliest rose I can find. As I pin it to your shawl, I can see you look up and hear you say, ‘Darling, what silly children we were to think that a mere war would alter our love for each other!’ And I shall kiss you, because I shall still love you . . .’

Charles and Louise Steel did indeed come together and were married for over forty years. Margaret, born after the war, is photographed here with them on holiday. 

Today we can communicate a hundred times a day in so many different ways: email, Twitter, Facebook and a dozen other ways I probably don’t know about because I was born into the generation that sent postcards from holiday and rang home once a week from school. In 1940, the postman delivered letters twice, even three times a day. Telegrams were for urgent news, both good and bad, and by the outbreak of war the telephone was becoming more widely used. 

But the bulk of wartime correspondence was by letter and the quantity prodigious. In the six years of war the army postal service handled thousands of millions of letters and parcels to and from conflict zones throughout the world. The army postal service was run by an impressive individual called Major James Drew who was over six feet tall and sported a fine handle-bar moustache. He was so successful in keeping the post flowing that he could guarantee next day delivery of letters in the aftermath of D-Day in June 1944 and parcels to arrive within three days. 

In every diary written during the war there are references to the arrival or non-arrival of the post. Crushing disappointment when nothing came, euphoria at the delivery of a letter from a loved one. And at home the post was just as eagerly awaited. ‘No letter from Jack this week’ or ‘I am sure you have written but I haven’t received any letters from you for a fortnight and I do so worry when I don’t hear from you.’ But ‘bliss oh bliss! Four letters in one day. I jumped into bed, pulled the covers up to my nose and breathed in your news.’ The value of postal communication and exchange of information between servicemen and women and their families is hard to overestimate. 

‘Letters for us stand for love, longing, light-heartedness and lyricism. Letters evoke passion, tenderness, amusement, sadness, rejoicing, surprise.’ These words were written by Diana Hopkinson. As a deaf woman she was particularly lonely without him. She and her husband corresponded for over five years, the words on paper giving meaning to her life without him. While she was stirring the jam or playing with the baby, washing her clothes or mending their shoes, the letters, full of love and passion, humour and tales of far-away places she would never visit but in her mind’s eye, filled her thoughts and kept her going throughout the war.

One very special set of letters came to my notice when I was writing the chapter in my book When the Children Came Home. This was correspondence between families separated by the Atlantic Ocean. In 1940 Sherborne School in Dorset sent 125 girls aged between six and sixteen to Branksome Hall School in Toronto. For some this was the opportunity of a lifetime, for others it was less happy as they missed their families, but for all it meant that the only form of communication was the letter. Sandra B had been a teenager when she arrived in Toronto. She wrote: ‘My family were most supportive. They had written twice a week. I had written home without constraint, and I felt that they had kept pace with the ways I was changing: they had both been to North America and were well travelled.’ Coming home, however, was difficult and she found that Britain had changed. Canada was where her heart was and she returned in 1947, marrying a Canadian boy the following year. She went on: ‘I consider myself Canadian, British Columbian, but my roots are still British. My mother, brother’s family, aunt, husband’s family are still there. In retrospect I feel I had the best of both worlds and was exceptionally lucky to come to Canada. Because of the age I came out, I do not feel that I was adversely affected; maybe my attitudes were already formed. I feel it made me more self reliant.’ Undoubtedly, in her mind, the ability to communicate openly with her parents had given her the courage to do what she felt was right for her.

Today we no longer communicate by letter. That is something that has changed in the last fifteen years and I rue it. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing an envelope with spidery writing plopping onto my doormat. It is almost bound to contain a story and I feel a tingle of excitement as I slit it open to see what little bit of life is going to be shared. Some years ago I received a letter which started: ‘My name is William Mortimer Drower and your grandfather was kind to me when I got into a spot of trouble in the camp gaol.’ That is a story I shall tell you next month. Please be patient. It is worth it…

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Passionate Pilgrim by Sarah Gristwood

One of the best-loved games in literary history has always been to spot the identity of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady - the heroine of some of the most powerful sonnets, whose magnetism and whose infidelity he laments. Never mind that she may never have existed, that she may just have been some long-forgotten woman of easy virtue, who for a moment caught Shakespeare’s eye - or that ‘she’ may have been a dark gentleman . . .

In some cases the grounds for the ‘identification’ are positively derisory. (Elizabeth Hatton? Her husband’s stepbrother once sold property to Shakespeare. That’s it. The brothel keeper ‘Lucy Negro’, who may or may not once have been the queen’s maid Lucy Morgan? She was mentioned in a Gray’s Inn masque of 1595 and sent to gaol in 1599. That’s it.)

But the idea simply won’t go away. So, let’s turn it on its head a little. Think instead of the women we know were in his orbit, at the right time. Take a date of 1593, or near offer - just ten years before the old queen’s death. The sonnets (not published until 1609) could have been written anything up to fifteen-odd years before, though the likeliest bet spans the mid 1590s.

These can’t accurately be described as women Shakespeare knew – in his London life none such exist, barring a couple of women who went up against him in dispute over property, and the landlord’s daughter whose husband called him as a witness in another row over the non-delivery of a dowry. But they are women bound to him by a tenuous web of patronage or profession - or of political hopes and fears.

One name is well known in this context. Emilia Lanier (1569 - 1645), anybody? Illegitimate daughter of a family of Venetian musicians, the Bassanos, in the service of the Tudor monarchs, Emilia was orphaned young and brought up in the household of the Countess of Kent, before becoming the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, maintainer of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to which company Shakespeare belonged. Pregnant in 1593 she was married off ‘for colour’ to another court musician, Alphonse Lanier.

She was presumably dark and Italianate looking; musical (like the ‘dark lady’); obviously possessed of considerable sexual magnetism - and described as having a mole on her body in the same place as the heroine of the sonnets. Later in her long life, in 1611, she published a lengthy poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, defending the women of the Bible, and it has been suggested that this anachronistic piece of feminism may have been triggered by indignation at having been ‘outed’ by the publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1609 . . . though maybe she just needed to make money.

But the courts saw a number of other women bounds to Shakespeare by a web of connection - women we sometime, but not always, associate with his name. Far above his station, of course - but who’d have figured in his imagination, maybe.

First of these court ladies is Mary Fitton - herself sometimes considered a candidate for the dark lady. One of Queen Elizabeth’s more adventurous maids of honour, Mary was conducting an illicit affair with William Herbert, himself a possible candidate for ‘Mr W.H.’, the ‘onlie begetter’ of the sonnets, slipping out to meet him in male disguise. In 1600 she became pregnant by him but, the baby dying, he refused to marry her, even when the queen sent him to the Fleet prison.

In 1601, meanwhile, William had become Earl of Pembroke (in which capacity he would be dedicatee of the First Folio). His father had been a patron of a company of players to which Shakespeare may have belonged. His mother the Countess of Pembroke had been Mary Sidney, sister to Sir Philip Sidney. Herself a noted writer and patron who may have entertained Shakespeare, she was also a dedicatee of Emilia Lanier’s poetry.

The other most influential woman in Philip Sidney’s life, before his untimely death, had of course been Penelope Rich - the muse to whom Sidney wrote as ‘Stella’, and another candidate for Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’.

Born Penelope Devereux, sister to the queen’s last favourite the Earl of Essex, she had for years been unhappily married to ‘the rich Lord Rich’, but after Sidney died became also the mistress of Sir Charles Blount, later Lord Mountjoy. Together they were leading members of her brother’s Essex House circle, and deeply implicated in his rebellion of 1601.

Also implicated in the Essex rebellion was the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron and Essex’ great friend. Damaged by connection were his womenfolk: his mother the Catholic Dowager Countess of Southampton, and his wife the young Countess Elizabeth. Elizabeth (yet another putative ‘dark lady’, if Shakespeare wrote sonnets for Southampton to present to her) and the earl had fallen in love in 1598, but their secret marriage saw him flung into prison, while she went to have her baby at Penelope Rich’s house.

The Dowager Countess Mary, meanwhile, had her own Shakespearian connections. In 1599 she married, as her third husband, the younger Sir William Hervey, himself another candidate for ‘Mr W.H.’ – who, some years later, would take as his second wife one Cordell (or Cordelia) Annesley. In 1603 Cordell famously petitioned the authorities about the machinations of her two sisters, who were trying to have their father declared insane so as to obtain his lands . . . . King Lear was first performed in 1605.

And there is yet another Southampton connection. In 1597 the then-unmarried earl had been sought by one Mrs Pranell, born Frances Howard of the noble family but married off beneath her status to the son of a rich Alderman. The writer Sir William Davenant was once in youth Mrs Pranell’s page – that same young man, Jane Davenant’s child, who always claimed he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. Sheer coincidence? Maybe.

There is another name I haven’t mentioned here - but that one I’m not going to, actually. Let’s be clear: I don’t actually go for the game of ‘spot the dark lady’. I think we need to take Shakespeare’s power of imagination more seriously than that. But just suppose for a minute that I were going to play . . .

There’s someone else we know, who certainly moved in Shakespeare’s circles. Who fits the implication of foreign-ness, perhaps Catholicism, and whose life and death fit with what seem to be the dates of his story.

But I’m not going to mention that name - who knows, I may want to write the book some day!

Thanks to Sarah Gristwood, who is one of our invaluable History Girls Reserves. Janie Hampton will be back next month.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Shakespeare, dreams of stardom and and my early life, by Carol Drinkwater

                       The Arundel First Folio - Engraving of William Shakespeare, by Martin Droeshout                                          

William Shakespeare and I were companions way back, from the time when I was about seven. We spent whole long days and nights together, when I had been ‘naughty’, when I was being punished for some misdemeanour or other. Our house in Kent had a spare room in it, a third bedroom, I remember. It contained little furniture but there was a single bed in it. One corner of the room was built over the stairs and was closed off with a cream-painted wooden platform about two metres square, high off the ground. I needed a chair to step up onto it. But, for me, it was my first and very own stage. My father kept rails of old costumes in that room – mainly dark evening suits that smelt musty and of hair oil. These he could hire out or offer to the dance bands that were contracted to his theatrical agency.

I already knew, and had known for some time, that I wanted to be an actress when I left home, a  classical actress working in the theatre. At some point at around this age, I was given a Shakespeare jigsaw puzzle. I suppose it was a present from my father but I can't claim to remember. What I do remember is that it was very large (1,000 pieces, perhaps?) and circular and fitted perfectly onto “my stage” with just enough space at the edges for me to skirt around it, declaiming. At its centre was the head, the portrait of, of Shakespeare. Encircling him was the canon of plays, everyone of the thirty-seven. Each triangular slice offered an image, a moment from the play. Mistress Quickly, Cleopatra, Gertrude, Falstaff, Henry V... this jigsaw puzzle was my introduction to these characters who became my companions during my hours of isolation in that room. I was in there, door locked, because I had been “bad”. Shakespeare’s large cast of players kept me company, but very much more. They drew me into new worlds, new vocabularies. Soon, I had my own tome of the plays. Thick, heavy, it had a plain black jacket, cloth, I think, with only Shakespeare’s autograph in gold on the front cover.

I had – and still have it somewhere although I would have to turn my home upside down to find it – a foolscap notebook with a green cover. Into this, I began to write. I jotted down sentences I liked the sound of, even if I did not understand them. And words, lists and lists of words. My own glossary of curious sounding or incomprehensible words that I had come across in Shakespeare’s plays: coxcomb, apace, breeches, curst... These lists covered pages, always with a space left for me to fill in the meaning when I had discovered it.

From there, I moved on to other writers, poetry principally. When a sentence, a paragraph, a verse caught my fancy, I copied it down meticulously.

I read Shakespeare’s plays, ploughed my way through that great Bible from cover to cover, although I suppose I understood little of it all. I learnt speeches by heart, by rote, and up on my stage I would climb to recite them, full throttle to an audience of none unless you count the smelly old clothes. Sometimes, I would slip from the coat-hangers a jacket or moth-eaten waistcoat or any article of clothing that I felt might enhance my performance. Some of the linings were white silk and torn or stained, and were a little off-putting. Still there I was, perfectly content in a world of my own creation when as far as the family was concerned I was laying low in the dog-house. The newly-acquired television was playing in the sitting room beneath me. I heard the baritone mumble of voices, of programmes that I was not allowed to watch because I was being punished. I found the nights frightening. If I had been so bad that I was forced to stay overnight in that room, I grew afraid of the costumes, fearing they would come alive, that their original owners would re-inhabit them and come to get me in my sleep, slay me bloodily while the owls shrieked, marching towards me like the forest of Birnham Wood marching to Dunsinane Hill in Macbeth. I was not 'lion-mettled'.

The upside of this period of my young life, in a childhood that was traumatic and isolated, was that my excitable imagination and works of literature became my allies. And that has never changed.

Later, in my final years at the convent when I was meant to be studying for my A levels and university, I would play truant and skip off to London to the theatre. Most especially I loved Peter Daubeny's World Theatre Season, a spring event held at the Aldwych Theatre, which had originated as a one-off season in 1964 as part of the celebrations for Shakespeare's quatercentenary. 
Such a success was it, that it became an annual event and I saved up and bought my tickets and attended whenever I was able. Even today, I am marked by the range and brilliance of the theatrical experiences I was privileged to be audience to back then.

Sometimes, daringly, I made my way to Stratford, to watch Shakespeare performed on his home territory.  I saw David Warner’s Hamlet six times, at the Aldwych and in Stratford. 

                                                         David Warner as Hamlet - 1965

I had heard of or read about the pub, The Dirty Duck, where the casts of actors gathered to drink. I found it and I stood one early afternoon before a matinee hovering near the door and peered in, never daring to step inside. I was sixteen, I don't suppose I had really ever tasted alcohol and my budget had been spent on the ticket and fare. All I longed for was to be close to these professional thesps, to inhale their charisma, their camaraderie. To be one of them, included.

Once home, into my notebook glossary I plunged once more and underlined fardels and bodkins.

Years later, I worked with David Warner on a couple of occasions and told him what a beacon he had been for me back then. The Angry Young Man of modern Shakespeare. How I longed to be valiant and applauded, to know the adrenalin rush of 'flights of angels'.

I chose not to go the route of university but take my chances at drama school. I was very fortunate, in the year before I was accepted at Drama Centre in London, to work backstage at the National Theatre, which at that time was housed at the Old Vic Theatre and was under the directorship of Laurence Olivier, later Lord Olivier. To describe my experiences during that period when I was so full of my own hopes and ambitions and my daily life was peopled with some of the modern greats in British drama would take several chapters of a book, so suffice it to say that to be a witness to Larry’s performance of Othello on a nightly basis, listening to his mellifluous voice over the tannoy, or peering secretly from the wings, was the best gift any young wannabe actress could dream of.

Drama Centre was an exceptional training, offering a full history of drama from the Greeks onwards, but for me, most importantly, it taught us to write, to create the inner lives and back stories of our characters. Each of us was given the opportunity to write scenarios, monologues that could be used as auditions pieces after we had completed our training and were out in the tough world of fighting for Equity cards and employment.

Within two years of leaving drama school, I found myself auditioning for the National Theatre, still at the Old Vic. It was  a three-step process and I seem to sail through the first two auditions. It was the last one that was the endurance test. I was contacted to say that I had done well thus far and my final audition would be on the stage at the Old Vic in the presence of Olivier, John Dexter, Michael Blakemore, Roland Joffe and one or two other director luminaries. Franco Zeffirelli, I think, was amongst them.

Naturally, I was terrified. I was requested to perform one modern piece, for which I chose one of the monologues I had written at drama school - it had served me well in the job stakes thus far - and a speech from Shakespeare. I chose Hermione from The Winters Tale. The famous justice speech in Act III, Scene 2.

The rush of excitement and the terror I felt stepping onto that National Theatre stage that morning, fearing that my jelly legs would not carry me to down centre, heart beating like a kettle drum,  cannot be described. The directors were seated about five rows back in the stalls. The stage was lit by what is called its working lights, which meant that I could not see the men clearly, while for them I was fully exposed. Olivier rose and made his way to the foot of the apron of the stage. He was charming and, most importantly, knew how to embrace my terror and without saying anything in particular, put me at my ease. He asked me a little about myself and then said:
"Would you like to do something for us?"
As though there was a choice in the matter, as though I was doing them a favour. I said I would begin with my modern speech.
"What are you going to perform for us?" He asked smiling. I announced that I had written it myself. He swung on his heels towards his companions and then back to me.
"Well, that’s a first," he joked. "Off you go then." He returned to the fifth row while I set my scene. Cigarette, chair, before taking a moment to compose myself, to get into character. And off I launched. It was a hard-hitting emotional piece.
When I had finished he returned to the foot of stage, his hands were clasped together. "Bravo, bravo, baby," he exclaimed.
He was smiling and he seemed a little amused.
"Now. What’s next? Have you also written the Shakespeare yourself?" 

                                                             Laurence Olivier - 1961

I was offered a place in the company, at a junior level. What is known as 'walk-ons and bit parts'. From there you would hope to work your way up the ladder. Within six months or so I was playing Mariana in Measure for Measure directed by the wonderful and very brilliant Jonathan Miller. But at all times, Olivier took me under his wing. He sometimes stood in the shadows at rehearsals and would climb the several flights of stairs to the dressing rooms at the top of the building, known as the chorus rooms. In the early days of my contract, I shared one of those dressing rooms with six other young hopefuls, but later I was moved down a floor or two. Olivier, who always insisted I call him Larry, gave me notes, talked me through character choices. He was a mentor to me. I learned a great deal from him. Also, from watching him in rehearsals. If I was involved in a production, I would attend every rehearsal just to study the evolution of his character, the developing performance.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Julius Caesar Act IV,  Scene 3

I knew I was in the presence of greatness every working day of my life and I was certain that however my own career unfolded, these were moments to grab by the horns and live greedily.

I leave you with Laurence Olivier as Othello and a young, sleeping Maggie Smith as Desdemona

Before I went to drama school, one of my little duties working backstage at the Old Vic was to take the white robe of raw silk, seen in the clip above, to Olivier in his dressing room, where his dresser, Christopher, awaited it.  Olivier, already blacked up for the role, would be seated before his mirror sipping a small whisky, preparing for the performance. Back then, it was an honour of such magnitude for me and on the nights when he acknowledged my presence and spoke to me, I knew the rush of 'flights of angels'.

One little after note that has amused me. While writing this blog, I went onto the internet to look for a portrait photo of Olivier and dozens of pictures of olive trees came up. I was puzzled for an instant until I realised that the word olivier is French for olive tree...

Monday, 25 April 2016

Shakespeare and Children by Miranda Miller


   I’m about to become a grandmother and I’ve been wondering how to pass on my enthusiasms. A long time before the dreary experience of ‘doing’ Shakespeare at school (reading the plays around the class), I was lucky enough to be introduced to him in other ways. As a stagestruck child, when I was about ten I went to drama classes where I had to learn speeches from The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was fat and looked and felt more like Caliban than Puck; no self respecting fairy bower would have had me in it. Did I understand all the words? Probably not, but their richness and rhythms gave me enormous pleasure and I can still remember chunks of the speeches I learned then. In the 60s I saw a lot of wonderful RSC productions, most memorably Vanessa Redgrave in As You Like It, David Warner’s Hamlet and John Barton’s extraordinary rewriting of the history plays, The Wars of the Roses. In my early teens I was taught by a brilliant woman, Mavis Walker, and learned speeches of Rosalind, Viola, Olivia, Juliet, Cleopatra, Ophelia and Imogen. After my rather wooden performances we would sit down and discuss the psychology of these women and the themes of the plays. My dramatic career reached its heights when I played Romeo in the school play but I was left with a rich sense of the life of these plays and the people who inhabit them.

   So what is the right age to start enjoying Shakepeare? Ever since Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare was first published in 1807, people have been trying to simplify Shakespeare for children. They are wonderful stories and children do respond to them but what about the real thing? Cbeebies, the BBC channel for children under six, has bravely decided that you’re never too young and there is now a CBeebies interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, filmed at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and starring the channel’s best-known presenter, Justin Fletcher, as Bottom, and his side-kick Steve Kynman as Shakespeare.

     I agree with Gregory Doran, the Artistic Director of the RSC, who believes that children as young as five should be exposed to Shakespeare and argues that they aren’t put off by the complexity of the language:

“You have to let the bug bite before kids get cynical. Letting them get involved when they are 13 is much harder than getting to kids earlier, without all the prejudices and stresses and strains of the idea that Shakespeare is somehow difficult or boring or academic,” he said. “With my own experience of getting to know Shakespeare as a child, I was grabbed by the stories first of all. Then you grow up and become engaged by the language. But it’s more than just good stories and nice language. It’s about ethics and morality.”

   Working with primary schools across Britain, the RSC have found that children from Key Stage 1 (aged five to seven) have been “captivated” by Shakespeare. They work with abridged versions of the plays, focusing on particular scenes, but are exposed to the original language rather than a simplified version of the text. In a recent experiment, the RSC streamed video of its production of Richard II, starring David Tennant, to more than 7,000 primary school children.

   One teacher from Bolton wrote of her seven-year-old pupils: “About 20 minutes into the performance, as I looked around at all the wide-eyed little faces looking up toward the screen, I thought I was going to cry. It gave our kids the opportunity to see the RSC for the first time in their lives. As one child in Year 3 said, 'Miss, is this for real?’ ”

   In 2012 Simon Schama responded to critics who claimed that Shakespeare’s plays can’t be understood by most people: “I think it’s incredibly patronising of anybody to suppose that is true of Shakespeare. I was recently on the judging panel of Shakespeare by Heart (Off By Heart Shakespeare, a recital contest for secondary school children).   “We were listening to children, all from state schools, who learned long speeches by Shakespeare. They weren’t all white, they weren’t all pink or beige, they were exactly the face of young Britain that you’d expect and had absolutely no problem with the language or meaning of the plays. They were utterly wonderful. Shakespeare isn’t scary. It shouldn’t be scary. And to suggest that schools, for example, shouldn’t teach him or should teach him less because he’s not 'accessible’ is robbing children of an incredible experience with their own language and an understanding of what it means to be human.”

   Shakespeare’s Globe offers exciting educational activities for families and children all year round, including backstage tours, a Family Literary Festival, a digital playground zone and interactive films. I can’t wait