Meet the people who dress to impress English Heritage
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 July 2015
Terry Fletcher visits the costume department at English Heritage
How exactly does someone become an executioner or a recruiting sergeant or a monk? Or, come to that, Henry VIII? For John White the answer is simple. It’s all about getting the costume right.
John works at English Heritage sites all over Yorkshire helping to bring history to life for thousands of visitors. He calls himself a ‘performance historian’ and has more than 30 characters he can inhabit according to the place and event he is attending. Each is the result of meticulous research, requiring a rigorously authentic outfit from the soles of their often bespoke shoes to their cap. Some of the items are specially made but others are genuine artefacts from the period, collected by John during his 25-year career.
‘I must be a bit of a method actor,’ he says. ‘If you ask me to speak like a Georgian I could not do it but as soon as I put on the costume it just happens naturally.’
The centenary of the First World War has seen great interest in Fredrick White, a recruiting sergeant for the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. To play him, John developed an entire biography for the old soldier and his past campaigns.
‘I had to gather together appropriate medals from his previous campaigns and make sure I had his back story ready in case somebody asked me where he won them or what he got them for,’ he explains.
It’s a task that draws perfectly on John’s own background. He has a degree in history and a masters in heritage management allied to a penchant for performing.
It’s a path almost mirrored by Dr Kate Vigurs, an associate research fellow at Leeds University. Her first degree was in drama but her PhD is in the history of the clandestine Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, providing a perfect combination for her work as a ‘live historical interpreter’.
Currently, her busiest character is a female secret agent. She covers the recruitment and training of women spies and saboteurs as well as their work behind enemy lines in occupied Europe.
‘It sounds glamorous but it has to be scrupulously accurate,’ she says. ‘The scripts are all taken from autobiographies of people involved or from eyewitness accounts.
‘One performance involves the recruitment and training of women agents. As part of that I put a sten gun together. The second part is about infiltration into occupied France and what life was like for agents. My character used to end up in a concentration camp, as some agents did, but now we’ve given her a slightly happier ending.’
Kate’s company, History’s Maid, also provides knights for mediaeval sites, such as Conisbrough Castle, near Doncaster, where visitors can see how they were armed and fought.
‘Through live interpretation, people realise that history is about real flesh and blood people; human beings just like them,’ she says. ‘To see them up close and personal, alive and in colour rather than in old black and white photographs makes the history tangible. I think it’s helping to get more people interested in history, leading to increased visitor numbers and lots more on television.’
John agrees. He has done a lot of TV and film work, both as an historical advisor and as an actor. His particular passion is the Napoleonic Wars and he was an advisor on the Sharpe series starring Sean Bean as well as a film of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novel Wolf Hall has also created an increased demand for his presentation of Henry VIII.
Carl Hutton, English Heritage’s events manager for the north, says the use of live interpreters is an increasingly important part of the charity’s activities.
‘We have 100 or more events across Yorkshire during the year and they are a key focus in bringing the sites to life,’ he says. ‘For children especially, it’s far more powerful and memorable to be told the history by a character rather than reading it off an information panel.
‘It’s important that the information is put across in an entertaining way but it’s also crucial that it’s authentic and credible. The people we use take their work very seriously and make sure it’s accurate, which allows us to put on an increasing range of events. That might be drill or battles at mediaeval sites to more domestic things at somewhere like Brodsworth Hall where they can take the roles of people we know from archives and letters lived or worked in the house.
‘The very best ones don’t need to work from a script all the time but can respond to the public in character from their background knowledge, which is quite an art. They make the sites live and breathe again.’ w
To find out what’s going on at English Heritage sites around Yorkshire this summer, visit english-heritage.org.uk