The Jasper Britton Script Collection

To compliment our current exhibition on the SIL’s Actor’s Script Collection here’s a blog originally posted in 2014 on the scripts of Jasper Britton.

Shakespeare Institute Library

With Jasper Britton returning to the Royal Shakespeare Company to play the eponymous character in Gregory Doran’s productions of Henry IV, it seems a good time to delve into one of our newest collections in the Shakespeare Institute Library. Our intrepid leader, Karin Brown, is making great strides in expanding the SIL’s special collections, especially those items connected with the performance history of early modern plays. The Jasper Britton Script Collection contains five treasures from four of his Globe and RSC appearances: Macbeth and The Tempest from productions at the former and Gregory Doran’s productions of The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed from 2003.

Jasper Britton in rehearsal for Henry IV Jasper Britton in rehearsal for Henry IV
Photo: Kwame Lestrade

Britton’s association with the RSC begins long before our script collection, having appeared in A Jovial Crew, The Beggar’s Opera, as Meander in Terry Hands’ production of Tamburlaine

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Actors Approaching Shakespeare: the SIL Actor’s Script Collection

Janet Suzman

SIL Librarian, Karin Brown & Janet Suzman, on receiving the Suzman Collection, 2017

In the summer of 2017 the Shakespeare Institute Library was extremely fortunate to receive the first delivery of Janet Suzman’s script archive. It was like opening a treasure chest; with great excitement the script for the definitive performance of Cleopatra for a generation (and possibly beyond) was lifted from her suitcase! In order to celebrate the arrival of Janet Suzman’s collection and to promote the wonderful research possibilities in the SIL script collection we decided to hold an exhibition of some of these treasures.

Actor’s scripts are held both a the SIL and in the Cadbury Research Library in Birmingham (the most exciting in term of Shakespeare studies at the CRL, Laurence Olivier’s script for Hotspur in the Old Vic production of I Henry IV, 1945).

The collections of Janet Suzman and Samuel West hold their work as both actors and directors of Shakespeare’s works. Suzman’s iconic production of Othello for the Market Theatre Johannesburg, 1987, is included in the collection and, as well as her own notes as director, contains the detailed notes of Richard Haddon Haines who played Iago in that production, described by one reviewer as ‘a personification of the devil’.

OTH 1987 Janet Suzman and cast

Janet Suzman with the cast of Othello

The collection also holds her directorial notes for her own production of Antony and Cleopatra staged in 2012 with Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra and Michael Pennington as Antony. Suzman claimed, ‘I’d go as far as to say she’s the most interesting role for a woman ever’ and went on to state that it was her favourite role ‘by miles’.

suzman cleo

Antony & Cleopatra, RSC 1972 Photo: Reg Wilson

Suzman’s own heavily annotated script for her performance as Cleopatra at the RSC in 1972 contains fascinating detail on her creation of the character with many notes focusing on the Cleopatra’s physicality: stillness in self-control and power, franticness in the lunacy of love, and her penchant for performance.

In contrast, in Samuel West’s heavily annotated script for Hamlet (RSC, 2001), you have a fascinating read which follows in depth the emotional, metaphysical and psychological journey of the character (and the actor for that matter) through every act and scene.

DSH27_3 2001 HAM 01

Pages from Samuel West’s rehearsal notebook, using a family photo of himself for a visualization of young Hamlet. A friend of the family has become Hamlet’s Dad as they play in the Elsinore garden. The age and the date refer to Hamlet who in this modern dress production of 2001 would have been 9 in 1980.


Whilst working on Hamlet, West produced three notebooks and one very heavily annotated script. The notebooks cover his initial thoughts and ‘homework’ on the play; his rehearsal process;  and fine-tuning of his performance in previews. His ‘reading list’ includes sources as diverse as The Spanish Tragedy, Festen, Fight Club and Batman. There are references to Mamet, Ibsen and Thoreau in the script; and in finding contemporary relevance in the play he notes that ‘I’m Dennis Skinner to Tony Blair’s Claudius.’

Jasper Britton’s casting as Richard III was significant as he is one of the few disabled actors to have played this demanding role. Directed for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 1995 by the actor Brian Cox, it was the performance which launched Britton’s career as a classical actor. In a written interview, Britton described his pragmatic approach:

Britton RIII

Jasper Britton as Richard III, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 1995

“I was in pain all the time, I couldn’t walk properly, and was carrying all the associated emotional and spiritual baggage… great writers have done the work for you as an actor. Ignore that at your peril, because you will embark on a niminy piminy journey of minor and pointless embroidery…

I had no movement in my right hip at all and very little in my left. In addition my pelvis was tilted on the right side by subconscious muscular contraction (over which I had no control) by 2 to 2.5 inches, effectively making an apparent leg length difference of those measurements. I didn’t have to try too hard to be a hunchback cripple.”

Of course, the actor’s script is a personal working document but also a key text to uncovering the rehearsal process in which the actor learns from director, fellow actors, voice coach, etc. In his script for Richard III Britton noted that Richard’s soliloquy of self-doubt after his ghostly visitations, is the character haunting himself. When asked about this illuminating note in the script Britton remarked:

“Well I dunno who said that about me haunting myself, could’ve been Brian Cox, or the cleaner at the end of the day. Could even have been me… you never know.”

Actor’s scripts held by the University include those belonging to Janet Suzman (SIL), Samuel West (SIL), Nigel Hawthorne (SIL), Jasper Britton (SIL), Norman Painting (CRL), John Gielgud (CRL), Laurence Olivier (CRL), and Noel Coward (CRL)

(SIL – held at the Shakespeare Institute Library, Stratford-upon-Avon / CRL – held at the Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham)

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Good Queen Bess meets Master Shakespeare

All in the playhouse have fallen to their knees as the Queen herself, glittering in gold, emerges from the gallery. Master Shakespeare bows before her. ‘Next time you come to Greenwich’ Elizabeth tells him, ‘we will speak some more.’ Then, leaving, she tosses an afterthought over her shoulder: ‘Tell Master Shakespeare, something more cheerful next time….for Twelfth Night.’


Whatever you think of Shakespeare in Love, this scene in the film reveals a great deal about how Elizabeth and Shakespeare are perceived. In the same scene, Elizabeth addresses first a boy among the groundlings, and then a Lord. She appears truly democratic, able to mix with her people and communicate freely with them. But more importantly she is portrayed as keenly interested in the new genre: theatre. Master Shakespeare is known to her – she has just seen Romeo and Juliet, with Shakespeare himself playing Romeo. Evidently Master Shakespeare is, in some capacity, a regular at her palace at Greenwich and now she invites him there for a personal conference. She also actively commissions a new play for Twelfth Night and so appears as the patron and enabler of Shakespeare’s plays. He is her protégé, classless in being elevated above his rural origins, and enjoying a relationship with a Queen whose remarkable insight has recognised his genius.

Elizabeth and Shakespeare are each individual icons but together they are even more powerful. We enjoy the traditional perception of a celebrated ruler and revered poet jointly producing the birth of national greatness and national literature. The picture of an Elizabethan Golden Age, of ‘Merrie England’, of Good Queen Bess, of the plays and characters of Shakespeare is attractive to us. We relish the idea of an imagined relationship between Elizabeth and Shakespeare. It is so deeply ingrained  in our culture and occurs so frequently that we cling to it, without bothering much about historical truth.

The scene in Shakespeare in Love is complete fiction. There is no evidence that playwright and Queen ever met. Many anecdotes have Elizabeth visiting a playhouse – usually the Globe – but the monarch would not have done so. Playhouses were situated on the notorious south bank of the Thames and were regarded as dens of vice. It would have been so shocking and sensational for Elizabeth to have gone there that such an event must have been reliably recorded.

Players traditionally had been summoned to great houses and palaces. If Elizabeth and Shakespeare did meet, the most likely place was at court, at the performance of a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare himself was the leading member and resident playwright of the company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Records show that 33 performances by them took place at court between 1594 and Elizabeth’s death in 1603, and Shakespeare’s plays must often have been performed.

It is likely that Elizabeth would have seen Shakespeare perform: in the First Folio, his name is first in the lists of ‘The Names of the Principall Actors in all these Plays’ He might even have been presented to the Queen; this was not an unusual practice. He might have seen her on the river – the ornate royal barge was kept near the playhouses – or have watched her setting out on, or returning from one of her Royal Progresses. Early on, these took her to Charlecote and Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and the boy Shakespeare might have glimpsed her from among the crowds. But there can only be educated guesses, based on scanty and inconclusive references, as to whether the two ever came face to face, exchanged words or enjoyed any sort of relationship.

Shakespeare-Beginner-Workshop-770-x-430It is in the posthumous ‘lives’ of Shakespeare and Elizabeth that they begin to flourish as a dual icon.   Far from being a ‘golden’ age, England was violent, unstable and divided. Yet both in her life and after her death in 1603, Elizabeth retained the status of national icon. Shakespeare died in retirement in SUA in 1616 but his passing caused hardly a ripple in the short term. Would his work have been lost had not The First Folio appeared in 1623?

At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Shakespeare’s plays were revived and became part of the core repertoire, though greatly altered and revised. The ghost of Shakespeare began to appear in epilogues and prologues, encouraging excellence in dramatic and national endeavour. Then, in the first biography of Shakespeare, in 1709, Nicholas Rowe stated that “Queen Elizabeth had several of his Plays Acted before her, and without doubt gave him many gracious Marks of her Favour.” Rowe could not say what these favours were and, in any case, had drawn his information from oral sources, but this picture of a warm relationship had enduring appeal and influence.

Rowe also details the episode at Charlecote where the young Shakespeare was allegedly imprisoned for deer poaching. His account is embellished in the Biographica Britannica in 1793 where the story goes that Shakespeare petitioned the Queen in writing and owed his release to her kindness. It is highly unlikely that Elizabeth would intervene in the case of an unknown young man in rural Warwickshire, but it was a chance for the biographer to show how her mercy took Shakespeare to London – and was thus the indirect catalyst of his career – along with the suggestion that her amazing acuity had spotted a genius in embryo.

Shakespeare1aIn the 1750s Shakespeare’s status had soared and five editions of the plays were in existence. A memorial statue was placed in Westminster Abbey, showing Shakespeare, noble and pensive – far from the wayward deer-poacher – with the masks of Elizabeth, Henry V and James I placed  below him.  Dictionaries, books of quotations, essays and poems on Shakespeare began to be current and were collected in the libraries of great houses. To know Shakespeare and to quote from him was becoming the mark of a cultivated mind, of status and of education. Garrick’s Jubilee in 1787 in Stratford-upon-Avon, attended by the great and the good, cemented Shakespeare’s position as ‘The Bard of Bards.’

Another connection between Queen and Playwright was provided by one John Dennis who had revised The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I knew very well’ he declared boldly ‘that it had pleased one of the greatest Queens that ever was.’  Elizabeth, he went on to claim, wishing to enjoy the spectacle of Falstaff in love, had commissioned the comedy with a fourteen day deadline. Shakespeare, however, wrote the play in only ten. This anecdote is still current among the many others relating to the pair, and had the effect of merging Elizabeth’s reputation with the now high-flying status of Shakespeare, so that her regal power and his literary genius became closely associated.

shakes and liz

The myths roll on with Robert Ryan’s retelling of a story which has Elizabeth watching a play in which Shakespeare had taken the role of a king. To attract his attention, she throws down her glove and, without missing a beat, Shakespeare, retrieves it, effortlessly ad-libbing with ‘And though now bent on this high embassy/Yet stoop we to take up our cousin’s glove.’ When Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth  appeared in 1821, Shakespeare is produced in conversation with the Queen, as an adult and an accomplished playwright, though the novel deals with the year of the Princely Pleasures: 1575, when Shakespeare was only eleven.

Floods of novels, plays and paintings followed Kenilworth, often flagrantly distorting the chronology of the lives of Elizabeth and Shakespeare so that they meet, talk, flirt and even discuss or quote from plays not actually written until after the Queen’s death. Shakespeare-based paintings appeared regularly in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, many of them depicting Shakespeare and Elizabeth together. They were so numerous as almost to constitute a new genre and the fact that a female monarch now occupied the British throne gave new relevance to Elizabeth’s Golden Age. It was important to the self-image of Victorian Britain, that Queen Victoria asserted its imperial authority and national identity, as Elizabeth had done. And so, a Shakespeare play was performed every Christmas at Windsor before the royal family, much as Shakespeare’s troupe had been summoned to perform at Greenwich Palace.


Shakespeare Reading to Queen Elizabeth I by John James Chalon (1778-1854)

Shakespeare and Elizabeth continued to be represented together in the 20th century. In the USA they became icons associated with ideas of democracy , freedom, and  female power. It was a major Hollywood studio which financed Shakespeare in Love and constructed an artistic package which was British in essence, but which was designed to succeed in America, with record box-office takings and multiple Oscars.

In Britain, the two World Wars created both national pride and national insecurity while theatre direction and literary criticism moved away from the portrayal of a stable world over which Shakespeare and Elizabeth presided. History began to be viewed differently. New ways of looking back and understanding the past produced new Shakespeares, new Elizabeths and new encounters between them. It was suggested that they had been lovers or that Shakespeare was Elizabeth’s son. In the ultimate merging of two glorious icons,  Elizabeth actually becomes Shakespeare and is the author of the plays.


Upstart Crow Christmas Special, 2017 with Emma Thompson as Elizabeth I and David Mitchell as Shakespeare

Now, in the 21st century, Shakespeare and Elizabeth enjoy an active afterlife in the digital realm, via Facebook and other social networking platforms. They have met many times, go on meeting and are likely to go on meeting for some time to come.

Bettina Harris, LSA

‘The gloomy and sublime kind of terror’ of Ann Radcliffe and Shakespeare

In an essay written in 1920, Clara McIntyre argues that the very term Gothic is a misnomer, that:

The novels of Mrs Radcliffe and her followers … are not an expression of the life and spirit of the Middle Ages, if this is what the term Gothic means. They are, rather, an expression of the life and spirit of the Renaissance, as Elizabethan England had interpreted the Renaissance.

Haunted castles, violent and unnatural murder and bloody revenge are the stuff of Renaissance tragedy, and they are also the essence of Gothic literature. In our modern understanding of the term Gothic this can be traced from characters such as Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, through to Edgar in King Lear, and from Shakespeare’s earliest to his later plays, from Titus Andronicus to The Tempest. There is a strong cross-fertilisation between Shakespeare and the Gothic novel. The novels of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, are so dependent on this cross-fertilisation as to make the two forms near inseparable with regards to the conception of character, plot, and textual choices.

Essayist Nathan Drake referred to Ann Radcliffe as ‘the Shakespeare of Romance writers.’ Ann Ward was born in Holborn, London, in 1764 – the same year as the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Her most famous novel is probably The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794. Her portrayal of the rapture and terrors of her characters’ imaginations is vivid and compelling, and she is one of the first novelists to use descriptions of landscape, weather, and the effects of light as mirrors to the emotions and circumstances of her leading characters. Although Otranto is considered the first Gothic novel, it was Radcliffe who took up the mantle, defined the genre and inspired other writers in new form. As Camille Paglia pointed out, ‘it is a rare example of a woman creating an artistic style.’

In 1826, Radcliffe wrote an essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” for The New Monthly Magazine which not only helped define the Gothic but espoused Shakespeare as the major proponent of ‘the Sublime’ as described by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The essay took the form of a dialogue between Willoughton, “the apostle of Shakespeare,” and Mr. Simpson, “the representative of Philistine common sense”:

[W____:]”Who ever suffered for the ghost of Banquo, the gloomy and sublime kind of terror, which that of Hamlet calls forth? though the appearance of Banquo, at the high festival of Macbeth, not only tells us that he is murdered, but recalls to our minds the fate of the gracious Duncan, laid in silence and death by those who, in this very scene, are reveling in his spoils. There, though deep pity mingles with our surprise and horror, we experience a far less degree of interest, and that interest too of an inferior kind. The union of grandeur and obscurity, which Mr. Burke describes as a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror, and which causes the sublime, is to be found only in Hamlet; or in scenes where circumstances of the same kind prevail.”

“That may be,” said Mr. S____, “and I perceive you are not one of those who contend that obscurity does not make any part of the sublime.” “They must be men of very cold imaginations,” said W____, “with whom certainty is more terrible than surmise. Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?

Radcliffe’s knowledge of Shakespeare was encyclopaedic, her books permeated with borrowings from the Bard – direct quotes, borrowed language, plot devices, castle and forest settings. She regularly prefaces her chapters with quotes from Shakespeare and she displays a particular love of Hamlet. This love may well be traced to a period in her youth when, staying at Bath she was fortunate enough to see the great actress Sarah Siddons act in some of her most famous roles. At a special benefit performance at Bristol Theatre Royal, on 27 June 1781, Sarah Siddons performed Hamlet for the sixth time, and this performance may well have had a profound effect on the future novelist. An examination of her novels shows the extent to which, what may be called ‘the Siddons effect’, informed Radcliffe’s creative imagination. In her essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ she writes:

Mrs Siddons, like Shakspeare, always disappears in the character she represents, and throws an illusion over the whole scene around her, that conceals many defects in the arrangements of the theatre. I should suppose she would be the finest Hamlet that ever appeared, excelling even her own brother in that character; she would more fully preserve the tender and refined melancholy, the deep sensibility, which are the peculiar charm of Hamlet, and which appear not only in the ardour, but in the occasional irresolution and weakness of his character – the secret spring that reconciles all his inconsistencies. A sensibility so profound can with difficulty be justly imagined, and therefore can very rarely be assumed. Her brother’s firmness, incapable of being always subdued, does not so fully enhance, as her tenderness would, this part of the character. The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.’(p.163)

The last part of this is instructive. Radcliffe, echoing Edmund Burke, likens the light upon a mountain to the light that an actor – in this case Siddons – and indeed she herself, throws upon her heroines. She eschews ‘rugged sharpness’ in favour of a gloomy tint which magnifies ‘while it obscures’. The conditional ‘would’ here, covers the fact that the seventeen year old Ann Radcliffe did see Sarah Siddons as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Bristol on 27 June 1781, and that on that night the Radcliffian heroine was born in the mind of the author. James Boaden ‘imagined that she [Siddons] must have far surpassed her brother Philip in communicating the Prince’s “real feminine alarm”.’ This Siddonsesque ‘tender and refined melancholy’ and ‘deep sensibility’ and, most of all, ‘real feminine alarm’, are keynotes to the characters of Julia in A Sicilian Romance, and are developed further in Adeline in The Romance of the Forest, and Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Where there’s a Hamlet there’s a Ghost and in Udolpho, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is summoned at the start of the novel by Radcliffe’s use of the epigraph to Volume 1 Chapter 2, ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul’. Following Emily’s father’s death, Emily’s fancy that she ‘almost … saw him before her’ is reminiscent of Hamlet’s mental vision of his father before he sees his ghost, ‘in my mind’s eye, Horatio.’ (1.2.184).

The dead St. Aubert appears before Emily in an armchair – and she is immediately after described, like Hamlet, as being susceptible to the ‘thick coming fancies of a mind greatly enervated’ (memories of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth also obviously playing in Radcliffe’s memories here).

As ever, Ann Radcliffe meters up the gloom, tension and fear for her central protagonist. Udolpho, like Elsinore, continues to be bedevilled by mysterious sightings. Emily herself perceives the mysterious figure on the ramparts which has so petrified the watch. Radcliffe writes:

Her scattered thoughts were now so far returned as to remind her, that her light exposed her to dangerous observation, and she was stepping back to remove it, when she perceived the figure move, and then wave what seemed to be its arm, as if to beckon her, and, while she gazed, fixed in fear, it repeated the action.

Parallels with Hamlet continue when it becomes clear that the villain of the piece, Montoni, is a Claudius-type character. He usurps St. Aubert and inherits Udolpho by villainous means – in much the same way that Claudius inherits Elsinore.  He murders his wife and plans to bury her ‘hugger-mugger’ so to speak, until Emily entreats him otherwise. Radcliffe is at her sublime best in the ensuing description of the pitiable Madame Montoni’s funeral. She cites the painter Dominico Zampieri openly as an influence, but she scarcely needs to. Her plangent gothic description, as gleams of light play in and out of the vault surrounding the torch lit grave, suffices to give the scene an almost filmic quality, as if Radcliffe wants to stage Ophelia’s burial with proper decorum.

Radcliffe’s Shakespearean Gothic had a massive influence on literature and her contemporaries – one need only look at the affect she had on Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. Matthew Gregory Lewis was born in London on 9 July 1775, the son of a Deputy Secretary at the War Office. He left Oxford University intending to follow a career in the diplomatic office like his father, but on his journey towards the Hague where he was due to take up a position as attaché, he read a novel which was to change his life. The nineteen-year-old Lewis picked up Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho whilst on the boat over to the Netherlands and fell under it’s spell declaring it to be ‘one of the most interesting books ever published’.  It was during this period, before his father recalled him back to England, that he wrote The Monk in the space of ten weeks. Lewis’s The Monk caused so much of a sensation that the title even worked itself into his name. The Monk, which scandalised late-eighteenth century literary society, is partly driven by a Shakespearean osmosis. Indeed, as if prepared for the storm the novel would provoke, Lewis apes Hamlet in his Preface ‘An Imitation of Horace’:

Go then, and pass that dangerous bourn

Whence never Book can back return:

Book One of the novel proper opens appropriately with a quotation from Measure for Measure:

Lord Angelo is precise;

Stands at a guard with envy; Scarce confesses

That his blood flows, or that his appetite

Is more to bread than stone.

… thus signalling to us the incipient hypocrisy and underlying concupiscence of the eponymous Monk Ambrosio, who in the course of the novel sells his soul to the Devil with fatal results having along the way indulged himself in obscene occult and sexual practices.

Radcliffe received an unprecedented £500 advance for The Mysteries of Udolpho. Udolpho. She outsold every other author of her day. Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, very little documentary evidence remains of Radcliffe’s life.  Gothic scholar Robert Miles commented:

Ann Radcliffe was, in her day, the obscurest woman of letters in England. Her contemporaries despaired of learning anything about her, while Christina Rossetti abandoned her planned biography for lack of materials.

In the British Library’s 2014 exhibition on the Gothic ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ a rare letter from Radcliffe to her mother-in-law was displayed for the first time – one of the few personal documents of her life remaining. 

Newly discovered Ann Radcliffe letter, 31 August, London. Photography (c) British Library Board

In the 20th century Gothic studies have revived an interest in the works and life of Radcliffe and especially her relationship to the works of Shakespeare::

Shakespearean Gothic / Christy Desmet and Anne Williams.
Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2008 (SI Library PR2973)

Gothic Shakespeares / edited by John Drakakis, Dale Townshend.
London : Routledge, 2008 (SI Library PR2976)

For more information check out the British Library’s Introduction to Ann Radcliffe.

You can also read more about editions of her work in this piece by Chawton House Library.

A audio version of Udolpho can be found on Box of Broadcasts: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Karin Brown (Shakespeare Institute Librarian) & David Brown (Alumni of the Shakespeare Institute)

Touring Shakespeare in India with Wendy

Transcribing the Wendy Beavis Archive

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may remember one from this time last year, written by Kate Welch, describing the recent acquisition of a collection of letters and other ephemera relating to the actress Wendy Beavis, who toured India in the 1950s with the theatre company, Shakespeareana¸ run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal. Work on transcribing this collection is now well under way, with the added impetus that it is now being used by a Shakespeare Institute alumnus, Thea Buckley, to put together a book proposal about Shakespeare in India. This archive certainly provides plenty of useful material for that.

Wendy B 1Wendy was born near London in 1932, but grew up in Sutton Coldfield, was educated at a convent school in nearby Erdington and attended the Birmingham School of Drama where she studied acting for two years. She also trained as a model, which is possibly when this photograph was taken. In her letters to her parents from India, Wendy often asks them to send ‘repros’ of the big photographs, as ‘we are always being asked for photographs, and they would be handy’.

After leaving the BSD, she joined the Rex Deering Repertory Company, touring around the Midlands in the early 1950s, before joining Shakespeareana and setting off for India in June 1953. She returned home in October 1956 and, as far as we know, never  acted again.

Transcribing the letters has proved a fascinating project and as time goes on,  (for us and for Wendy), it is possible to build a picture of this young woman who left for India over sixty years ago. After getting used to some of her foibles (always writing ‘+’ for ‘and’; peppering every sentence with dashes; squeezing everything into one small airmail letter with no paragraphs in order to make economical use of the paper; always employing the ‘i before e’ rule, but often forgetting the exceptions – ‘wiegh’,’ viel’), we encounter a letter-writer who takes pleasure in using an unusual green ink, or in mailing her letters in long envelopes. All this of course has to be recorded in the transcripts: although it is very easy to ‘correct’ small mistakes without even noticing, it is important that the letters appear as Wendy wrote them – warts and all. This is how we get to know her. Always darting from one topic to another, often leaving the letters half-written (on one occasion, because she was due on stage!), then coming back to them, once, twice, three times.

She writes to her parents at least once a week for the entire three years that she was away, and the things she chooses to write about are revealing. It becomes increasingly clear that there are aspects of life in India that she chooses NOT to tell her parents about, and when reading this archive, it is important to bear in mind that she was writing for a very specific audience. She describes the places the Company stays, from the grim boarding houses in rural areas of India, to the occasional sojourn in a luxurious hotel in Calcutta or Simla; the weather – of course! – and the food – at first strange and exotic, but then, she discovers, absolutely delicious! She learned quickly, as many a traveller does, that eating local food is far more rewarding and tasty than expecting to find chips or a decent shepherd’s pie. She complains that meat in India is ‘awful’ and more than once, she considers becoming a vegetarian.


She writes a lot about her clothes (or lack of them) – although she often has new dresses made locally; money (or lack of it); how she spends her free time – swimming, going to the wrestling (!), visiting coffee houses, trips to the cinema. She talks a lot about her fellow actors, and some she clearly gets on better with than others: Jennifer (the Kendal’s eldest daughter) becomes a great friend, but Nancy and her untidy ways does not meet with much favour. Seven-year-old Foo (Felicity Kendal) however, is everybody’s darling! Wendy often comments on what Foo has been up to in her letters. She seems to miss a lot of things from home –  whether this might be exaggerated for her parent’s benefit is anybody’s guess – but she talks longingly of the garden, her cat and ‘mummy’s’ home cooking. She remembers birthdays and anniversaries  and often sends presents home, although the vagaries and frustrations of sending and receiving international mail take up a great deal of her attention. Letters are lost, delayed and cross in the post, while some parcels sent from England have to be sent back unopened because the duty charged is too high for her to pay.

It has been noted before that one of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that we only get one side of the story. However, in this case, Wendy is so meticulous at responding to the details of her parents letters in her replies, that in fact, we have a very good idea of the contents of their letters to her. We also learn in this way about the home she left behind, neighbours, friends and relations who are all mentioned in her replies to her parent’s news about them. She shows concern at the death of the neighbour, Mrs Mason, and wonders what will become of her dog, Nip. And she apparently feels very badly that she is not at home to see her mother through a serious operation and its aftermath, although we might suspect that she was spared much of the detail here by her protective ‘Mummy and Daddy’.

Wendy B 2As well as all the day to day details of her life, Wendy does make occasional mention of the work she is there to do – the staging of theatrical productions for audiences around India. Although we can glean the company’s repertoire, some of the parts she played (the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion), and occasional details of her costumes and make-up, there is in fact frustratingly little information about the productions, how they were staged and how they were received. Perhaps she thought her parents wouldn’t be interested, or perhaps they didn’t quite approve of their daughter gallivanting off to foreign parts to be an actress, so she doesn’t dwell too much on this – who knows? But work she did, sometimes a punishing schedule with several performances a day: other times there was less work, but this of course was accompanied by less money. All carried out against a background of searing heat, monsoon rains, inevitable illnesses, the general frustrations and inconveniences of being on the road – and mosquitoes!

Much is already known about the work of Shakespeareana from Geoffrey Kendal’s book and then the subsequent film, Shakespeare Wallah, as well as Felicity Kendal’s later White Cargo, which tells the story of her childhood in India, touring with her parents’ theatre company. What the Beavis archive adds is another valuable facet to this story – and one which we hope to see in print in Thea’s book in the not too distant future.

Jill Francis and Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistants

Monkey Business in the SIL Archive

In 2003 a newspaper reported that the Arts Council for England had paid £2000 to test what became known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem. This claimed that an infinite number of monkeys, bashing random keys on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Six macaques were recruited for the study but only managed to produce five pages of text, mainly composed of the letter s. The experiment was taken further in 2011 when an American computer programmer claimed that his monkeys (virtual ones, this time) were 99.99% of the way through the Bard’s works. Academic scepticism naturally followed: ‘to type the complete works would take longer than the age of the universe.’ was the Daily Telegraph’s riposte.

These intriguing snippets were drawn from the Shakespeare Institute Library’s Cuttings Collection. Unique in the University of Birmingham, our archive includes articles from 1902 to 2017 – and ongoing – about every conceivable aspect of Shakespeare. No single day goes by without the appearance in the press of some reference or allusion to the man, his world or his works. Among a huge miscellany of topics, the language of Shakespeare is a constant thread throughout the Collection.

Tower of Strength
Among the earliest articles, Shakespeare is regarded as an architect of the English language: ‘Without (him)’ declares one columnist ‘much expression would vanish into thin air. We would be tongue-tied. He made English a tower of strength; those who think otherwise may knit their brows’. (1936). Another cutting, early in the last century, claims that Shakespeare’s treatment of English history elevates it to an artistic subject as great as the history of Rome. ‘His national self-dramatisation…made the English regard themselves as special – perhaps it still does.’

Exactly the same sentiment, over 50 years later, appears in an article by Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum. He writes:

‘Shakespeare gave England a new confidence in its own language and culture; at last there was a writer who was the equal of the greatest of the ancients… [he] forged a language that has certainly shaped how the English see themselves even today in relation to the world.’

With unconscious irony – this was pre-Brexit – MacGregor concludes that Shakespeare’s influence ‘still shapes the language in which to craft a proper place for the UK in relation to the European Union.’

Shakespeare’s legacy of words and phrases which have become permanent fixtures in the English language is considered regularly in the Cuttings Collection. An article from 1935 reports that compilers of a new English Dictionary at the University of Michigan, had counted 83 words (a number of them used or invented by Shakespeare) describing physical assault in Elizabethan English. There seems, too, a fascination with Shakespeare’s neologisms: ‘ Leapfrog, monumental and pedant’ were his coinings, a letter of 2009 informs us. Elsewhere, mention of the 17,000 words Shakespeare gave to the language is frequent. We are reminded of ‘eyesore, scuffle, buzzer and dedazzled’ but also ‘Bardic duds’ which never caught on such as ‘dispunge, fracted’ and ‘oppugnancy.’ The journalist Lynne Truss in 2000 offers more Shakespearian successes – ‘majestic, barefaced’ and ‘dwindle’- and more failures: ‘tortive’ and ‘vastidity’.

‘You vile standing tuck’
Newspaper articles across the Collection seem perennially to be fascinated by Shakespearean insults. A columnist from 2011, far from deprecating insulting language, suggested that 21st century swearing is too limited. We should emulate Shakespeare’s elaborate verbal inventions and avoid ‘the relentless barrage of four-letter words…(and)… the same flat monosyllables used in the present day.’ We know what he means. Shakespeare, meanwhile offers, ‘Pish for thee, Iceland dog,’ ‘Lazer kite of Cressid’s kind,’ ‘Viper vile’ and ‘Hound of Crete.’ Any of these, suggests the writer, might serve as ‘useful standbys in heavy traffic’.

One article of 2007 similarly laments the demise of the inventive and original insult and exalts Shakespeare as ‘the master of the well-turned slur.’ In fact, it usefully informs us, the Bard’s range of offensive terms is so large that there exists an insult kit for all occasions on the internet. Another columnist (2010) describes the birthday jumper given him by his daughter, emblazoned with Shakespearean abuse – ‘you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish.’ He hopes it marks a turning point in her education.

Historically, however, certain Shakespearean language has caused offence. A report from 1945 describes how Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V contravened the Hays Code – the set of moral guidelines that was then applied to motion pictures in America. The words ‘damn’ and ‘bastard’ were deplored, along with undesirable references to ‘the Deity.’ Olivier was required to reshoot the ‘offensive scenes.’ before the film could be released. Later that year, the crisis was over: ‘Profound thought’ says the Evening Standard sarcastically ‘has produced a solution. The word is now ‘dastard’.’ One imagines the difficulties had the play been King Lear – (think Edmund, think bastard). Times have changed though: there is actually an ‘Insults Chair’ in the RST, mentioned in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald’s 2009 article about the creation of new theatre complex. For only a small fee one can sit enthroned and enjoy a barrage of Shakespearean invective through headphones.

‘Stage knee-deep with debris‘
A striking concentration of references to Shakespeare occurs in newscuttings from World War 11 (1939-45). It appears that his is the only language adequate to expressing the mood and events of those critical years. ‘Words of comfort’ appear regularly in the Daily Mirror, offering short quotations from Shakespeare to cheer and rally its readers. As the end of the war approaches, the historian A.L. Rowse, contributes an article in which he comments on events:

‘It was Shakespeare’s fortune to live, as we do ourselves, in a heroic time for our people. He gave expression…to the soaring spirit and pride…having come through…the struggle with the great world-empire of Spain…we are one country that has held on against a stronger foe…until now… we stand on the threshold of the last assault.’

Numerous theatre productions of Shakespeare went ahead during these years, regardless of air-raids, and seemed to epitomise the true spirit of gritty English resolution and defiance. ‘Dared to put on Shakespeare in Bombed London’ declares a headline from 1940. The subsequent article relates how the actor-manager, Donald Wolfit, chose scenes and sonnets for lunchtime performance at the Strand Theatre. ‘[the actors]…work under difficulties’ says Wolfit, ‘Bombs have destroyed the dressing-rooms, blown away costumes and covered the stage knee-deep with debris.’ He continues, ’I chose Shakespeare… [because he] represents the fighting spirit of our country. Only the best is good enough…sirens or even…a bomb exploding do not distract.’ Similarly, Robert Atkin’s Regents Park Theatre Company, continued to play in the open air ‘though bombs…fell unpleasantly close and some theatrical equipment was destroyed. But the players played on and there was always an audience.’

It was hugely significant that Olivier’s film of Henry V was produced during these years. What other play could have so meaningfully addressed the times? A review headline describes it as the ‘D-Day of 1415’ inevitably linking Shakespeare’s Agincourt with victory over Germany. Comparisons to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tyrants serve to describe Nazi leaders and a line from Richard III – ‘ ‘the bloody dog is dead’ ‘ – occurs on several occasions to celebrate the death of Hitler.

Even after the war had ended, Shakespearean language continued to be prominent. At the trial of William Joyce (the traitor known as Lord Haw Haw who had broadcasted morale-sapping wireless addresses from Germany) lines from Henry V were quoted by the prosecution. And, in 1953, at the trial of 21 SS stormtroopers, accused of murder, a line from Richard III – ‘Say that I slew them not’ was quoted in a demand for a verdict of guilty.

‘Blingtastic rewritten cod Shakespeare’
In the last two decades, the vexed topic of Shakespeare in education has loomed large.Should he have a place in the National Curriculum or not? Should young people study the actual text, or should the text be diluted, translated, dumbed down,updated?
Several articles call for Shakespeare to de dropped altogether: ‘Force-feeding children…can only produce nausea and a lifelong aversion…it’s like handing children treasure in a locked chest’ says a writer in 1968. ‘The Bard’s language is inaccessible without a very expensive education’ is another, pompous contribution. A letter from a teacher of English states: ‘It makes perfect sense to update the language. I really think we should start with Shakespeare. No one knows what that bugger was on about.’ Yet another joins the chorus with ‘What sort of dullards…think that Shakespeare, so long out of date…could ever get through to the minds of rebellious fourth and fifth formers and convey anything at all to them except revulsion?’

In fact, there has been a relatively recent great upsurge of Shakespeare ‘in translation.’ It appears to have done him no harm at all and, if anything, has increased his standing. In 2011, the Globe theatre under Dominic Dromgoole put on a great multilingual Shakespeare festival. It entailed all 37 plays in 37 different dialects or languages, performed by 37 international companies. It was enthusiastically reviewed in the press. The success of this daring project seems to be a measure of the adaptability, timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s texts, while stressing the validity and increasing acceptance of non-standard forms of expression.

The development of the internet, the rise of social media, texting and emailing, together with the flourishing of television, cinema and radio, have inevitably had an impact on Shakespearean text. Even a TV series can involve him, as The Times reports in 2011: evidently the Klingon Language Institute (based on the Star Trek series) has translated Much Ado About Nothing (pagmo’ tin mis). Who would have guessed? But even those whose Klingon is patchy will recognise the inevitable quotation: ‘taH paghh taHbe.’

In 2012, a student was reported to have translated Act II of Romeo and Juliet into ‘text-speak’ so that Juliet’s balcony speech became ‘O rmo rmo, were4 art thou rmo.’ Accounts of a modern take on 15 of Shakespeare’s plays appear in two newspapers from 2005. This was the work of Martin Braum, author and self-proclaimed deviser of ‘Yoof-Speak’ and it features such titles as Two Geezas of Verona and Romeo And His Fit Bitch Jools. In ‘Amlet, Braum comes straight to the point with the opening line ‘Dere was somefing minging in the State of Denmark.’ Outrage! Sacrilege! But Baum believes that anything that introduces young people to Shakespeare is ‘a good thing.’

Well-wicked. He’s rad, man.
Shakespeare also gives a voice to the disadvantaged in society and raises self-esteem, writes the actor Paterson Joseph in his interview of 2007. ‘Coming from where I’ve come from (West London)… feeling I wasn’t worthy to say anything at all… But then I learned what it was like to have Shakespeare in my mouth. It is an empowering thing to be able to speak like that and have people listen.’ Joseph went on to make a documentary of his production of Romeo and Juliet, casting young offenders from the urban area of Harlesden. He was warned there would be few takers but, in fact, over 300 volunteers turned up, eager to derive the same benefits from Shakespeare as he had.

In the same spirit, the Intermission Youth Theatre (with the backing of the RSC) produced Wasted in 2007. It was a reinvention of Julius Caesar and, under the direction of Darren Raymond – himself a former resident of gangland Hackney -the play addresses the issues of violence and knife crime in urban London. It is written partly in the street slang which forms a large part of the identity of many young people, and the cast comprised teenagers who had fallen foul of the law.

Elsewhere, the veteran Shakespearean actor Janet Suzman recalls ‘I have worked with prisoners who have no education whatsoever, as well as homeless men in South Africa, and their response is shatteringly powerful. There’s an instinctive emotional connection: you don’t have to have an education to respond to it.’

And it is both moving and telling to read the articles reviewing the British Museum’s ‘Staging the World’ exhibition of 2012. Placed as the final exhibit, as if it is the one volume which sums up and defines our culture is the ‘Robben Island Bible’: the smuggled-in copy of Shakespeare’s plays which sustained Nelson Mandela and his ANC colleagues in prison.

Overall then, Shakespeare is good for us.He remains in the bones and blood of our culture however much we tweak, tinker with or try radically to reconstitute his language. And so perhaps the final word should go to Professor Phillip Davies of Liverpool University. An article of 2011 reports Davies’ investigation of the effects of Shakespeare on the brain. Using EEG and MRI scanning, he has concluded that Shakespearean language provokes a powerful neurological response in humans:
‘The Shakespearean functional shift appears to prompt activation in the visual association cortex, i.e. in regions normally activated by visualisation: that is, the mind’s eye.’
You WHAT??
I wonder how those monkeys are getting on.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

The Shakespeare Institute Library’s vast Cuttings Collection is available to view anytime during library opening hours.

‘Each night a new lost Shakespeare’: The School of Night

The Shakespeare Institute Library is delighted to be receiving the archive of The School of Night. Connected by name but not to be confused with Sir Walter Raleigh’s secret society, the improv company originated in a celebration of Shakespeare devised by the late, great Ken Campbell in 2005 for The Globe.


img015This initial gift from the company to the SIL by actor Oliver Senton contains publicity material for many of the School’s performances including details of Ken Campbell’s In Pursuit of Cardenio, 2006 – a series of performances inspired by audience suggestions promising ‘Each night a new lost Shakespeare. Never seen before and never to be seen again!’

As actors and audience mingled, a series of semi-spontaneous routines emerged through word suggestions and associations from the audience. Riffing in blank verse, iambic pentameter and sonnet form, Campbell’s troupe of actors improvised in Elizabethan style around possible scenes for Don Quixote that may have formed the original story of Cardenio. The Stage described how:

The irrepressible serial enthusiast Ken Campbell turns all the force of his intellect and personality to the art of dramatic improvisation, leading a small company of actors in what amounts to a series of masterclasses meant to culminate at the end of this brief run in the group creation of the supposedly lost Shakespearean play Cardenio.

The audience participation with the actors at these performances gave them a sense of inclusion in the creation of the work rather than just as spectator. This actor/audience dynamic created something fresh every night, new approaches inspired through that night’s engagement with the performance. Campbell praised his actors: ‘They’re fantastic at improvising Shakespeare, without making it boring because they’re fascinating to watch. It’s Shakespeare delivered with a fresh energy and should be inspirational to the young with new ideas on traditional work.’ As one journalist put it ‘This was an ode to the Bard with audience input.’

Campbell died in 2008 but his troupe continue to ‘channel’ the Bard, improvising in the style of poets and playwrights suggested by the audience, presenting us each night with a lost Shakespearean masterpiece. Recent members of the company include Sean McCann, Adam Meggido, Oliver Senton, Alan Cox, Josh Darcy, Dylan Emery, and Joseph Chance.

In June 2016 the School celebrated all things Shakespeare along with Slung Low and Rash Dash on the banks of the Avon in the RSC’s wonderful Fairy Portal Camp.

We’re incredibly grateful to the company for considering us a suitable home for their archive and to Oliver Senton and for coordinating and starting the deposit of material with the University. We hope to receive more contributions to this exciting new archive from the actors who have worked with the company in the upcoming months.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian



Jarman’s Renaissance


This summer the Shakespeare Institute Library is celebrating the work of Derek Jarman in an exhibition focusing on his engagement with Renaissance works.

On 7 July we were fortunate to launch the exhibition with a fascinating lecture by Dr Pascale Aebischer entitled, “To the Future”: Derek Jarman’s Edward II in the Archive. Through her researches at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s home in Dungeness, she revealed a long-term fascination with the play from the edition of the play he used at King’s College University (UCL), through to workbooks and edited scripts for various adaptations, including Sod Em, 28,  Pansy and the film which got made, Edward II.  Pascale’s abstract for an essay she wrote on this theme:

I argue that the play Jarman first read as a student and admired for its rhetorical figures and portrayal of same-sex love took on a political edge in 1986, when Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and homophobic legislation was first debated by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. The truncated film treatment 28 and the scripts for Sod ‘Em composed in response to these events use Marlowe’s tragedy as a structuring device that lends historical depth to the struggles of Jarman’s modern protagonist. In 1988, Jarman physically stood this script on its head as he started to rework it as Edward II in a script that imagined a Renaissance setting for the tragedy and stuck remarkably close to Marlowe’s words and Ranulph Higden’s chronicle account of the life of King Edward II. The screenplay Jarman eventually used for Edward II moves back in the direction of the political rage and focus on the present of Sod’Em and shows Jarman hesitating over the ending of his film and the significance of young Edward III. The return to Sod’Em is completed in Jarman’s Marlowe-inspired screenplay for the satirical musical Pansy which imagines a hopeful future for its young queer king Pansy, who vanquishes the conservative forces of repression and dedicates his rule to sexual freedom.

24 - Edward II

It’s clear that Jarman found an expression of sexual freedom in Renaissance literature which has never been surpassed.

Whatever life threw at Jarman he transformed it into art. He had an amazing ability to see and translate the most painful situations using film, painting and photography into works of beauty.

Jarman’s films are works of cinematic poetry; in his creations, imagery and atmosphere impress as strongly as thematic content. To Jarman the camera was another artistic medium through which he expressed his unique vision. He wields the camera like an artist manipulating a brush – utilising the language of cinema. Using basic technology and Super 8 cameras in his early works, you can particularly see the influence of early cinema; dissolves, montage, silhouettes, reflections, stunning compositions, blocking, lighting and colour designs which take on form and substance. When given the big budget for Edward II he took full advantage of the richness it could offer. It’s difficult to come away from a Jarman film without an unforgettable image impressed and lingering in the imagination.


The exhibition focuses on The Angelic Conversation (a sequence of Shakespeare’s Sonnets read by Judi Dench), The Tempest, and Edward II. As part of the exhibition you can view various stunning clips from Jarman’s films.

I have always felt that Shakespeare translates rather badly into film. There is a great rift between the artificiality of stage conventions and the naturalism of film settings.’ Jarman (Programme notes, London Film Festival, 1979)

Jarman’s version of The Tempest still stands as one of the most original of all British Shakespeare films. Relocated to a crumbling mansion off the Scottish coast, Jarman taps into the anti-establishment spirit of the punk era. The actor and political poet Heathcote Williams was cast as Prospero; the magic, power and creativity of director, actor, playwright and character melded into a dark, hypnotic brew.


‘Forever a cinematic alchemist – a sage that conjured and devoured celluloid before the eventual ritualistic sacrifice- Derek Jarman is the perfect suitor to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1979); a play whose heart is bathed in the tragedy and power of magic.’ Adam Scovell, Celluloid Wicker Man blog


It’s clear that Jarman felt a strong connection with Shakespeare and Prospero as artists and creators whose art conjured worlds and possibilities beyond the mind’s imagining.

‘When, shortly after Jarman’s HIV positive diagnosis in 1986, he deliberately broke ‘Prospero’s wand, Dee’s hieroglyphic monad,’ the magic staff which had been used in the film, this was not a repudiation on his previous identification with Prospero-Shakespeare, but rather a confirmation of it and, like Shakespeare, he was to die just after his 52 birthday.’ Rowland Wymer, Derek Jarman (Manchester University Press, 2005)

The exhibition will run until the end of September. Great thanks to Dr Pascale Aebischer for all her support and an inspiring lecture; to Dr Phil Wickham, the Curator of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter for his advice and loan of rare materials from the wonderful Don Boyd and James Mackay collections; and to Neil Bartlett for his beautifully evocative description of his installation of The Angelic Conversation to mark the 20th anniversary of Jarman’s death.

Heathcote Williams

img347Whilst putting up the exhibition the actor and poet Heathcote Williams died. Jarman and he tried to channel the spirit of John Dee into his performance of Prospero. A magician himself he was perfect for the part. According to one obituary ‘he loved magic, because it gave the illusion of breaking rules’. His poetry, like Jarman’s films, often had a lyric beauty but had the visceral power to shock and expose. We also pay tribute to the great man with this exhibition. Obituaries from The Economist, The Guardian, and The Financial Times


Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Guest post – Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

Holly Reaney, creator of our current exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library on Shakespeare and Social Media here blogs on the theme.

Digital Shakespeares

Over the past five weeks I’ve been working with Holly Reaney, as part of the University of Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship programme. Holly has just completed the first year of her BA in English at UoB and has been helping me explore the wide and wonderful world of Shakespeare and the internet. Each week I’ve given her a project or prompt to explore and she’s then gone away to see what the world wide web uncovers. Below is a summary of her work in her own words. Thank you Holly for all your help!


Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

The undergraduate research scholarship is a scheme offered to non-final year undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The scheme aims to immerse and engage students in academia as well as enabling them to gain valuable experience in the undertaking of…

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Topless in Arden: Guide Friday and the Shakespeare Experience

Holy TrinityIn the early 1970s, a young Cornishman arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon. Out of funds, he dossed down that first night in the dry grasses under the wall of Holy Trinity Church, not many yards away from the bones of the man he had come to discover. Next morning, clutching guide-book, map and all the impedimenta of a tourist, he set out to learn the town.

Roger Thompson had the mind of an entrepreneur and an instinctive feeling for social and cultural history. In previous years, realising his own bright idea, he had made money by driving rich Americans around the UK in a vintage Rolls Royce. His quick brain absorbed material about tourist destinations anywhere south of Edinburgh. If clients fancied veering off the beaten track, he would mug up the details overnight. He spoke of himself as ‘a mine of useless information’.  But this was far from the case, for as he drove, telling stories and jokes, entertaining and informing, he would draw on an apparently inexhaustible fund of appropriate and accurate knowledge.

But not everyone could afford the Rolls Royce treatment: this was the great era of the coach tour when visitors came in droves from the United States and Japan, sometimes performing the remarkable feat of ‘Doing Britain in Five Days.’ Stratford-upon-Avon was inevitably on the route and, as enormous coaches, belching fumes, edged through town, locals would mutter sourly ‘It’s Tuesday, so it must be Stratford.’

Roger had already assessed the tourist potential of Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare in particular. Not only were there the Birthplace, New Place and Hall’s Croft- much visited since the eighteenth century – but there were too the relatively new Shakespeare Centre, the Avon and the riverside walks, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and a number of historic buildings, monuments and sites of interest. And the homes of Shakespeare’s mother and wife were only a short way out of town. All the Shakespeare-related houses could, in fact, comprise the key points of a circular tour.

In the days of his car tours, Roger had noticed how high streets had begun to look very much the same. But a different, far more interesting panorama was offered at roof level and besides, elevation gave a more comprehensive view of tourist venues. Might not a two-tier, open-topped vehicle do the job?

guide friday logoSo, Guide Friday came into being: two double-decker buses were acquired with the roofs of their upper decks removed and a smart dark green and cream livery. The ‘Stratford-go-Round’ linked the three in-town Shakespeare houses but then drove out to Ann Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm before returning to town a different way.  Passengers could get on or off at will, taking time to linger at one or all the properties. They might spend an hour or a day, for the second bus was only fifteen minutes behind when they were ready to move on. ‘Hop on! Hop off!’ ‘Go topless!’ ‘Experience the Shakespeare Story!’ were slogans which drew the visitors.

Tour busThe other essential ingredient of the Guide Friday vision was that of a driver-guide service. Roger had long understood the appeal of a real person leading the tour rather than a mechanised voice-over. Shakespeare aside, an on-the-spot, hands-on guide would welcome, inform and reassure as well as being   available to advise on accommodation, services and a whole miscellany of useful tourist information.

As a result, the first Blue Badge Guide course, in partnership with the Heart of England Tourist Board, was set up. The first wave of applicants comprised students, a doctor’s wife, an ex-bank manager, retired or resting teachers and salesmen, and even a former member of the cast of the scandalous musical Oh! Calcutta!  Though disparate in age and background, group members shared varying degrees of communication skills and local knowledge.

open top busIt was made very clear that this was to be a professional qualification tested by written and practical examination. Roger himself, of course, had already amassed a formidable body of information having read around his subject, visited the Shakespeare properties and talked at length with the house guides. He had even approached and questioned scholars at the Shakespeare Centre and sought out local historians. He had a clear vision of what he expected Blue Badge Guides to know.

Aspiring trainees were invited to interview with Roger and a member of the Tourist Board. For one woman, used to professional formality, it was an experience made extraordinary by the sight of Mr Thompson lounging elegantly in a chair whilst consuming a bag of salted pistachios. Every so often, as discussion proceeded, he would throw her a nut which, unable at such short notice to devise an alternative strategy, she caught and ate. Either Roger had missed lunch, or else a subtle psychological test was underway in which applicants were being assessed for their ability to deal with the unscripted. Such a skill would, after all, be extremely useful when dealing with the vagaries of the general public.

Apart from classroom lectures, the course consisted of practical trips during which trainees took turns on the microphone, told the story of Shakespeare  and familiarised themselves with the route. Roger, naturally, demonstrated how it was done.  He was a born raconteur and could hold an audience rapt. Passing Hall’s Croft he would relate John Halldetails of Dr John Hall’s treatments – the frog on a string, swallowed to treat a putrid throat, symptoms of the Black Death, leeches bloated with blood.  Then, standing up front with the microphone, he would move on to Tudor Stratford – plague pits and open sewers , whipping post, stocks and brothels, pisspots emptied from upper casement windows. Finally, arriving at the topic of personal hygiene and, raking the rows of seats with compelling eyes, he would declare  ‘You stank. I stank. Everybody stank.’   The phrase entered the Guide Friday vernacular and was repeated verbatim on tours for years afterwards. Or else two guides, meeting each other, might for no obvious reason, suddenly break into the refrain before doubling up with laughter.

Facts, as far as they were known, were insisted upon: stories, anecdotes and local myths about Shakespeare and his times might be related as long as they were correctly introduced by ‘It’s thought that..’ or ‘Some versions of this story say…’  If stumped for information when questioned, guides were instructed to take a contact number, look up the answer (no Google or I-pads in that decade) and ring later to pass it on.

So Guide Friday set the highest standards of customer service. It was a point of pride which was, however, memorably flouted one afternoon when a truculent party of Americans joined the tour. After being told that her commentary was ‘bulls***’ and that Christopher Marlowe had, in fact, written the plays attributed to Shakespeare (he had transmitted them by spirit message from the Other Side) the guide struck back. As the former Motor Museum came up on the left, she informed the group that Shakespeare’s car was the prime exhibit. Honour was satisfied when exclamations of interest and murmurs of ‘Gee! That’s really something!’ rose up.

In any tourist town there will be those who dislike visitors. But tourists create employment, swell the local economy and bring a number of community benefits. Guide Friday’s success helped to enhance the status of Stratford-upon-Avon;  without being patronising, it educated and interested those whose knowledge of Shakespeare was slight and provided information about a relatively distant period of history.  It might even have drawn some, whose experience of school Shakespeare had been negative, to see or read one of the plays.

Before the concept assumed such a high profile in service industries, Roger was committed to setting a high standard of customer care and quality of experience.  His concern for the environment influenced the introduction of buses which produced low levels of pollution. He was for many years a director of the annual Stratford-upon Avon Festival and became vice president of the Heart of England Tourist Board.

The company was awarded the British Tourist Authority’s ‘Come to Britain’ trophy and the English Tourist Board’s ‘England for Excellence’ award in two separate years. And fittingly, Roger Thompson received an OBE for his services to tourism.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant