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