Windmills and warfare

Two slightly unrelated topics, except that they have formed a large part of our work over the last few months, which has just been made public.

I won’t go on about it, but as you probably know, our C. P. Davies Collection was used by the Restoration Man team to uncover the history of Reed Mill, the first restoration of the new series. The episode is available through Channel 4 on Demand.

That’s the windmills; the warfare is our Canterbury at War exhibition. Although the exhibition has a few more weeks to run (it officially closes on 31st January), we have now made the exhibition website live. To get a taster of the exhibition, or to follow the storyline once the exhibition has closed, have a look at the exhibitions section on our website.

We’ve also put together a new display in the Templeman foyer about Murder in the Cathedral – T.S. Eliot’s play, commisioned for the Canterbury Festival in 1935, which depicts the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29th December 1170. If you happen to be passing, do take a look!

New for this term is an exhibition about Charles Dickens and the theatre, drawing on our extensive Victorian and Edwardian Theatre Collecitons – so watch this space for developments throughout 2012…

Melodrama and Silliness

Some of you may have noticed that, in the last couple of days, images have been appearing on some of the theatre records on the Special Collections website. This initial digitisation has allowed us to put up all of the smaller sized playbills from the Britannia Theatre which are held in the Bigwood Collection. This is all thanks to Chris Hall, who has been volunteering with Special Collections two and a half days a week. Not only has he made a start on this long-awaited digitisation, but he even agreed to write a blog post to keep us up to date.

A few months ago, I was speaking with my friends on the subject of great British playwrights. We came up with the usual names, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson for the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, Sheridan, Shelley and Coleridge for the Romantics. Then we skipped roughly 80 years and listed Wilde and Shaw as the major figures of the late 19th Century stage. But what of the mid Victorians, who were their great playwrights? To be honest, I still can’t think of one, but there is a reason for that, because in the mid-Victorian age, something rather bizarre, yet very entertaining, happened to British theatre, and it is codified by the Bigwood collection of playbills from the Britannia Theatre.

Front page for 'After Dark Galop'

Scene from Boucicault's 'After Dark'

Most people would have heard of melodrama, but probably in a different context. When we think of melodrama, we think of melodramatic actors delivering their lines with overemotional abandon – think Brian Blessed playing Hamlet. However, the root of melodrama is slightly different to how we know it now. The root of the word is simply melos from the Greek for music, and the French drame, which needs little explanation. Essentially then, melodrama is musical drama. Not in the sense of it being a musical, instead music was often used to underscore the dialogue in order to raise the emotions, a technique used so much in modern film and theatre that we barely even notice it. It is this style of theatre which dominated with mid 19th Century, as well as high and low comedies and adaptations of Shakespeare. These were big productions, with full scale orchestras, evil villains, courageous heroes and fainting damsels, who were probably tied to railway tracks on a fairly regular basis. With this conception of melodrama in mind, we can begin to picture the spectacle of a play performed in the 1860s.

Playbill from Britannia Theatre, 25th November 1867

Playbill from Britannia Theatre, 25th November 1867

The Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, London, was one of the most glamorous and capacious theatres in the city at that time. The most famous version was constructed in 1858, with the previous building being classified as a saloon, rather than a theatre. Unlike many theatres of that time, The Britannia took the relatively modern approach of providing drinks and food in the auditorium, possibly setting a standard for what we now take for granted when we go to the theatre. Sarah Lane, wife of the theatre’s founder, Samuel Haycraft Lane, was the manager and also performed in many productions as a dancer. However, the collection that this blog entry is about was amassed by George Bigwood, who gathered the playbills, largely from the 1860s. The playbill is a valuable resource in researching theatre culture in the 19th Century. Many of them display a melodrama of their own; the print is large and bold, not too far removed from the typography seen in modern tabloids. One bill alone promises such titles as ‘THE KING’S DEATH-TRAP’ described as: ‘A New Historical Drama (never before acted)’ and the familiar name of ‘RIP VAN WINKLE’.

These playbills are a vital part in the study of the history of British theatre, and helps fill a gap between the plays of the late 18th Century and the fin de siècle. While this was not theatre designed to be great art, it does not lessen the importance of the plays in 19th Century culture. The writers of this era were not the jobbing playwrights of Shakespeare’s time, who were immersed in, or possibly constrained by, classical education. Indeed, they were men of the people, writing for the people. Of course, with Sarah Lane as manager, it wasn’t just men delivering this entertainment. As such, this collection represents a vibrant, if a little silly, period of theatre. But there’s nothing too wrong with a bit of melodrama and silliness from time to time.

Chris Hall

Larger playbills from the Britannia in this collection need to be scanned on a large overhead scanner which is currently experiencing some technical problems, so we’re awaiting developments there. Next, we intend to digitise the Britannia playbills in our general playbill collection, so keep watching the website!

The launch

After months of dedication, the hard work of the students of the DR575: British Theatre 1860-1940 module has finally paid off with an excellent exhibition opening on Wednesday 6th April.

Students at the Exhibition Opening

Students chat at the Exhibition Opening

The guests included members of the teaching and Information Services staff, prospective students and their parents, guests from other specialist collections and students who had completed the course last semester. I don’t think I have ever seen the reading room buzzing with so many people and so much excitement! It was a great way to round off the module and the term, and to include the wider university, friends and colleagues in the students’ success.

Students and staff

Students and staff

The Exhibition pages on the Special Collections website have now been updated to include Spring 2011 along with Autumn 2010; please do take a look at them, if you haven’t already done so. Remember, the exhibition is going to be on until 9th May at the usual reading room opening times of 9.30-1 and 2-4.30, Monday-Friday, so please do come and visit us. We will be closed on the four bank holidays over Easter weekend and the Royal wedding.

Students of DR:575 can relax at last

Students of DR:575 can relax at last

Those who have already come to have a look have left comments such as:

‘Fascinating exhibitions, interesting themes and good use of materials.’

‘…a lovely atmosphere…appealed to a wider variety of the senses’.

‘…real inspiration for my teaching’

‘…not constrained by the expectations of a museum exhibition…’

With so many people inspired and intrigued by the work of the students it looks as though we will be putting on more exhibitions in the near future, so keep an eye out for Special Collections materials being displayed around the campus. I will, of course, keep you up to date with all of the developments on this blog.

Students admire their work

Students admire their work

A successful Exhibition Launch

A successful Exhibition Launch

All that remains now is to say a huge thank you to Helen Brooks, who organised and taught the module and to the seventeen dedicated students who produced such great work: Marie, Niamh, Alice, Allie, Liz, Faith, Suzy, Alex, Kirsty, Georgie, Becky, Cassara, Lucy Chloe, Sophie, Matt, Natalie and Emily.

Spring exhibitions

British Theatre 1860-1940 Exhibition PosterAlthough it’s hard to believe it, time has flown and suddenly we’re almost at the end of another term. For us in Special Collections, that means it’s exhibitions time again!

As I type, the reading room is humming in a state of barely contained excitement, and that’s just the staff. This year, we have ribbons, we have German accents, we have curtains and we have bunting; there has even been a promise of costumes for the opening on Wednesday at 4.30! Needless to say, the activity is adding excitement to a grey and rainy day.

It’s hard to believe that we’re here (once again) so soon. It only seems a few weeks since all of this started back in the new year when Helen Brooks, lecturer in Drama, and I sat down with our diaries to work out the timescales for this semester’s DR575: British Theatre 1860-1940 module. The main idea of the module is to immerse students in archival material through seminars at the beginning of the term and use of sources for essays and assignments. The semester culminates in a student curated exhibition in Special Collections on a topic of the students’ choosing. In addition to this, each of the 3 groups produces a website to accompany and outlast their physical exhibition. These websites are then linked to the Special Collections website. You can have a look at last year’s exhibition pages on the website now.

We made only a few changes to last year’s module, giving each group an allotted slot in Special Collections each week (hence the Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning closures) and bringing the deadline for the website forward to two days before the exhibition. Now we’re in April and the hard work and dedication which the 17 students of the British Theatre 1860-1940 module have shown is paying off.

As with last semester, we have 3 groups of students working on 3 very different topics:

  • Theatre and war
  • The changing nature of melodrama
  • The function of music hall

Each of the groups has carried out extensive research and is now in the process of sharing out the allotted Velcro in order to fix their materials to their exhibition boards. Today is the ‘get in’ day: all three groups have today to put up everything in order to be ready for the opening tomorrow. It’s going to be a busy day but, I’m pretty sure, it will all be very rewarding.

The exhibition opens tomorrow; there is a special launch event between 4.30-6. After that, the exhibition will be open until 9th May during normal reading room opening times (Monday-Friday, 9.30-1 and 2-4.30) excluding public holidays. I intend to have the web pages live as soon as possible, so that even those of you who can’t journey all the way to Canterbury for the exhibition can still enjoy the event.

Once again, my thanks go out to all of the students for working incredibly hard and listening attentively to me endlessly repeating our  rules about the handling and use of archival materials. Huge thanks are also due to Helen Brooks, who came up with the idea of student curated exhibitions using Special Collections materials and who has been innovative and enthusiastic in her use of archival material, as well as inspiring her students and others to use the collections.

Sadly, this module won’t be running next academic year, but we hope that it will be back in the autumn of 2012, better than ever! In the meantime, please do come along to have a look at the exhibition and let us know what you think.

Perpetual exhibitions

Well, today is the last official day of the British Theatre 1860-1940 Exhibition, curated by the 18 drama students of model DR575. Aside from the task of taking everything down and ensuring that it all ends up in the right place (especailly the captions and extra ‘dressing’ that the students provided themselves), that’s it until April. It will be very strange to have an open reading room again!

Interest in the exhibitions has led to a respectable number of visitors, including the entire drama department staff, all of whom have been impressed by the skills and knowledge (not to mention the sources) on display. From Monday, the exhibition will only exist in electronic form, on a new section of the Special Collections website which we have just completed, and on the websites which the groups put together to accompany their work. All of the students put a lot of time and effort into constructing their websites and we’ve linked these to the Special Collections pages to make it easy for anyone to have a look at the investigations which each of the students carried out.

If you didn’t manage to get to the Templeman to see the real thing, why not have a look at the webpages; there are links from the Special Collections homepage menu.

Of course, this exhibition was only the beginning. After all of the positive feedback we’ve had, there’s no doubt that student curated exhibitions using Special Collections material will become a fixture of the academic year. In fact, the next DR575 module starts on Monday 17 January, and we hope to open another student curated exhibition to the public on Thursday, 7 April, based on topics chosen within the broad theme of British theatre 1860-1940.

So all that remains is to say a big thank you to Helen Brooks, who teaches the module and came up with the idea for the exhibition, and the 18 students who spent (what probably seemed like endless) hours in Special Collections trawling through sources and produced such excellent work: Kelci, Olivia, Abaigael, Bryn, Jonathan, Katie, Amy , Rebecca, Daniel, Alexander, Charlotte, Stephanie, Richard, Rachel, Jade, Robin, Rebecca and Monique.

Watch this space for the next exciting exhibition…