As Covid restrictions lift, re-enactment events will be able to deliver the sights, sounds and smells of the past once more. But what motivates the jobbing actors who recreate them?
Daniel Williams, metalworker, Black Country Living Museum, Dudley
Most museums quite rightly go to great lengths to maintain a comfortable temperature in their galleries. But even the most sophisticated controls would not be able to contain the searing heat in Daniel Williams’ workplace.
For the past six years, Williams has demonstrated old manufacturing techniques, becoming a dab hand at the traditional Black Country industries of chain and nail making, and working with the museum’s mighty anchor forge steam hammer.
“There are fires, moving vehicles and horses all around the place,” he says. “Health and safety take on huge importance, not just in the industrial areas but also in the domestic buildings that have cast-iron ranges.”
For the chain-making process, coke is burned at temperatures upwards of 1,200C, while the anchor forge is powered by one tonne of weight and another tonne of pure steam pressure.
“The earth moves when the hammer comes down,” says Williams. “It’s quite close to some of the domestic buildings near our canal dock and they shake when it’s in steam.”
Williams’ traditional cap, granddad shirt and leather waistcoat are supplemented by personal protection equipment to give him a steampunk Peaky Blinders look, appropriate as the museum site has been used extensively by the BBC drama.
“We have custom-made ear defenders and goggles,” he says. “Many of the early chain makers would lose their eyesight from cataracts as a result of staring into the white-hot heat all day.
“Gloves aren’t particularly useful; if a piece of hot metal flies at you, it would take you longer to take off your glove than it would to brush the metal away,” adds Williams.
“You’re re-enacting a lost industry, so unless you’re professionally trained, you could hurt yourself.”
Emma Hixson, Florence Nightingale, Florence Nightingale Museum, London
In her role as Florence Nightingale, Emma Hixson prescribes the perfect treatment for restless young visitors to the Florence Nightingale Museum.
“They love the disgusting stuff, so the more you mention poo, blood and vomit, the more they want to be involved in the wider story about life in a Crimean war hospital,” says Hixson, who has portrayed the eminent Victorian for seven years. “They later dress up as nurses and learn what the modern role entails. Many of them say they’d like to join the profession when they’re older.”
Hixson uses memories of her own childhood museum trips as motivation for staying in character through the day, as she haughtily patrols the galleries.
“Visitors are warned about how strict Florence was,” she says. “On the whole, all the children are excited, but there are also those who seem a little shy who I try to interact with. I think back to when I was that child at school, hesitant to put my hand up even though I always wanted to; it shouldn’t just be about the kids who make the most noise.”
Unfortunately, the museum had to close in February for the foreseeable future in response to the financial challenges created by the pandemic. But Florence Nightingale will be available for school visits.
As a jobbing actor, Hixson continues to attend castings and auditions, coming and going from the museum between stage and television engagements. Her previous museum character roles include Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley at the Science Museum, and Madame De Pompadour at the Wallace Collection.
“For the French one, I was so corseted into the frilly costume, I could barely breathe,” Hixson says. “I used to persuade someone to unlace me a bit between performances.
“Florence’s costume is not too heavy, but the fit makes you stand up straight,” says Hixson. “I can’t help thinking that she would hate me for doing this, as she wasn’t keen on making a fuss.”
David Moore, second world war fireman, National Fire Service and Auxiliary Fire Service Vehicles Group
It began a dozen years ago with army surplus “green goddess” fire engines sourced from government small ads. Then came the trailer pumps, mobile dams and turntable ladders from online auction sites and the wartime memorabilia collecting community.
David Moore’s crew of vintage vehicle enthusiasts is equipped with the technology that time forgot to entertain crowds at wartime-themed weekend events, open-air museums and heritage centres.
“There’s always work to be done, but all the pumps are in order, all the hoses carry water and the nozzles operate as they should,” says Moore, whose team is properly dressed for action too.
“We’re lucky that fire service tunics did not change that much from the 1920s to the 1960s, so we were able to pick them up from retired firemen. There’s also a good trade in 1940s fire memorabilia. It can be expensive, but not as costly as kitting out English civil war re-enactors. They can spend £1,000 on a costume, but we get change from £300 for a tunic, trousers, belt, axe and boots.”
For some re-enactment groups, total authenticity is a must, as their emphasis on the close-up and personal brings them into direct contact with the eagle-eyed public.
“The difference is that all our kit has to work properly,” says Moore. “Traditional wet-legs, for example, were a thin, waxed-over trouser so delicate that few survive. So we have made some from a similar fabric. As audiences are behind barriers 30 feet away from the action, they won’t notice the difference.”
From that distance, crowds also remain blissfully unaware of another shortcut taken when a 500-gallon water tank produces about 10,000 gallons of fire-extinguishing foam thanks to a special ingredient. “The original foaming agent was nasty stuff, so we use Fairy liquid,” says Moore.
The group’s display at larger venues traditionally begins with an air raid siren and the sound of German bombers over the PA system. Volunteers with dirty faces stumble around in smoke produced in meticulously monitored incinerators.
“We are permitted to create a fire – often using old sheds donated by the public – but it depends on the policies of the site, and as long as we don’t start a proper conflagration.
“One year, at the Severn Valley Railway, the whole place was tinder dry and a stray spark set fire to a conifer. The public was shouting ‘fire, behind you’ so we turned around and put it out. Luckily, the centre was great about it because they thought the tree rather spoiled the sight line between its engines and signals.”
The group operates in accordance with a 30-page risk-assessment document that takes in everything from prevailing winds to where to hide the modern extinguishers should things get too hot for the group to handle with 1940s kit alone.
Moore reckons the group’s attention to the bigger details helps to broaden the scope of traditional wartime weekends.
“All that bunting and girls in pretty frocks can create a feeling that the home front was nice and sweet,” he says. “But when we are carrying around people who have been made up to look as if they’re on their last legs, we’re pointing out that it wasn’t always like that.”
Mark Armstrong, Roman soldier, Legio VIII Augusta MGV Roman Living History Society
While out walking along Hadrian’s Wall, Mark Armstrong made a discovery that would change his life – and fill his weekends – forever. He came across a re-enactment event at Chesters Roman Fort and Museum, and chatted to members about their Roman lifestyles, agreeing to attend another event two weeks later.
“I drove there with no idea what to expect, but I enjoyed it so much that, by the end of the first evening around the campfire, I was offered an imperial gallic type J helmet. I haven’t looked back since.”
Armstrong’s Roman experience began with the required safety training. “It’s something we take seriously, because the equipment we have is usually either heavy or sharp, such as the gladius (sword), pugio (dagger), pilum (javelin) and the scorpio artillery weapon.”
Preparing both physically and mentally for an event is a must. “We have a walk-through of the drills and manoeuvres, and the orders are given in Latin, which keeps you on your toes. Once the basics are mastered, members can be delegated more responsibilities in the living-history camp. With a background in engineering design, I chose the surveyors and cartography display.”
Re-enactment is not an absolute science, and the show must go on for the paying public even when things go awry.
“We’ve had wheel-bearings on trailers failing as we travelled to a site, and set-ups often have to be reorganised at the last moment to fit restricted spaces or changes in the weather.”
Armstrong feels re-enacting has enriched his life. “I love creating a display that members of the public and other re-enactor groups admire, from the front-stage surveying equipment and maps to the personal cooking equipment and trinkets that group members made themselves.
“There’s nothing that beats waking up to a crisp, clear morning in an iron age hill-fort roundhouse with the smell of cooking meat from the stove. Friendships I have made in this group will last a lifetime – no matter how frustrating it can be to put up so many tents.”
Simon Osborne, weapons demonstrator, Firing Line Museum of the Welsh Soldier, Cardiff Castle
In his youth, Simon Osborne amassed a small but perfectly formed collection of ornamental weapons. He later combined the study of stage fighting at drama school with a stint in the Territorial Army.
It’s no wonder he now performs a 2,000-year history of the sword – in fancy dress if the occasion calls for it. “If one of the volunteer reservists asks about costumes, I’m out of the room and back again in either the dress of the 24th Regiment of Foot from the Anglo-Zulu War or a Boer war officer before anyone can blink,” he says.
“Officers have the best swords. Audiences are surprised by how each generation made slight changes to the weapon so that in 1908 we ended up with a version ideal for a British soldier on horseback – just in time to face German machine guns.”
Osborne started acting at the age of 10 and left his Cornwall home for drama school in London. “The series Fame was on TV and I thought it would be like that,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do a BBC comedy, something like Blackadder, which was the hit of the day. A year later, there I was, actually in it.”
Osborne appeared in the opening episode of Blackadder the Third as Pitt the Younger. “I was among my comedy heroes, people at the height of their fame,” he says. “I remember turning up at the rehearsal rooms and the actor Tony Robinson, who is the same height as me, jumped in the lift wearing his biking leathers. He looked me up and down and asked: ‘Are you Pitt the Younger?’ I nearly fainted.”
Osborne later learned that genealogy is stranger than fiction, when William Hague’s book on the UK’s youngest-ever prime minister revealed that the Pitts were related by marriage to the Osbornes of St Just.
“On top of all the excitement, it appears I may have played one of my own ancestors on television. Who would have thought it?”
John Holt is a freelance journalist