Dr Sophie Duncan is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, Victoriana, detective fiction and cocktails.
A few weeks ago I had great fun recording an episode of the Women In Oxford’s History podcast on the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, and the suffrage movement in Oxford. It’s a story of torchlit processions, Woodstock Road drawing rooms, police brutality, and terrorism.
Wilding Davison is best known as the suffragette who died after stepping in front of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Derby. This podcast was a chance to tell the story of Emily’s life, rather than her death, and how the struggle for suffrage disrupted Oxford’s dreaming spires.
The Women in Oxford’s History podcast explores women’s contributions to the life and history of the city: Wilding Davison was a finalist (and Chaucer fangirl) at St Hugh’s College. St Hugh’s was founded – as we discussed – as an affordable alternative to Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall for the first generation of women university students. Fun fact: Whittard’s on the High Street was once a W.S.P.U. suffrage shop!
I’m in the final push to complete my forthcoming monograph, Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition, out with Routledge in 2019. While writing this book, I’ve enjoyed talking to actors, propmakers, and prop masters about the props that have shaped their careers. Some of this has been facilitated through Twitter – I’ve tended not to talk much about it here, although those of you who’ve heard me talk about the book will know I’ve had particular luck discussing prop babies with guest actors on the BBC’s Call The Midwife, or exploring severed heads, body parts and babies at the National Theatre workshop.
Even though the project’s (gulp) nearly over, I’m always looking for new contacts and interviews, and thought it might make sense to consolidate the Calls-For-Propmakers here, with the kinds of things in which I’ve asked people throughout the book, and which I still want to hear/think about now. Thus:
Have you made, sourced, or worked with a prop baby, either in theatre, television, or film? Would you be willing to talk about it?
Have you made, sourced, or performed with a prop that had to be broken onstage in the course of a live theatre performance? What was that like?
Are you a propmaker or do you run/work for a theatre or company with its own prop shop? Would you be willing to answer some questions about that, and/or send me an image of your workspace or storage system (or can I come and visit)?
Do you collect theatre, film, or television props, whether historical or contemporary? May I please ask you some questions about your collection?
Are you a performer who’s worked with props that have meant a lot to you? Actors – which props have you kept (bought/borrowed/forgotten to return…) over the course of your career? Total anonymity guaranteed!
Are you a theatregoer particularly wowed/disturbed/impressed by an example of prop use in theatre or on screen? Seen a great play with a baby or something that got broken onstage? Please get in touch!
All discussions can be anonymous or fully credited, as you wish. I’m very happy to provide credentials. Please get in touch below, or email me at sophievduncan [at] gmail [dot] com. Thank you!
I co-wrote the book with the brilliant Rachael Lennon. Our foreword was by Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project. The book is based on research I did as academic lead on the Trust’s Women and Power project for 2018.
Here’s some blurb:
Celebrating a year of ‘Women & Power’ programmes throughout the Trust, this book explores the roles of National Trust places in the women’s suffrage movement, through the people who lived and worked in them – from the Midlands kitchen-maid turned suffragette arsonist to the aristocratic dynasties split by a daughter’s campaigning. As well as offering a broad history of the Suffrage movement, readers will discover some of the debates heard in the drawing rooms, kitchens and bedrooms of National Trust places as the country fought over whether, and how, a woman might have a voice in public life. We continue to see the footprints of this intensely political argument in the places and collections cared for by the Trust across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Working on this book was a joy, and the end result is – thanks to the Trust’s art researchers, and our great editor, Claire Masset – a beautiful thing.
Read the book? Visited a National Trust property alongside it? Thrilled or outraged about the amount of suffrage and feminist history on display? Let me know.
This evening we went to see Pitch Perfect 3, the final installment of the college-a capella (“aca-stravaganza”) trilogy/franchise with which my wife is so obsessed that at one point I started having dreams about its star Anna Kendrick. This film is magnificent. The writers have freed themselves from the tyranny of plot, and someone has attacked post-production so savagely that 80% of the promotional trailer isn’t actually in the final film. There is a musical number approximately twice a minute, and it’s glorious. The key elements of close harmony, choreography, syncopated hysteria, and strongly-implied lesbianism survive from the first two films, plus this time Rebel Wilson has learned how to act. I laughed aloud at so many lines, not normally but in my trademark Cinema Laugh, where I emit an involuntary whoop and then laugh again at the same line, from memory, five to eight seconds later. The Sun tells us that Pitch Perfect 3 is a “bad, bad film”, so I expect you to buy tickets forthwith. This film isn’t forThe Sun. It’s for people who really like a capella and neurosis. Happy Pitchmas.
That aside, one actress who didn’t make it into the Pitch Perfect franchise is Emma Stone, key member of my ongoing list of “size zero Hollywood heroines who turn are revealed as having been incredibly under-used by absolutely slaying on Saturday Night Live” (the top two spots go to Gwyneth Paltrow and Lindsay Lohan). Tomorrow is the penultimate shopping day before Christmas, a.k.a. Panic Friday, and here is Emma Stone with Kate McKinnon with some essential advice on how to deal with last-minute Christmas shopping and That Person Who Just Gave You An Unexpected Present.
Every year, the University of Oxford releases a short, charming video to wish the sort of people who look this stuff up on YouTube Season’s Greetings (even though the University celebrates what’s unequivocally Christmas, with a small side of Hanukkah, full-time for five weeks each year). For 2017, it’s a sweet video about the friendship between a bird and a Magdalen gargoyle. The video’s pathos suggests the Westgate John Lewis had spread its marketing influence right down the High Street.
For your feminist Victorianist polemical needs, today behind the door of the Blog Advent Window is a BBC documentary presented by Sue Perkins, about the Christmases in the life of Catherine Hogarth (1815-1879), better known as the wife of Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens is responsible, via novels like A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers, for some of the most widely-cherished (and widely-exported) notions of a classic British Christmas. Appropriately for an author whose name-made-adjective gives us two totally contrasting images – lamplit Dickensian rosy-cheeked wassail vs. Dickensian workhouses, poverty, and injustice – Dickens energetically perpetuated a brand based on festive family togetherness while being an adulterous, sister-fetishising bastard. This documentary has it all: Victorian theatrical sex scandals; dashing Magdalen colleague dressing Sue Perkins in drag; striking and revealing insights into the dynamics of the Perkins family household.
True, it inexplicably omits my Favourite Awful Dickens Fact, which is that after her husband cruelly forced Catherine out of the family home, Catherine gave her sister Georgina a ring. Sounds like a Normal Time, perhaps even a sisterly gesture, but Georgina Hogarth had taken her brother-in-law’s side in a separation ultimately caused by his adultery with actress Ellen Ternan.
The ring which Catherine gave her sister was in the shape of a serpent.
All this and more can be found at the Dickens Museum on London’s Doughty Street, where much of the documentary was shot. Perkins is scathing on Dickens’s narcissism, and reads brilliantly from his works. The documentary is below – enjoy! And if you want to know more about another Victorian Christmas, try this post.
Christmas horror and Christmas ghost stories were once integral to Christmas in Britain and Ireland. Luckily for us, we can partly blame the Victorians (our great Ur-parents, from whom society inherited a mass need for therapy). From the 1855 cessation on paper tax onwards, Britain saw an explosion of periodical magazines, with the mass marketing of ghost and vampire stories. These stories were generic, sensational, and exploited both Victorian fears of the past, in all its disquieting, revenant, primitive messiness, and anxieties about the future: Dracula (1897) imagines a terrifying Eastern European immigrant who wants to suck the life force out of the rising generation of imperialists. Spirit photography supposedly captured ghosts, while homes became the sites of seances. Stories literally domesticated the Gothic, bringing the ghost story into fireside and domestic reading. Christmas, with its profusion of annuals, gift books, reading-aloud, and superstition, is the ideal vehicle for a bit of horror. European mythology has much to answer for – I’ve already blogged about the Icelandic Yule Lads. But if you want to get into a thoroughly spooky Christmas spirit, here are the five things you need. Why not listen to my Spooky Christmas Playlist while you browse?
We’ve met Spoon Licker and the child-catching Yule Cat, but many other countries have mythical and malevolent winter monsters. Check out the malicious Karakoncolos who, in Serbia, disguises his voice as that of your loved one, lures you out into the snow and jumps on your back. Then there’s the Greek Kallikantzaroi, a group of demons who steal any babies born between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. Fancy some winter sun?
2. Spine-tingling short stories
‘A Strange Christmas Game’ (1865) by J. H. Riddell is a charming story of fun, games, counting thirteen people when only twelve are present – and of a girl with a broken neck. Christmas games can seriously damage your health, so be warned: don’t end up like the heroine of this 1884 poem, the bride in Thomas Bayly’s ‘The Mistletoe Bough’. Or there’s Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Old Kit-Bag’ (1908), a heart-warming seasonal tale of suicide and severed heads. Feliz Navidad. Bringing us nearly up to date, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Dark Christmas’ from 2013, where awkward festive plans (‘We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know’) turn into an Edwardian horror story. M.R. James has, perhaps undeservedly, become king of the Christmas ghost story even though his tales are rarely set at Christmas – the BBC is broadcasting a dramatisation of one story on Christmas Eve, starring Greg Wise.
3. Frightful films
‘Holiday horror’ is a genuine subgenre. Whether you want to see Joan Collins bury a fire iron in her husband’s head before being stalked by a psychotic Santa (Tales from the Crypt, 1972) or watch a snow-covered New York reunion turn fatal as the kiddiwinks start murdering their parents (The Children, 2008), there is a Christmas horror film for you. A clip of Tales from the Crypt is on YouTube: warnings for bright red poster paint.
4. Chilling culture
Not everything was the Victorians’ fault. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe tell us that supernatural fictions also kept the Early Moderns warm on winter nights. In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), Barabas recalls a tradition of seasonal scares: ‘Now I remember those old women’s words/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’ Poor little Mamilius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-11) has clearly had similar experiences, confidently telling his mother and her attendants ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’. There are also cheerier Christmas superstitions in Shakespeare’s plays: at the end of the first scene of Hamlet, Marcellus gets one of the play’s simplest and most beautiful speeches:
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
The rest of English Literature tends not to share Marcellus’s view: spirits, witches, and fairies abound in our Christmas heritage. Sorry, Marcellus.