Props, Plays, Masters, Makers

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

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!



Advent 19: Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas


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.

The seminal adaptation.

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.

Ring given by Catherine Hogarth Dickens to her sister Georgina.

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.


Advent 18: 5 Steps To A Spooky Christmas

I can’t tell you how happy this picture makes me.

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?

  1. Fearful folklore

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?

victorian-ghost-story2. 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.


5. Ghoulish gifts

Buzzfeed has a handy list of 21 Gift Ideas For The Goth In Your Life, and you can also buy a haunted doll from Ebay (because of course you can), sometimes very specifically so (‘This doll is haunted by Stacey, 16‘). But if you want something moderately rather than traumatically scary, there’s the Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, with tales by Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Scott, or the Folio Society’s illustrated edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Or, because in the vernacular of those hideous Facebook posts, The Greatest Gift We Can Give Each Other Is Time, why not cuddle up with a friend and follow this Rookie Magazine tutorial on how to make Victorian hair-based mourning jewellery? Amazing Christmas gifts!!

Oh wait. Everything is the Victorians’ fault.

Have a spectacularly spooky Christmas. And, yes, making Victorian hair jewellery is something I desperately want to do.




Pride & Prejudice & Elderly Fin-de-Siècle Actresses

Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.

this picture epitomises elizabeth bennet’s family / drink whenever mrs bennet

Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.

The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).


Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.

imagine these 5 women with these 5 bodies being allowed to be the sexy leads on 2015 television

Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.

But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.

‘Dame Madge Kendal’ (1928), by Sir William Orpen. Kendal was then aged 80.

Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.

Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.

Ellen Terry (1847–1928), pictured in 1925.

There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.

But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.

Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1928, aged 75..

I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1938, aged 73.

In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!