Courtly behaviour: Hampton Court is making use of a very old-fashioned tour company. Serena Mackesy takes a step back in time

There's a scene in the comedy Dave in which we are treated to a glimpse of a White House tour: a hatchet-faced harpie marches before a group of sheepish payees, flicking the backs of her fingers and intoning 'We're walking, we're walking'. Guided tours are things that bring back the worst childhood memories: studying the patterns on the backs of coats while an inaudible blue-rinse drones on about Regency panelling. Guided tours were designed to put the young off culture, along with children's ballet and being made to read The Mill on the Floss at the age of 10.

And at the other end of the scale, of course, is the theme-park concept, which is based on the assumption that the public has the concentration span of a goldfish unless diverted with jesters exhorting them to go 'oooh'. The wench-in-wonderbra style of presentation has been known to work parents into a froth, while leaving everyone little the wiser about anything. Education's a pig, isn't it?

Hampton Court, however, has farmed out some of its guiding to a company which falls between both stools and lands miraculously on its feet. Past Pleasures, set up a little over four years ago by Mark Wallis and Jane Malcolm-Davies, provides heavily researched and amusing historical presentations for any venue that can afford to hire them.

At the Court, guides in period costume conduct tours and are available to answer questions daily in the William III and Tudor apartments. At weekends, this is augmented by presentations on 'life' at court - etiquette, clothing, servants, how to approach the monarch - interspersed with anecdotes, snippets of potted history and delightful examples of the human vagaries of our ancestors. Did you know, for instance, that a tall footman cost more than a short one? Or that, even if he could afford to wear silk, a Tudor Yeoman was forbidden to do so by law? The joy of using these settings is that of being able to give a sense of history as a state of flux and fashion rather than a series of Dutch interiors.

Past Pleasures is as much a research outfit as an entertainment one: as well as reproducing history live, they provide script and dialogue advice, sets and props for film and video companies. The costumes they produce and commission are as exact as it's possible to be, right down to the weaving, and the guides are remarkably obliging about letting you rap their armour-like corsetry with your knuckles or have a look at their underskirts. Tragically, the leonine wigs are no longer made of real hair: insurance premiums haven't allowed for thousands of pounds worth of rug since the South Sea Bubble.

Where most guides are trained mainly to be able to talk about the room they are in, Past Pleasures guides can dredge up remarkable titbits of social history on cue: how to spot (and snub) a parvenu, the point of a beauty spot. They are also approachable in a way that someone in a pussycat bow is not: tourists do a double-take as they enter a room, delightedly say 'hello, who are you, then?' and fire off the type of arcane questions that have obviously been worrying them since childhood. Something about a doublet and hose not only sets off the rooms a treat but makes those sporting them so conspicuous that they have to be able to come up with answers.

Although Hampton Court and the Medieval Suite at the Tower of London are their first regular gigs, the company has a track record of tackling virtually anything: they have sent Lillie Langtry home to Jersey, done a prehistoric show at the Livesey Museum, snapped on goggles at Duxford and sunk a couple of pints at the Bass Museum, Burton-on- Trent. They also dress up as anything from an alewife to a barber surgeon's mate and enliven the cramped conditions on the Mary Rose at Portsmouth.

Hampton Court, which I've thought of for years as a maze to take people to on first dates rather than somewhere to shell out seven quid to go into, has definitely benefitted from this addition to its interiors. One word of warning, though: if you lurk too near the front you might get roped in to a spot of audience participation. This is one torture that Tudor gaolers must really envy the twentieth century.

Past Pleasures guides can be found at Hampton Court Palace 11am-4pm daily. Free costumed tours of the William III apartment are at 11.45pm and 2.15pm, and of the Tudor apartment, 12pm and 2.15pm. At weekends, special presentations are at 12.45pm in the William III apartment and 1.15pm in the Henry VIII apartment. The Tower of London has guides available 10.30am-4.30pm daily. Duxford Airfield, near Cambridge, will be staging a week of D-day landings commemoration in June.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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