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
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz