Britain: Cavaliers, cads and codpieces

Costumed interpreters are bringing the past alive in museums all over the country. Helen Chappell reports on history's fresh plan of attack.
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We live in interesting times. This summer, terrifying violence has broken out in the streets of Stirling in Scotland, where militant nationalists in leather and plaid have been clashing with British soldiers. Explosions and gunfire have stunned innocent onlookers at Bath, Bolsover and Battle Abbey. These are high old times, in fact, for costumed re-enactors - that strange new breed of weekend hobbyists and Equity card performers with a missionary zeal to "bring history alive" at castles, museums and heritage sites across the country. Their armies have been slugging it out in Scotland to mark the 700th anniversary of Wallace's victory at Stirling Bridge, and defending Fishguard against Napoleonic soldiers invading Wales for the first time since 1797.

But any weekend of the year you will find them at it somewhere off the motorway: Norman weddings, Jacobean stand-up comics, Regency duellists, and Viking encampments with authentic displays of bottom-scratching. Museums and historic houses, too, teem with the living dead. Dry-as-dust guidebooks and tour guides reeling off dates are no longer enough for us, it seems. We want to shake hands with our ancestors, and experience for ourselves the look, the sounds and the smells.

Now the make-believe battles of the weekend warriors have sparked off an intellectual feud. Bad-tempered articles in museum journals question the historical accuracy and educational value of costumed events. Sir Nicholas Goodison, chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, has launched an attack on curators who "obscure the importance" of the objects in their care "with interpretative, theme park ... displays". It is not the job of heritage sites and museums, he fumes, to "ape Madame Tussauds or Disneyland". Are costumed interpreters sweating it out in their replica corsets doing more harm than good?

Not according to Justin Hall, alias Sir Justin de Frais of Lion Rampant, a medieval re-enactment society.

"Our weapons, costumes, music and dances are as accurate as possible," he says. "We learn to fight properly in our tournaments and combats - we get gasps from the crowd." Mr Hall, an ex-soldier, now a customs officer, admits to a strong romantic streak, however. "I believe we all do it because we're reincarnated medieval knights. I have a burning passion for the era. I love all the dressing up and living in a time warp." A fellow medieval, Suzy Ashby, insists that the audience loves it too. "People ask us all sorts of questions: Is it hot in that armour? How do you go to the loo? They get completely carried away by the fighting, screaming and cheering us on."

It may be fun, but is it educational? Howard Giles, head of special events at English Heritage, which puts on most of the big UK re-enactments, thinks so. "Some critics will always cry pastiche and call it plastic history," he says. "But we won't tolerate cavaliers smoking cigarettes, or Viking chieftains with cans of Coke."

The huge surge in popularity of these alfresco costumed events surprises even their organisers. "It's quite amazing," says Howard Giles. "There are more than 400 groups out there reviving every era, from Romans to the Second World War." When English Heritage tried out such events in 1985 (with just three venues) there was an instant rise in visitors and membership. Today it holds 600 costumed events a year all over England (Scotland does its own), ranging from a couple of minstrels strumming lutes, to this summer's staging of 2,000 years of military history at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire, with a cast of thousands and a budget of pounds 30,000 plus. Though it pays only expenses to its amateur groups, the annual events budget has risen to pounds 750,000.

Costume re-enactors started in the US in the early Sixties with a handful of 18th- century redcoat soldiers at Williamsburg and the Plymouth Plantation in Virginia. They first took hold in Britain with the founding of the Sealed Knot civil war society in 1968. Now almost every nation in Europe has got the dressing-up bug and costumed armies travel to each other's country to fight a friendly battle or two. English Heritage has not been alone in seeing the money-spinning potential of this passion for the past. A bizarre new occupation - the paid, costumed interpreter - has also arrived. Some are ex-schoolteachers and academics; some are resting actors; many have attended a "heritage interpretation" course.

Most weekends, James Arnott can be spotted dressed as a Georgian courtier, strolling languidly in the garden or great hall of a stately home. He has a postgraduate diploma in heritage interpretation and a lofty disdain for some of the amateur element in his line of work. "We've had computer programmers in historic uniform bashing each other over the head for some time," he says, "but I'm trying to give the public a more close-up, hands- on experience." Inside Marble Hill House in west London, for example, Mr Arnott and his company Beaux Stratagems hold a lady's levee (with corset-lacing demonstration), sing baroque songs, and take tea with exquisite gentility. James has worked at Disneyland in Florida, and has no time for such a "Mary Poppins meets My Fair Lady" approach to history. "I'm pernickety about details; all our costumes are copied from paintings of the day ... There's really no excuse for getting it wrong. All the evidence is there in the diaries, prints and plays of the time." His greatest frustration is the elitist attitude of heritage curators in the Sir Nicholas Goodison mould. "Some of them think you'll take the place over, cause a visitor blockage ... We try to get them on our side - ask for their help and ideas, and use their expert knowledge in our presentation. Often their remit is to preserve a house in aspic. Our audiences say we bring it alive."

Academics and puritans may sneer, but the time-warp bandwagon rolls on regardless. Even the conservative National Trust has now begun to stage costumed events, such as the 18th-century pleasure garden "revels" this August at Studley Royal water gardens, in Yorkshire. Of the major London museums, only the British Museum and V&A are still holding out against Roman soldiers or Victorian flower-sellers popping up in their galleries. "The public doesn't give a toss whether we put professional actors, amateurs or academics inside the costumes," says Liz Denton, of the Interpretation Unit at the Museum of London, "as long as they have done their homework. There's still a lot of snobbery which says that museums are only there for scholarly research. We're not trying to turn the place into a theme park. We believe our costumed actors help to demystify history for families and school parties - giving them solid information in a positive, fun way."

Like it or not, the costumed ghost from the past has a bright future.

a future diary for past events

Sundays, 12 October and 2, 9,16, 23, 30 November, Edinburgh Castle: An afternoon of living history and drama. Meet Sir Walter Scott, Deacon Brodie, and body-snatchers Burke and Hare, who re-create events of the past. Starts 1pm (details, 0131-668 8830/8686).

Saturday-Sunday, 20-21 September, Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire: Redcoat festival celebrates the soldiers' history, including re-enacted battles of Naseby, 1645; Culloden, 1746; and Waterloo, 1815. Plus living history encampments. From noon (01246 823349).

Saturday-Sunday, 11-12 October, Framlingham, Suffolk: Songs and Surgery - 17th-century doctors demonstrate gory cures for Civil War wounds and illnesses, while their patients are soothed by music of the time. From noon (01728 724189).

Friday 4 to Monday 7 December, Bishop's Old Palace, Lincoln: A medieval Christmas with costumed carols, games, song and dance. Yuletide pagan rituals investigated. 10-4pm (01522 527468).

Saturday-Sunday, 6-7 December, Queen's House, Greenwich, London SE10: A Stuart-era frost fair re-created - come and see King Charles II and take part in his revels, including a court masque, dances, carols and the making of festive treats and decorations (0181-858 4422).

NB Most outdoor re-enactments finish in early October.