One of my stories, 'The Enemy at the Gates', first published in the Hertford Writers' Circle anthology Heart of Herts, has been turned into a beautifully performed online tale by actors Vickie Holden-Swinton and Dan Swinton. We've all been looking for ways to get creative work out there during lockdown, and they've done an incredible job recording and producing this at home.
Specially produced for Hertfordshire Year of Culture 2020, the story is set during the over-the-top Hertford Pageant of July 1914, when emotions were running high among young people - who had no idea what the future held for them.
Click here for the link to it on You Tube.
Between 1871 and 1899, the proprietor of one of the largest and most successful theatres in London was a woman - Sara Lane. Her theatre, the Britannia in Hoxton, was an astonishing palace of illusion in the heart of the East End - not a music hall but a full scale theatre, seating 3,000, offering a programme of performances from fire-eaters to Shakespeare. The theatre was particularly well known for its annual three-month-long pantomime, witnessed by Dickens (who enjoyed himself).
The photo is of an original programme for the 1886 pantomime, from the archive of Sara Lupino, a descendant of the famous Lupino acting family, who were related by marriage to Sara Lane. Sara Lupino first told me the story of her ancestor and gave me the idea of writing a play about her.
This is still a work in progress, but here's the first scene, an introduction to the extravagant world of Victorian theatre...
THE QUEEN OF HOXTON
SARA LANE Proprietor of The Britannia Theatre, Hoxton
CAROLINE LA DOUCE Singer and actress at the Britannia
Sara’s cluttered office, backstage at the Britannia. Sara is writing at her desk, feeling pleased with her work.
Caroline enters, carrying a large poster – the bill for the following week’s performances. She takes a stand in front of Sara’s desk.
SARA Bigger and better than ever before Caroline!
CAROLINE I’m not having it.
CAROLINE holds up the poster.
CAROLINE Next week’s bill. You’ve put me below the Hungarian goats.
SARA The goats are very popular.
CAROLINE It’s a question of skill Mrs Lane. There’s no skill in being a goat.
SARA They’re very popular.
CAROLINE So am I.
SARA says nothing.
CAROLINE I have my loyal followers.
SARA They don’t turn out like they used to. Some have dropped off due to rheumatism and deafness.
CAROLINE The young fellers like me too. I sing the latest. I’ve got a new one.
SARA You’re more popular than the castanet and spoons. Be grateful.
CAROLINE But the bill. You’re going to pay the goats more than me.
SARA There are fifteen of them.
CAROLINE And they shit all over the stage! Estevan is taking money that rightly should be mine and is he using it to feed his fifteen goats? No. They’re out in the back alley eating rubbish.
SARA I’ll have a word.
CAROLINE He’ll be sorry when they can’t do their balancing act ‘cos they’re too weak on orange peel and some spat out tobacco!
SARA We’ll do you a benefit night soon Caroline, I promise.
CAROLINE I don’t want charity. I want a decent wage.
SARA Some acts are more of a draw than others.
SARA I’m a business woman. I can’t argue with the takings.
CAROLINE I’ve been with you ten years Mrs Lane. And I’ll still be here when all the acrobatic goats, castanets and spoons have been forgotten. I’ll be here singing a good tune.
SARA The Monarch on Shoreditch High Street is closing.
CAROLINE I heard.
SARA That’s three East End theatres gone in the last two years. There aren’t the opportunities for artistes that there used to be.
SARA But good news for us. People still want to go to a show and they’ll come to the Britannia. I’m expecting a boost.
CAROLINE I never knew the Monarch was in trouble.
SARA Times are hard.
CAROLINE You wouldn’t close the Brit?
SARA Caroline, I wouldn’t dare! I’d have the ghost of my poor Sam Lane ruining my sleep every night! He said to me on his deathbed, ‘promise me Sara, that you won’t let the Britannia go,’ and I promised. My Sam built this theatre up from nothing, from a dirty room at the back of a tavern, and I’ve carried on his work. Look at the Brit now
CAROLINE Mr Lane would be proud of you. But…
SARA … the most wonderful Palace of Illusion in the whole of London and people down from the West End have said so.
CAROLINE There’s rumours...
SARA I know. But the pantomime will be our saviour, as always. Ooh, it’s going to be bigger and better than ever before! Ali Baba and the Demon Bat King.
SARA Cave. Treasure. Realm of the Demon Bats.
SARA Subtitle – Harlequin, Sultana and the Magic Lamp!
CAROLINE Chief Fairy?
SARA Of course Chief Fairy. Fairy Shalimar.
CAROLINE Thank you.
SARA I would never give that part to anyone else Caroline. I might have to have you double up as one of the 40 Thieves, and a Djinn.
CAROLINE Ooh, a Djinn. Who are you?
SARA Madame Sultana the Fruit Seller. Searching for the brass lamp left to her by her dying grandmother and wickedly stolen from her.
CAROLINE Have we got a pair of bungling thieves?
SARA Of course, Harry and Arthur Lupino are down for that.
But listen, I have this vision Caroline. The transformation scene – bigger and better than ever before. Come with me, to the Paradise of the Crystal Oasis.
An ethereal haze clouds our vision… the smoke clears and we see an exotic scene… a dark cave, desert palms, snowcapped mountains, a blue sea in the distance…
CAROLINE But the light changes, the gauze lifts…
SARA And we are in a fantastic cavern, the rocks sparkling with coloured jewels, golden treasure heaped everywhere.. but again the gauze lifts…
CAROLINE We move on, towards paradise… The music swells… excitement mounts..
SARA There’s a glimpse of magical beings moving, shifting… Gauze after gauze lifts…
CAROLINE To reveal…
SARA A scene of pure delight..
CAROLINE The audience gasps…
SARA Against a backdrop of a shining marble palace, crystal fountains gush sapphire blue water. Beautiful fairies in sparkling costumes dance a captivating dance. Above them, as if by pure magic, wonderful spirits fly through the air…
CAROLINE Wait wait!
CAROLINE I’m not doing no flying.
CAROLINE Last year I said never again.
SARA You’re one of our most experienced flyers.
CAROLINE Exactly. I’m too old for that malarkey. Remember last year? I nearly lost all my hair when they got me too close to that gas lamp.
SARA It won’t happen again.
CAROLINE Dangerous Mrs Lane. Flyers could start a f… Not to mention what it does to your back. At my age.
SARA At your age?
CAROLINE I mean… you want the young ones doing it. The ones who haven’t carried three children. Clanked into that iron corset thing, hoisted up…
SARA It’s perfectly safe.
CAROLINE It’s agony. You try being gracious and fairylike while you’re suspended horizontal for an hour and your back’s killing you.
SARA No one said the theatrical life was easy Caroline. You know the audience always loves to see the flying. We mustn’t disappoint them.
SARA I’ve stood there in the wings and seen the look on a child’s face as she gazes up, and she truly believes she’s seen a fairy soaring on gossamer wings. The illusion is complete. We’ve done our job.
CAROLINE What’s Fairy Shalimar going to do then?
SARA What the Fairy Godmother always does. Take pity on a poor, suffering child and transform their life. Ali Baba, shivering orphan on the streets, finds untold wealth and becomes prince of … of…
CAROLINE And love.
CAROLINE He finds love. Marries the princess. Love is worth more than all the treasure of the Forty Thieves.
SARA Yes yes. All that.
CAROLINE We could do a dream.
SARA Fairy Shalimar comes to Ali Baba in a dream. Yes. He’s asleep – Maria’s going to be Ali Baba. He’s huddled under Madame Sultana’s fruit stall… and you descend like an angel from above…
CAROLINE No flying!
SARA You rise up, a vision of loveliness. We’ll do a trap.
CAROLINE Not too much smoke. Makes me cough. Could we try steam again, instead?
SARA Oh no, it made the whole theatre smell like a laundry. We’ll do a Corsican trap. He’s asleep, here. Slowly, in wreaths of smoke, you begin to appear out of nowhere… back here… Rising up. You move, as if by magic…
CAROLINE Alf and Bert underneath the stage cranking away like mad…!
SARA The trap is up.
CAROLINE I step towards the sleeping boy and touch him with my wand.
SARA But who… who are you?
CAROLINE Do not be afraid Ali Baba. It is I, Fairy Shalimar. I am here to make your dreams come true. A life of wealth and power lies before you.
SARA No, I am just a poor orphan.
CAROLINE Tomorrow Ali Baba, head for the mountains. There you will find a cave, filled with treasure. And… um… and most precious of all, a Magic Lamp.
SARA (whispers) But beware the Evil Bat King.
CAROLINE But beware the Evil Demon Bat King who rules the dark depths. He will try to suck your blood and take from you everything that is rightfully yours!
SARA Can this really be true?
CAROLINE Indeed. Because I am Fairy Shalimar from the Paradise of the Crystal Oasis. Then I do my dance?
CAROLINE Which one?
SARA The one you did for Cinderella and the Enchanted Forest.
CAROLINE That was a good one.
SARA It’s going to be a wonderful show. Bigger and better than ever before. And Easter’s late next year so it will be a long run. 15 weeks from Boxing Night.
CAROLINE We’ll be exhausted.
SARA We’ll be in the money. This will mean a turnround in our situation.
We’ll be in the money, three thousand customers will be in the warm on a winter’s evening, we’ll all be in paradise.
I'm launching a six-week writing course for anyone embarking on a major writing project - novel, factual book, memoir or other genre. The sessions will help get you started and power you forward with your book.
If you have an idea for a book, but don’t know where to start, or if you have started but are not entirely sure where you are going (as happens to all of us!), this course will help you find clarity and motivation, giving you the tools to see your project through to completion in future.
Sessions will cover:
Beginnings. What is your book all about and where do you get started? Who is your reader?
Whose story is this? Finding your authorial voice, or your main character’s voice. Style, point of view.
Knowns and unknowns. How much do you know about the world of your book? What research do you need to do? How to write with a mastery of detail, and not let detail master you.
Structure. A close analysis of different kinds of structure and how you can find the right structure for your book.
Layers and complications. Fiction needs reversals, characters need obstacles, non-fiction needs a clear and honest account of difficulties, to be worthwhile.
Endings. Your book may be a long way off being finished, but you need a sense of where it will end up. For non-fiction, what do you want the reader to take away with them? For a novel, how do you see it building towards a climax?
When: Mondays 7pm – 9pm
24th February, 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th March
Where: URC Church Foyer, Cowbridge, Hertford
Cost: £72 for the six week course.
Further info and to book: firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy authors, plus the lovely Rosemary Bolton, Mayor of Hertford, at the launch of our latest Hertford Writers' Circle anthology - Herts & Minds. Twenty authors contributed stories and poems and there's something for everyone in there - werewolves in the closet, a dystopian drowned Hertford, a ghostly newspaper, a Puritan pioneer, a dogged anti-slavery campaigner, dragonflies and red kites... it's a good read, we think.
The 5/6 October was Fun Palace weekend. Fun Palace is an idea which is really taking off - all over the country, arts and community centres organise a weekend of creative activities for adults and children to try out for free. In Ware, Southern Maltings Arts Centre held its third Fun Palace, and the building was packed with people experimenting with everything from fused-glass art to being a radio presenter.
Myself and blogger Ceri May gave a workshop on 'Life Writing' - which could be memoirs and family history, or telling your present day story through a blog.
I believe everyone's story is interesting, if told in the right way. When I've done historical research for my writing, it's always a delight, and a rare one, to come across an account of everyday life written by a person at the time. In our fast-changing world, the detail of even our grandparents' daily life recedes from us, but I'm convinced that future generations will want to know that detail of our lives, which will allow them to connect with us on a human level.
The workshop produced some marvellous writing, much of it from people who had not tried to write before, but just had an urge to have a go - which is the spirit of Fun Palaces.
I'm looking forward to what we'll do next year...