Category Archives: History

Birdsong @ The Birmingham Rep


In honour of the First World War centenary, The Rep recently staged Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of the best-selling novel Birdsong. As a fan of both the book and the BBC adaptation I was curious yet cynical about whether the tale could be successfully transferred to the stage. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Birdsong follows young Englishman Stephen Wraysford (George Banks), intertwining his experience of fighting in the war with flashbacks of his time in France beforehand- including his passionate love affair with his employer’s wife, Isabelle Azaire (Carolin Stoltz).

An impressive set was waiting in the gloom when the audience first filed in; a filthy trench with ladders stretching up to the implicit threat of No Man’s Land. Even now we are still shocked by the conditions they fought in, from the soldiers’ grimy uniform to the nurse’s blood stained apron. The neglected setting of the war scenes contrasted well with the elegant furniture used in the effortless flashbacks to pre-war France.

The play also tells the tale of the lesser known tunnellers, who laid mines under No Man’s land. I was doubtful of how these underground episodes could be conveyed on stage but the imaginative solution was to plunge the stage into darkness and pull forward a few short, propped-up wooden beams with dimly glowing lamps dangling from them. When the men came crawling through them on their hands and knees the illusion was complete and the claustrophobic atmosphere created on stage was stifling. 

George Banks impressed me greatly as the lead, especially given the demanding nature of his role. Wraysford was required to be almost constantly on stage and to switch between the present and past continuously. This contrasted his carefree optimism and passion before the war with his disgust and detachment during the war, showing great depth of character.

However the best performance by far was that of Peter Duncan as the working class tunneller Jack Firebrace. Despite his poorer background he is the most noble of all the men, always in good spirits and cheering the others up- despite receiving the news that his little boy has died back in England. Duncan played him with a brilliant mixture of bravado and vulnerability that made him the most likeable character and the most tragic. Jack Firebrace is the decent man that gets written out of history and the play makes you feel guilty for that.

The play’s depiction of the experience of war was extremely vivid, with the sudden shell explosions making the audience jump in their seats and the aeroplanes being made to sound as if they were directly overhead. The horror of the Battle of the Somme was also alluded to without having to attempt to re-enact it. Before they go ‘over the top’, Captain Gray quietly tells Wraysford that their bombing failed to destroy the German wire. When Wraysford asks him what to tell his men, declaring they will be slaughtered, Gray tells him not to tell them and simply hands him a pair of wire cutters. The audience already knows the catastrophic consequences of the Somme and we do not need to see it to picture it.

Despite Birdsong evoking the experience of the First World War so well, it ends with Wraysford telling the audience that we can never understand what they went through- as all the other characters join him in silence, and listen to the faint sounds of birds singing. Thus despite our current commemorations of the First World War, a century after it started, Birdsong suggests that the true horror of the war remains concealed- leaving an even more poignant impression in the modern mind.

By Ellicia Pendle

Tony Robinson’s Weird World of Wonders @ Book to the Future

tony robinson

Sir Tony Robinson, presenter of Time Team and beloved Baldrick from Blackadder, came to the University of Birmingham on Friday 25th October to give a talk on some of the ‘weird and wonderful’ events that occurred in the past and which have inspired his series of children’s books.

Elgar Concert Hall filled up with a combination of teachers, university students, enthusiasts and primary school students all eager to see the acclaimed television personality-turned-author, and he did not disappoint. From the moment he ran onstage with his dazzling sparkly shoes, his charismatic and energetic performance engaged with children and adults alike.

From his hilarious, though not very PC, impression of Adolf Hitler crying like a baby, to his ‘mummification’ of a school teacher (accompanied with gory actions and sound effects), Sir Tony took us on a journey through time, pinpointing prominent events that could be perceived as dull to an audience of 7-10 year olds, and turning them into something fantastically interesting. He spoke about a range of prominent events in history, spanning from the Roman Empire and World War Two, to the slightly less well-known and wackier ‘invention of the Boat Cloak’, which all made for an unpredictable and constantly amusing performance.

Although slightly akin to a pantomime, the audience interactions provided laughs and really brought to life the events that he described. One unlucky pupil had to act out the first Olympics by running around the audience over and over, adding in actions whenever Sir Tony would call them out, “Javelin!”, “Shot put!”, after which Sir Tony informed him that the original Olympics would have been done in the nude(!) which had the boy’s fellow pupils in stitches.

In the Q+A session after his talk, an audience member asked what inspired Sir Tony to first start writing children’s books. Sir Tony explained how he had been approached by a publishing company and asked if he would consider it; and with the help of a friend he got to grips with writing. He told the audience that he realised that he could write on his own once he had decided on the most interesting, weird and wonderful historical events to write about. He then went on to highlight to the audience the importance of writing about something you are truly passionate about, which really resonated with me as a final year student with deadlines already beginning to loom.

The talk was concluded with the advice that everyone ought to write about the weird and wonderful elements of history as they would become rich, get to drive fast cars and be knighted!

Sir Tony Robinson’s Weird World of Wonders series aims to teach children about history in a way that excites and interests them, taking away the elements of dullness and boredom; and his talk inspired many audience members (me included) to buy a book from his series. In this manner we can see how he accomplished what Baldrick would call a very cunning plan!

by Hayley Yates

Unlocked: Hidden stories from the lives of Birmingham women – 1900s to the present day @ Birmingham Museum

bull ring

Two women in the Bull Ring, 1910.

Unlocked is a fantastic exhibition running at Birmingham Museum. Having lived in Birmingham for just over a year now (and growing up just down the road) Brum has always been a vibrant and colourful city for me. This exhibition is a chance to delve into the lives of women in the city, covering a vast array of aspects of history and life in Birmingham. The exhibition had quotes, audio books and artefacts all helping to tell these women’s stories.  Such as Zaida Begum on racial equality and Islamophobia “How do I see myself? I’m a British Muslim, I’m a Brummie.” Which I think was my favourite quote of the exhibition.

There are some brilliant stories to be heard such as Ruth Middleton on coming out in the 1980’s. Ruth moved to Birmingham in her early 20’s with her partner to find a more exciting life. She spoke (via audio book) about the problems she encountered with the National Front movement, having her tire’s slashed and car keyed. She spoke of how she felt there was no place for her, Nightingales being the only gay club in the city was predominately a male club. During the 1980s there was widespread oppression and lack of understanding towards gay rights that spread even to government. At the exhibition I learned about Section 28 which was passed under Thatcher’s government and prohibited “the promotion of homosexuality in public area’s including schools” this prevented teacher’s teaching that homosexual couples could be seen as a positive family unit. There were some stickers from 1987 in the museum that were used to protest; the sticker’s had brilliant slogans such as “We’re out and we’re staying out” and “Break the silence.”

Another really interesting and hard-hitting story was that of Dorothy, she worked for ‘brook’ when it was still a new venture in the 1970’s. The brook offered emergency contraception and advice to young women in the city regardless of age. Dorothy explained they faced demonstrations and protest as people disagreed with the work they were doing.  It’s people like Ruth and Dorothy who, just by living their lives, meant that this generation of young women in Birmingham have access to vital services like the brook and are able to freely express themselves and be who they want to be.

The brilliance of the collection is how it deals with massive social issues via the voices of real women.  Issues such as women’s equality, the pro-choice movement, gay rights and racial equality are all displayed via the women who lived through them; by the women who fought and saw the change within the city.

By Noemi Barranca

Bosworth: the Birth of the Tudors @ Book to the Future

henry tudor
After the BBC’s making of the series The White Queen there is no doubt the story of the Tudors’ rise to power is very topical. Attending a lecture on the Battle of Bosworth by Chris Skidmore, MP of Kingswood, enlightened me as to the true story of Henry Tudor and the recent deductions from the finding of Richard III’s skeleton earlier this year. Treachery, intrigue and betrayal were certainly the themes of the 15th century.

On the morning of 22nd August 1485, the army of Henry Tudor and of King Richard III met at Redemore, later known as Bosworth. With some luck and against the odds, Henry Tudor managed to defeat the three times larger army of Richard III. Henry Tudor, a 28-year-old Welshman who had just arrived back on British soil after 14 years in exile in Brittany, won the crown of England.

Chris painted us a brief picture of the history of the story of the rise of the Tudors. I would suggest reading his book for the full details. However, crucially he suggests the turning point for the reign of Richard III was with the ‘disappearance’ of the two Princes, sons of his dead brother Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. Richard had certainly suffered huge loss, losing his wife and son within one year. It seems, on the scandal of the two boys’ possible death, Richard lost the hearts of many noblemen who defected to Henry Tudor in Brittany.

So what was Henry’s claim to the throne at the time? He was the son of Lady Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, the bastard brother of the then King. Henry’s main claim to the English throne derived from his mother through the House of Beaufort. Henry’s claim was somewhat tenuous: it was from a woman, and by illegitimate descent.

Part of the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster (Henry) and York (Richard), the Battle of Bosworth was the accumulation of this bloody fight over the throne. Chris described a fascinating picture of the battle, explaining the misconceptions in location, the marshy area which forced changes in the battle which resulted in Henry’s win and the level of technological development for the era. For example, the many canons found at the site portray a King well prepared for battle. From the evidence Chris provided, it seemed Richard was rather sure of his win, and due to his army being three times the size of Henry’s, he truly had no reason to doubt this.

It was made clear to us that when the battle is going wrong the King should retreat to fight another day. However when John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford crushed Richard’s vanguard, Richard charged towards Henry’s standard with the crown on his head. History tells that the standard bearer was knocked down and killed, which normally would mean the end for Henry, however this was not the case and when William Stanley, a defector from Richard who had already let Henry pass through Wales undeterred, fought for Henry, the battle was lost for Richard.

It is interesting that William did not get any prize for joining the fight at this time, as he possibly won it for Henry. One explanation is the way Richard was killed, not as a King should be, but as a sort of execution and bound-up and carried like a pig through the battlefield. The skull shows a slice of skull cleanly shaved from Richard’s head, probably the blow that ultimately killed him.

Chris’s interpretation of the evidence and recent archives was fascinating. I cannot do justice to that here. Suffice to say it inspired me to buy his book to find out more! The battle was won by Henry, through the power of other nobles and possibly could not have been won hadn’t it been for the death of the two boy’s in the Tower. To find out the true story, and not the slightly over-dramatized one from The White Queen, would benefit any curious history lover.

by Holly Abel

Doggerland @ Book to the Future

Professor Gaffney

Being a girl from Yorkshire myself, a lecture on a ‘lost’ land named Doggerland certainly sparked interest. Part of the University’s first literature festival ‘Book to the Future’, the lecture given by Professor Vince Gaffney celebrated innovative technology, inspiring findings and historical development of research. It was inspiring and informative, and gave a real understanding of the future of landscape archaeology in this area.

He began by reminding us of the other lost worlds history has presented. For example, James Churchward and the lost continent of Mu in the Pacific Ocean. We all know about the mysteries of Atlantis (and the BBC show is utilising this lost land at the moment). However it soon became clear Professor Gaffney was serious about a land lost beneath the rising sea levels during the last dramatic climate change, the ice age.

The land was inhabited in about 10000BC-5000BC and has become known as the Mesolithic period of hunter gatherers. The history of research into what has been named Doggerland was the main subject of the Professor’s lecture, and demonstrated the development of technology combined with a bit of luck!

Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland

The first ‘giant’ he stands on the shoulders of is Clement Reid who published ‘Submerged Forests’ in 1913. He described the remains of trees and stumps that have been submerged by marine transgression due to rising sea levels, meaning the stumps have become petrified. The next was Dr Miles Burkitt, who was pushed by his supervisor to study the Mesolithic period. He published two books, one in 1936 and one in 1939, the first being a ‘let down’ to his supervisor, as was nothing less than a combination of the then present research. His second book however was influenced by the finding of the Colinda Harpoon which a trawler dug up from the peat off the Dogger Banks, in the area of Leman and Ower. This exciting piece of luck demonstrates how evidence on the era was being discovered and put to scientific use.

Professor Gaffney went on to explain how the oil and gas industry helped with his work by surveying the vast area of the South North Sea. Using the help of Dr Ken Thomson, Petroleum Geo-Services (the group carrying out the surveys under the water for oil and gas exploration) gave them 6000 squared km (apparently this is an incredibly small area in relation to normal archaeological digs) to carry out their 3D research on.

This was the turning point for the team, they could begin to see rivers in the layers of sediment under the ocean and get a true picture of vegetative life 10,000 years ago. The main issue is of course that the data will not allow them to see settlements, but due to the developing technology, the team can explore the underwater land using the most modern 3D tools.

The main thing I took from the talk is how by collaborating with many groups across the world, the team has been able to expand their work to areas off of Wales and Qatar for example. Off of South East Asia there is an area named Sundaland, not much smaller than India, lost to the sea. In 2013 they won the European Archeological Heritage Award, which truly demonstrates the value of their work to the field.

I will certainly be keeping up with developments in this area. It is amazing how finding one harpoon can spark off research that will keep Professor Gaffney enthralled for years to come.

by Holly Abel

Robert Atkinson, Architect of Cinemas @ UoB Arts and Science Festival

Kicking off the University of Birmingham’s Arts and Science festival, the lecture from Dr Kate Ince introduced the work of the acclaimed architect Robert Atkinson; examining his professional progression as ‘architect of cinema’ and the principal architect of our very own Barber Institute. Atkinson’s ideological progression from designing ‘super-cinemas’ for the masses, to viewing the cinema as an institution which should be interchangeable with buildings and their varied uses, is succinctly demonstrated by the plans to equip the Barber’s auditorium to screen view – turning it into a cinema for all intents and purposes.

barber (1)

The talk itself was illuminating. A snapshot of the history of cinema development, and Atkinson’s creations, Dr Ince focused on The Regent Cinema, Queen’s Road, Brighton as the epitome of Atkinson’s career. He had a particular style, easily seen through the range of black and white photographs we were shown, although they could do no justice to the bright and vivid colours Atkinson was known to use. It is a tragedy of history that most of his work has been demolished or destroyed by fire through the 1950’s-70’s, when cinema attendance was at its lowest.

Comparing the ‘Picture Houses’ of our past and today’s multiplex giants is fascinating. They had ballrooms, The Regent had an Italian restaurant on its second floor, and crucially they were so much more beautiful than, for example, the Cineworld on Broad Street. Atkinson’s style made cinemas beautifully decorated, two storey galleries, with motifs and frescos often having an art deco feel; the classic features creating an air of elegance. The Regent Cinema exemplified this beauty and, more like a theatre to our modern eyes, it seated up to 3000 people. An example of a remaining cinema today that is similar to this, although not designed by him, is the Majestic cinema in Leeds, a listed building since 1993.


In my eyes the era of Atkinson’s architecture is a romanticised view of what cinema has come to be known as. Super-cinemas of the 1930s are perhaps a snapshot into what we have come to know as the modern cinema. However, we should look more to the past and recreate the masterpieces that cinemas were. We should appreciate film as an art form, and give them the setting they deserve. Eros News Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue Piccadilly Circus was a piece of his work, and in 2002 its interior was gutted and re-opened as a Gap clothing store. It is clear this is such a shame to the heritage of Cinema.

I turn to his work designing the Barber Institute, only twenty years before his death. The Institute we have today, although having stood the test of time, does not exactly resemble his work. For example, by the 1960s the flat roof needed to be replaced and a truncated glass pyramid was constructed in 1986-9. Atkinson presented three plans to be considered. Interestingly, one of which shows how we could have had a Barber Institute which could have looked much more like the traditional cinemas he designed, with an oval shaped entrance and two sets of steps leading up either side.

There is no doubt though that the Barber Institute is a beautiful addition to the University. Borne from the mind of an acclaimed successful architect of cinema, the fact the auditorium may soon be equipped with a screen should be celebrated. Atkinson would no doubt approve of such a use for his masterpiece.

The lecture provided an opportunity to appreciate more of Birmingham’s culture and heritage. The rest of the Art and Science festival will no doubt do the same.

Holly Abel


Tell Me on a Sunday part III: Feathers and Bones

As the end of the Easter Holidays dawned upon me I decided one last cultural experience of Birmingham before I became bogged down with exams, revision and a multitude of stress upon the return to University was necessary. So, I left my books behind and set forth for Brindley Place where this month’s Tell Me On a Sunday was taking place. Walking into the Ikon Gallery’s café we were greeted immediately by Katrice Horsley, the national storytelling laureate, who was to be our host for the afternoon. Dressed appropriated for the theme of ‘Feathers and Bones’ she wore a black, corseted and fabulous dress with a dark birdcage veil completing the ensemble. Reminding me of a coquettish black widow, she took to the mic to welcome us and we settled back for an afternoon of stories.

Katrice captured the audience with the tale of her mother, the beautiful woman who taught her the secret of the ‘3D pout’ but allowed herself to relax amongst her animals. In a comical telling of her mother spending the little money they had to purchase chickens, Katrice shared the story of her childhood with her Mother through these little chicks. They were the ‘happiest days of my mom’s life’ we were told. The whole room seemed to collectively hold their breath as Katrice gazed silently and with glassy eyes at something in the past. From the warm humorous tale of her mother and the chickens we were then reminded of the theme ‘Feathers and Bones’ and we learnt of her mother’s death of lung cancer. In an emotional finish, Katrice tells of seeing her mother’s body, ‘a husk’ which she dressed as the feather boa sister. From this tale of her mother we learn how Katrice was given her wings, her feathers, from her Mother but we are left with the poignant note that feathers turns to bones ultimately.

Next to the stage was Guari who lightened our hearts with a story of ‘Bootie’ the squirrel she met when she was researching in an Indian Village. She talked about learning the difference between asking questions for research and the opinions and personalities you learn through actual conversation; she told of how this was denied to her because she was an ‘ignorant city girl’. Everything changed for Guari when an injured squirrel adopted her as her mom. She comically described Bootie ‘peeping out of my ponytail’ and how this squirrel brought her together with the village community. A laugh went round the room as she recalled the moment it was discovered her ‘little daughter’ was in fact a son. In-keeping with ‘Feather and Bones’ we learnt about Bootie’s death, but were left with the heart-warming reminder of the ‘little baby squirrel that ran towards people instead of away from them’.

David took to the stage next and with gruesomely comic details described his medical history and how a condition he developed in his bones led to his hospitalisation, but also the making of some special friends. With vivid descriptions, we shared his hospital experiences from the death of his friend John, as well as the spurting of blood over a nurse which led to his decision to take up painting. We are reminded how despite death and the body going to bones, memories live on and David credits his painting due to this brief friendship with John.

Next up was Cath who enthralled us with a story from her childhood; a tale of boredom on childhood holidays which takes on a supernatural feel as she intones the ‘Cry of Dart’ in a dark voice. The story of an apparently un-kept grave always adorned with permanently present fresh flowers is a spooky one until, in an anticlimactic move which induces laughs from the audience, we learn that ‘The council pays a bloke to do it’. The disappointment in the room that the ‘spirit’ doesn’t exist was evident but so was the enjoyment gained from this refreshing twist at the end.

Polly then entertained us with a ‘nugget’ from her youth, a young love story which ended in vegetarianism. The humour is evident in the tale with memories of this ‘dark, handsome boy’ she fell for and her good humoured cringing at herself when remembering the crush she had on him. She recalled the essay she wrote him on the subject of vegetarianism and we felt for the younger her while she remembered with us the realisation that he, sadly, didn’t share her feelings of affection. The tale ended with the humour of sods law that upon meeting years later they both have boyfriends but only she was a vegetarian.

An American woman finished off the story telling with her tale of a life full of ‘feathers’ and birds that were thrust upon her by her enthusiastic mother. She regaled us with stories of her bird ‘Teely’ and the bird sound affects she added in were brilliant. We delighted in her tales of the birds depression and she finished by telling us how these birds have always been a constantly important feature in her life,  despite never wanting to keep any of her own.

Tell Me on a Sunday is a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The intimate café at the Ikon gallery and the high standard of storytelling makes it an experience you will be hard pushed to find elsewhere. The stories may make you laugh, they may make you reflect upon your own life, but what is for sure is that you will really enjoy listening to them.

The next Tell Me on a Sunday is on May 27th and the theme is ‘Secrets and Lies’.

Words and photography by Libby Hewitt