A Day in the Life: Food Historian, Dr Annie Gray

Annie GrayIn this Day in the Life we hear from food historian and star of Victorian Bakers, Dr Annie Gray.

No two days are the same for me. I spend a few days each month at home, prepping lectures, researching, writing articles, or writing up reports, but I can rarely predict the exact pattern of any week before I get there. That said, I’m writing a book in 2016, so I’ll have to get used to long periods of staring at a computer screen, interspersed with tea-making and fridge-raiding. This, therefore isn’t a typical day, but it is a day and there will be several like it in any given month. More than any other type of day, anyway.

I’m obsessed with food. That goes both for the history of food and its place in the modern world. Let’s face it, history is just the present after we’ve skipped on a few years anyway. Everything I do is concerned with food, history, and public communication. It’s rare that my talks or media work are aimed at an academic audience anymore, and as a result, I have to always be aware that a lot of the people who will be listening to me won’t have the foggiest idea of the social scene in 1830, or who George III was. With media work, especially, most viewers or listeners primarily want to be entertained. They may be looking to learn something as well, but if what they see or hear is tedious, they will just switch off and go and do something else. (The same is true of live interpretation, but more brutal, as people just walk away). So when I’m researching or writing, I am always looking for a hook, a ‘wow’ moment which will make people engage. Once they are listening and interested, then we can explore the wider issues – but otherwise it’s blank faces all round.

I get up around 8am. To paraphrase Garfield, I hate mornings and they hate me. I try and go for a half-hearted jog most mornings, or I might do an hour of gardening. Anything to get me out of the house and in the fresh air. I love my garden, I’m enthusiastic rather than skilful, and I take the view that once I’ve planted and watered a few times, it’s up to the plants themselves to show that they want to live. Mainly I grow historic things – produce I can’t buy easily, but which is useful for historic cooking. I’ve got a barberry, a couple of apple varieties, clary sage, comfrey, salsify and a massive patch of Jerusalem artichokes which, for obvious reasons, we’re not allowed to eat on a school night. If it’s blackberry season, I might cycle instead, with my bike panniers full of plastic containers ready to pick pints and pints of blackberries, so I can later make jam, or indeed, just gorge on them.

Once I’ve had copious amounts of coffee, food, and a hot shower, I can just about deal with the day. I usually do admin for an hour before I get going – the nitty gritty of freelance work, such as chasing invoices, replying to emails and checking Twitter. I occasionally blog, if I have anything interesting or pertinent to say, and I get asked for recipes quite a lot if I’ve done something particularly fine on the tv, so I might scribble a paragraph or two and post them online.

By 10.30am I am usually into the day proper. Depending on what exactly I’m up to, I might spend some time racing up and down stairs to get books, which are all over the house. If I’m writing a lecture, I’ll plan it all out and then start scanning or photographing books for PowerPoint pictures, or if I’m researching for The Kitchen Cabinet (the Radio 4 show I am part of, and which I utterly adore doing), I’ll divide up my piles of books by topic and start methodically looking for cool facts and interesting slants which will fit with the nature of the programme. I usually cook a dish for TKC, and I’ll liaise with the producer to make sure whatever I decide on will work with whatever the other panellists are planning. We don’t have a script, but we are briefed on the main topics we will be covering – usually something seasonal, something regional, and something else. I’ve got a reputation for bringing fairly outlandish things, and the odd time I manage something which everyone finds delicious is usually greeted with cheers.

Kitchen Cabinet

I break for lunch at about 1pm. Or, indeed, 12pm if I’m struggling to get going. Or 4pm if I’m on a roll. I might nip off the shops if I have to cook something that afternoon, or I might do some more gardening if I haven’t done any that morning. If it’s welting it down and all I want to do is huddle, then I’ll watch something mindless on catch up. The are always a few episodes of CSI hanging about, or I might see what’s on Amazon Prime. I’m not a big TV watcher – I prefer to get lost in a good book, but if I’ve been reading all day, it’s nice to do something different. I always have a cooked lunch, eggs or a hash or reheated leftovers. I lived in France as a teenager, and I think that two square meals a day (breakfasts in France are, to be fair, a bit poor, but then they eat lunch very early) and no snacking, is a good thing to aim at. (Though, see above for fridge-raiding – all the best resolutions crumble under the weight of a good Stilton).

After lunch I’ll get on with whatever the afternoon holds. I might cook that Kitchen Cabinet dish, or I might continue to do desk-based research. If I’m lecturing that evening or the next day, I might have to get costume ready, or even demo kit if I am doing a demonstration. Equally if I have a talk and tasting coming up, I’ll have to prep all of that. I have a separate store and workroom for my historic cooking gear – I try and keep work and home delineated so that I can attempt to have a life when I’m not working.

Victorian Bakers

My partner usually gets home around 7pm, and I’ll often pick him up from the station. It signals the end of the working day for me, and we’ll cook dinner together while putting the world to rights. We plan all of our meals, and have both a modern and a historic cookbook every month, from which most of our evening meals are chosen. It means I get to experiment with my kind of food, and we also use our ever-increasing collection of modern cookery books as well. So dinner could be anything from a pressure cooked sausage stew, to a partridge and ham pudding, or a simple (but artful) eggs and spinach recipe from the 18th century.

After dinner we’ll either read or watch something on TV. We’re currently working our way through the Montalbano box set, and we also have French TV, which usually has some hard hitting documentary on food scandals on, or perhaps the French version of The Great British Bake Off, or Top Chef, both of which are (unintentionally) hilarious, but go on for three hours. At some point we’ll lose the will to live and go to bed. Or, of course, I could be somewhere in a B&B halfway across Britain, drinking whisky after an evening’s hard work. As I said, I don’t really have typical days.


You can read more about Annie Gray here, or catch up with Victorian Bakers (BBC2).



What Is Live Costumed Interpretation?

Across this blog, all sorts of historical storytelling is discussed, but we are particularly interested in the practice of Live Costumed Interpretation (LCI).

If you’re wondering what that is, read on!

What Is It?

Kathy Hipperson

“The simplest way to explain it is to say that I dress in the costume of a particular era and engage visitors to a heritage site by, basically, pretending to be a historical character.” (Lauren Johnson, talking on Mother’s Always Right)

LCI has three defining elements:

1) Live. LCI has to be live. Visitors are not watching an Audio-Visual presentation, or listening to an audio guide, or leafing through a guide book, or reading information boards. They are watching real people invoking the real people of long ago. If history is a human construct, then I think it is one of the best ways to portray history. When a group of interpreters know their history and know how to work a crowd, LCI is an incredible, interactive visitor experience. Visitors may laugh, even cry; they almost undoubtedly learn something and are usually thoroughly entertained. I’ve even seen visitors faint or throw up, which, whilst perhaps not the ideal reaction, demonstrates the incredibly immersive nature of LCI.

2) Costumed. Practitioners will dress in dress in period appropriate clothing. The authenticity and the quality of these costumes can vary, dependent on company and site, but the over-arching point is to create an immersive environment in which visitors can see what these historic houses and buildings may have looked like when they were lived in. And unlike a portrait, visitors can see the back of the clothes! They can see how you move in them! They can touch them and smell them (especially in the summer) and ask you if you are hot in them (yes, yes we are. It’s 29 degrees, we’re standing in direct sunlight and are covered in velvet and fur.)

3) Interpretation. Interpreters, who can be a wide variety of backgrounds – actors, educators, musicians, museum professionals, academics, re-enactors – use their skills as entertainers, researchers and historians to explain and bring to life historical buildings, eras or moments. Interacting with LCI professionals can be educational and unforgettable. A former housemate chose her degree thanks to a troupe of LCI professionals coming to her school when she was 8 to teach about the Romans. LCI isn’t just people in costume; it should interpret, explain, educate, inspire and make a site accessible for everyone. LCI sits under an umbrella with re-enactment and museum theatre, but it is this interpretation element which truly merits its worth.

Annie Gray

Why do we think it is such a good way to interact with visitors? “What is brilliant about historical interpretation [is]…it is not theatre, it is not a history lesson or a library class, it is its own thing; and when it is done well it is absolutely phenomenal.” (Research conducted for unpublished Masters, 2015). LCI is a fairly unexamined aspect of museum education and heritage interpretation, which, when done well, has extraordinary potential.

In the past, LCI has been “praised for….historical research…but damned as frivolous show-business entertainment” (Leon and Piatt 1989:64). When research, costume and performance skills all come together in a perfect LCI moment, it can be entertaining, light hearted, affecting, surprising, challenging – never frivolous.

Interview with Jane Cartwright: Interpreter at the Charles Dickens Museum, London

The Charles Dickens Museum in London offers monthly costumed tours with a ‘housemaid’: in reality, live costumed interpreter Jane Cartwright. We chatted to Jane about her work in the museum and beyond…

Jane Cartwright chicken

How did you get into live interpretation, and specifically this tour at the Dickens Museum?

 I started working in live interpretation  in 1994 at the Museum of Moving Image. From there I joined Spectrum Theatre and Drama Company and have been with them ever since. Through Spectrum Ive had the opportunity to work in a wide variety of historical sites and museums and in very differing styles. I research, write and deliver events for both family and educational programmes. The team at the Dickens Museum happened to be on a tour that I was giving at Linley Sambourne House and as a result Spectrum and I were invited to develop their costumed tour of  number 48 Doughty St. An important place in Charles Dickenss life where he resided from 1837 until 1839.

You built an immediate rapport with the crowd, encouraging them to clap and join in with repeated phrases. What do you think is the most important or useful tip to get an audience on your sidefrom the start?

I think its useful to consider what you are asking of your audience in a live performance. Unlike in the usual darkness of a theatre auditorium, playing conditions in museums and heritage sites, such as Doughty Street, emphasise social perception and response; audience members are all on view, both to the performer and to each other. There may be people who will recognise and readily engage in the improvisational and inclusive nature of such performance. There may be people who are unfamiliar with what is happening and are chary of committing to it.  There may also be people who recognise such involvement as being potentially embarrassing – how might their conduct, their cultural competence, be judged by others? They may fear being socially wrong footed. That an audience feels relaxed and safe is essential. I think it is important for an audience to know what to expect  and what is being asked of them. How an event is organised and framed and how you signal and facilitate the theatrical conventions in play are crucial and can be  essential in influencing the degree to which an audience will engage in a performance.

Housemaid tour dickens museumYou seemed to adapt very easily to questions during the tour, taking the story in different directions. Is your tour scripted or does it change every time you deliver it? How did you research the tour?

I did originally prepare a script, though rather than being a definitive acting script, it serves more as a series of prompts. It changes with every tour as I try to respond to the visitors and their interests. As the housemaid, I am only one half of the performance, or experience. The visitors also play an active part, so no one is just watching. The nature of this event is such, that a fluid, improvisational style works best.

However, in the context of interpreting a historical site, such as Doughty Street, this degree of improvisational style does need careful preparation. For the tour to work effectively, I must try to have a thorough and  intuitive understanding of the subject. So the scriptI created, serves as a set of factually correct information, approved by the team at the museum, and developed through rigorous research. I needed to cover the social and historical background of the area, the architecture, the role of a servant, etc, as well as knowledge of the life and works of Charles Dickens.

Is your character based on a real historical figure, or an amalgam of several people?

The character is based on the historical fact that, numbered amongst the staff at Doughty St in 1839, there was a housemaid. Beyond that,  unfortunately, specific details are unknown. So, I decided to base her on an amalgam of several different characters drawn from various accounts of housemaids at that time.

Your language was very of the period. How did you create that style?

A hugely rich source for inspiration when creating the character, were  Charles Dickensnovels. I wanted to try and draw on his wonderful character descriptions, the voice that he gave his characters; their style of speech, their idioms and vocabulary. At Doughty Street, I feel that the realismof the setting, and the close proximity of the audience, demand a naturalistic performance style and so the signification of language, costume, gesture and voice, hopefully, combine together to build a psychologically believable character.


Jane Cartwright 1930s
Source: NewsShopper

Inevitably, visitors will ask questions about things your character could not really answer (like your own future). How do you respond to those questions without undermining the sense of a historical world?

There is much in the house that relates to Charles Dickens’ life after he  left Doughty Street; there are items of furniture, clothing, a lock of hair, flower from his funeral, and so on, and the team at the museum very specifically wanted me to address these anachronisms, answer questions as they arose, and not be totally bound by the conceit of the event, i.e being visitors to the house in 1839. This doesn’t seem to be an issue, or, indeed, undermine the sense of a historical world. I feel it’s possible to cross the boundary between time periods and address questions from a modern perspective, without causing confusion, and without stepping out of character.  As the combination of period character and contemporary commentator mutate, so the visitor hopefully blends the concepts of ‘actor’, ‘identity’ and ‘character’, and these complex transitions are simultaneously enfolded into the lived experience.

What do you find the biggest challenge of being a live interpreter, and what do you think is the most rewarding aspect of the job?

Its hard to think what might be the biggest challenge. Sometimes the environments in which you find yourself working, battling with the elements, (and sometimes noisy helicopters!) when working outside, and noisy exhibits when working inside can be taxing. Clambering into a Victorian costume in the confines of a very small toilet cubicle can also be seen as very challenging!

The most rewarding aspect? When the lines between performer and spectator become blurred, and no one is ‘just watching’.

Where else do you work, when you’re not being Mr Dickens’ housemaid?

I also work at the Florence Nightingale Museum, Museum of London, London Transport Museum, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Royal Astronomical Society, Linley Sambourne House, Docklands Museum, the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the Firepower Museum at Woolwich.