Graham Towse and Bronwen Harrison, as partners in Sun Jester since the mid-1990’s, create and deliver informal education sessions for children and adults. We are also involved in music and the performing arts. The talks we now do for organisations such as Mirthy, have become another strand of our work. Several of these talks, under the banner of ‘The Bob and Dot Show’, involve musical anecdotes, a wind-up gramophone and live singing. One of the frequently asked questions is, ‘why Bob and Dot?’
To answer it, we must tell a story that began in 2010. At that time, The National Trust instigated a broad programme of innovative projects across their properties, designed to more fully engage their visitors and hopefully increase their numbers. As part of this initiative, Sun Jester were employed to set up an in-house theatre company at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire.
The job, though daunting, was right up our street so we were eager to take it on. Our first task was to advertise locally for volunteers to become members of ‘The Cliveden Set’. We had an enthusiastic response from people already involved in Amateur Dramatic Societies and others simply curious and keen to be part of something a little different. It was an encouraging start.
We needed to assemble a mixed group, willing to learn how to deliver what is termed ‘first person interpretation’ for the many visitors to Cliveden. This was not simply going to be a case of playing a part and following a set script. It would require the ability to fully embrace the roles for a whole day without stepping out of character. It also involved extensive research into the people and the period we had chosen. We were going to portray real characters from history and that meant finding out as much about them as we possibly could. This was hugely important and a big part of what made the whole experience so rewarding. We settled on the year 1934. Between the wars was an exciting time for Cliveden when many and varied guests were invited to stay for prolonged house parties.
Of course, as well as the main actors, we also needed people who were not so interested in the limelight but who were happier in background roles or who could provide supporting skills. We certainly could not have managed without them. So much was required in order to make the company run smoothly; costumes and props located and maintained, hair and make-up, things to be carried or placed in certain locations at specific times. As well as the relentless research to provide as much authenticity as possible.
During the winter months, we ran drama workshops, teaching professional theatre techniques on how to stay in character when meeting with the public. These workshops were great fun, gave our actors confidence and helped us decide who was best suited to play which character. Meanwhile, the support team gathered props, made or sourced costumes and accessories and were kept busy with all manner of essential tasks.
On our ‘outing days’, which were always on dry weekends and Bank Holidays of the summer months, we would arrive by mid-morning, get into costumes and decide on our routes. When ready, we would set off to stroll around the beautiful Cliveden estate, sometimes splitting into smaller groups to maximise our presence. Staying totally in character, we would chat with the National Trust visitors. We would always behave as though they were also specially invited guests. Some were occasionally confused and mystified. But, more often than not, they quickly cottoned on and joined in with good humour to discuss the politics, fashion, sport, celebrities and popular ideas of 1934. The characters we chose to portray were among some of the most regular and well-known people associated with Cliveden at that time. Our selection included:
Apart from these famous notables, we at Sun Jester needed to find characters of our own to play; real people but not so well known to the public nowadays. This meant we could participate, yet remain more in the role of background support. In researching the period, Graham discovered that one of Lord Astor’s great friends and fellow student at Oxford was Robert (Bob) Brand. He was well known in the 1930’s and a frequent visitor to Cliveden, sharing many mutual friends with Lord Astor. He eventually married Nancy’s Astor’s sister Phyllis. Graham settled on him for his role and found him so fascinating that he has written a whole talk on him – ‘Bob Brand, the banker who wanted to blow up Hitler’.
And as luck would have it, Bob Brand had a sister, Dorothy, also a regular house guest at Cliveden. A Justice of the Peace in Oxfordshire, very little is known about her so ‘Dot’ was an ideal candidate for Bronwen to adopt as a role.
As the summer went on, there were plenty of memorable days and treats in store for us, not least the delicious mulberries on several old trees; they were irresistible!!
Sometimes the house was open for guided tours and we were able to venture inside too. The tours always finished in the French dining room. As the tours entered, we would be there, playing cards or suchlike, asking for a good-natured argument to be settled on a point of scoring or perhaps discussing the politics of the day. One of our support team would try to ascertain what had been in the news that particular week in 1934 so we were well prepared.
We would often take the wind-up gramophone and a box of 78’s out with us, carried by one of the Astor ‘staff’. This would be one or two of our fabulous support team. Luckily, one couple on this team were also great ballroom dancers and they would teach us, and any visitor happy to join in, some very simple dances. Of course, not everyone was cut out for dancing and chaos could easily ensue!
Occasionally, magnificent vintage cars and their chauffeurs would arrive to drive us down to the banks of the river Thames, just below the house. This was such a treat and we always looked forward to those days. One regular car was a 1930’s Rolls Royce Silver Cloud; the others were usually Bentleys of the same era. And what luxury it was; so comfortable inside, it was like sitting on a sofa.
Visitors were always fascinated by these beautiful old vehicles and would soon gather to have a good look, or even sit inside one for a quick photo opportunity. And the chauffeurs, who were also the owners, were delighted to talk about their beloved cars to an enthusiastic public.
One afternoon, we noticed that there were more boats going by than usual and realised they must be returning from the Henley regatta. Seeing the cars and us in our period costumes, curiosity got the better of one young ‘captain’ who decided to moor up. He was kind enough to invite us on board for a little trip up & down the river (around 20 of us!). The owner explained that the boat had been a wreck before he rescued and lovingly restored it over a long period of time – an emotional tale as it turned out to be one of the Dunkirk little ships. Very humbling, especially as bullet holes were still visible in the cabin below, deliberately left there, lest we forget…
Towards the end of our day, we would usually head for the parterre, a good sunny spot by 4pm where there was often a crowd gathered as they knew we were coming. We would play the wind-up gramophone and share lemonade and cake with visitors too. ‘Nanny’s’ home-baked lemon drizzle cake was extremely popular! This was an opportunity to have some in-depth conversations with visitors; or sometimes just a bit of fun.
We met some lovely people, many of them tourists, who found us very amusing and sometimes rather perplexing when we didn’t respond to modern references. But it was all in a day’s work and once people got used to our presence, they would often seek us out. We had become very well versed in the gossip and goings-on at 1930’s Cliveden.
As the house is now an exclusive hotel, we met the occasional celebrity (we feature in the wedding photos of one very famous footballer!); and world leader (so desperate to know who on earth we were that he sent a bodyguard with a request for us to meet with him on the terrace). What larks. And of course, we could never name names!!
The Cliveden Set was an enormously successful project, far beyond anything we could have dared to hope for. Initially planned to last just a couple of seasons, to our astonishment it went on for seven! Our days with them were so very enjoyable, providing wonderful memories of fun, laughter and friendship; the kind of job that doesn’t come along too often and it’s certainly one we look back on with great pleasure.
And so, Bob and Dot were the obvious choice of names when we were thinking about something that, for us at least, would encapsulate the era our musical talks concentrate on.
To book Bob and Dot for a talk, please click here to visit the catalogue page.