The History Tellers: In Conversation
The History Tellers, a.k.a. Stephen ‘Abs’ Wisdom and Alex Burnham, are two historian/performers who aim to bring fun yet fact-filled history to life. Despite being busy with their own writing, work for television, and photography, throughout the year they can be seen touring the country and performing at many of the UK’s major history events. Loved by young and old alike, they bring their own brand of history to huge crowds, who return to events year after year just to see them. Having crossed paths with them ourselves for several years, we decided it was high time to interview them, and not a moment too soon: they have some exciting projects planned for the months ahead.
How did the History Tellers start?
Abs: In 2015 Chalke Valley History Festival were looking for something exciting to do for the public and James Holland, who runs it, thought about doing a trench experience. He brought in a big black wedding marquee, in which we built a huge immersive scenario, like a film set, and put the team together that acted in it.
Alex: It went through different stages of the war: there was a marshalling station, an English dug out and a German one. There was a crashed aircraft in no man's landA stretch of land between the front lines of two opposing armies.A stretch of land between the front lines of two opposing armies.A stretch of land between the front lines of two opposing armies.A stretch of land between the front lines of two opposing armies.A stretch of land between the front lines of two opposing armies.A stretch of land between the front lines of two opposing armies. and a hospital as well.
Abs: And it was tremendous. But it has to be said, it was quite expensive, so James asked whether it would be possible to do something that was a) cheaper and b) that all the public could see, because the marquee was tucked away.
Alex: The problem with the trench experience – like the one they currently run – is that it's timed ticket and you have to pay extra, so not everybody could do it. He wanted stuff that was there for everybody to see. So, he asked Abs for an idea and Abs suggested that we do fun historical stories. We’d already done some motor racing stuff, and the story of Maurice Wilson climbing Everest for a National Trust property. We'd also just been working together on a full-sized S.E.5 biplane for English Heritage, which was carted around to events where we would do stories about the war in the air and that sort of thing. So, we had this base, but we knew we needed to make it bigger and more theatrical. But we didn't know anything beyond that.
Abs: James came up with the name. And it just worked – even though the next year was horrendously muddy – we did Jeffrey Hudson, the smallest man in Britain; we did ‘Engines and Espionage’; we did the diver story. And the audience loved it, and it grew from there. Suddenly we found that we were doing it more and more; we were doing heritage sites with History Tellers and motorsport events with Motor Aces, which is effectively the same format, but we've got some big racing car replicas as well that we take out. And suddenly we had a busy calendar of things to do with history.
So what inspires you? What sort of stories make you think 'Yes, that will work'?
Abs: We like the brilliant, rip-roaring stories from history, and members of the public often suggest things. But half of the stories we get presented with just won't work because they've got a brilliant element in the middle, but they haven't got an end or a good conclusion.
Alex: There was one gentleman who talked about a ship his great uncle was on, but it sinks with all hands; it’s a big story, but we can't really do it.
Abs: We often say to each other when we're discussing stories, 'It's a bit deathy'. For example, there's a really good story of the last man who dies in World War One, and we did it last year at the Bath American Museum. But it is a really unpleasant story because he's actually quite an unpleasant man. So, we decided not to do it as a History Tellers' story because it involves lots of horrible things.
Alex: Also, there's a double whammy in that when you actually boil it down, there's only 10 minutes of story. When I was doing it at Bath, I was padding the life out of it, just to make it fill the gap.
Abs: One of the things that we notice a lot is that re-enactment groups tend to aim towards the military side of things and particularly on the hardware, and suddenly you're not doing human stories anymore. You're doing stories about stuff. (That said, there are some re-enactors who are absolutely remarkable, and in the space of 20 minutes’ talking to them about their equipment and clothing, you can learn so much and they do a brilliant job of imparting history.) But we like stories about people and of excitement and adventure: about going into space, about going to the bottom of the ocean. We will do stories about going in balloons or going up mountains because they've got that adrenaline-fuelled excitement, like you get in military stories, but without the horrible people-getting-killed element.
Alex: And even in the shows which have a lot of death – our St Nazaire raid story theoretically has a lot of death – we don't really talk about the killing. We have to mention people dying here and there, but we don't talk about how brilliant it was that the commandos mowed down loads of Germans – we skip those bits, even though they're there. And the techie war stuff is great for the ‘beardy man’, but his wife and his children and his mate aren't interested. They're there for the bigger thing. In general, people are interested in other people, and that side will please a much bigger audience.
Abs: And that's generally what we try to do. We keep our shows short; we keep our shows fun; we make it theatrical. We generally choose stories which are good fun, good history, and that have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Once you've got the idea, how did you go about turning it into a performance?
Alex: One of us will find a good story and then we'll talk to the other one about it; if we both think there's potential, it tends to be that I'll buy the book and read up on it, and Abs will start looking at the practical side: what would we need in the way of costume, how would we stage it, what physical things would we need. And then we'll talk it through until we have a rough structure. But the actual show itself doesn't happen until we get up and do it.
Abs: So, for example, in a few weeks’ time English Heritage have asked us to do nine or ten days at Stonehenge for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the moon landings. At home, I've got a replicaan exact copy of something.an exact copy of something.an exact copy of something.an exact copy of something.an exact copy of something.an exact copy of something. Apollo spacesuit, so we’ll use that. But we've also got some really good stories on dreams of the moon: the original Cyrano de Bergerac – the real one, not the Rostand character from the nineteenth century – and how he wrote his fantasy of going to the moon; we’ve got great little historical facts. And we've got a practical bit making water rockets: stuff that’s good fun and will keep the kids engaged. Generally we just get this feeling after a while of things that are going to work and things that aren't going to work. But even then, we get it wrong. We modified the D-Day show this morning, 30 seconds before we started the show.
Alex: That D-Day show has been the hardest one for us to finalise. That's one we're still not really happy with, and we've really had to work at it to make it into something that we think is good.
Abs: At Chalke Valley, we had a whole element on Omaha Beach with Robert Capa, who took the famous photographs. But the more we looked into the history of it, the more we found out that there's almost no history attached to it whatsoever.
Alex: The problem is, when it gets vague, we're left in a position of telling people something that we're not convinced is true or we can't verify. Storytelling is fine in some situations, but when we can't prove it, it's difficult. So we decided to drop the bits we weren’t sure on, but that meant we needed to fill them with something else. But by the end of the weekend, Abs had found a great story about this cook, Joseph DiTonno, who during the D-Day landings – because his ship was wedged on the beach and he had nothing to do – started making breakfast and taking it out to the troops on the beach. And it's just an amazing little bit of a human story that we could slip into that show. You can watch the movies of the D-Day landings all you like: we don't need to be doing Tom Hanks running up the beach because it's already been done. The only thing we could find with DiTonno's story was a newspaper interview but that was pretty much it, nobody else was talking about it.
Abs: And whilst his story doesn’t warrant the whole show in itself, it feeds into a medley of lots of different people's stories. So we were able to steer it quite nicely without having to rely on anything about guns or the technical stuff at all.
Do you have a favourite performance?
Abs: I love ‘Engines and Espionage’, our story about the first ever winner of the Monaco Grand Prix, William Grover, and how he and his mate Robert Bernoist became SOEThe Special Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World War.The Special Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945.. The Special Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. . The Special Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. . agents. I love it not just because it's a show that we know and that’s got lots of silly voices in. It is actually because the guys in it are amazing characters.
Alex: That story, I would say, is one of my favourite history stories. But I'm not sure it's one of my favourite performances. I'm often a bit disappointed because we could put so much more in and we could do a whole day on that show, but nobody would sit and watch it. We've got to cut and edit, and I sometimes get a bit frustrated that we've got only half an hour for it. Liking the stories and performing the shows are quite different: there are some shows that are an absolute pain to perform because we've got to be thinking so much. The ‘Dambusters’ show, for instance, has a lot that can go wrong. It has a model flowing down a wire and has to knock over a dam, and it's quite heavy on facts. It's not an easy show to do, but it's a great story and a great bit of history. But I doubt I'd pick that as one of my favourites because it is so difficult. I like the shows that have that exciting adventure element to them.
Abs: I love the stories that come across as really exciting visual stories; as a filmmaker and a person who loves imagery, I think a lot of our stories have very evocative images, and they're what really appeal to my artistic eye. But the best bit of all is not so much doing the shows; it's having the public coming up and saying, 'I love that'.
Alex: Both of us have had people say, 'We remember seeing you do something years ago’, and sometimes it’s things that I’d completely forgotten about, like talking about Victorian photography. I like the feedback: the first year we did History Tellers, an old lady came up to us and said, 'I saw the trench you did last year and because of that, for the first time in my life, I looked into what my father did in the First World War. I'd never asked; I'd never been told. I knew nothing.’ But since then, she had researched it; she'd found out something about her own father she'd never known before. And I thought that if an 80-something year old can be inspired by what we do, then surely we're doing it right. Another time at Chalke Valley, a family kept coming and watching ‘Engines and Espionage’, twice a day, every day. In the end I asked them why, and they said they liked it so much that they wanted to perform it for their granddad. It’s these sorts of things that provide a spark for kids further on.
So, you’ve got Stonehenge coming up in October 2019, you’re regulars at events throughout the year, and, of course, at Chalke Valley; what else do you have planned?
Abs: One of the things we are doing as History Tellers is making four really high-quality internet films, to get our stories to a different audience. So, we've built a little studio; we will be in our History Tellers coats and hats; we will present to camera. But we will also cut away to very nicely reconstructed drama sequences. They are a big undertaking. I've done underwater hardhat diving, in old style diving gear, and we've just been down on HMS Alliance, the Royal Navy Museum's submarine. We're hoping to get Alex out in a real Bugatti, driving around Goodwood or somewhere similar when we do the ‘Engines and Espionage’ film. We've got a friend who is a mountain rescuer and he's going to take us out in the snow in the Welsh mountains and hopefully show us some of the old climbing gear. At the moment we’re working on filming the life of Jeffrey Hudson, the king’s dwarf, a tiny little guy who was a cavalier in the English Civil War. We are trying to film the duel sequence, a key sequence in his life. Alex will do all the speaking roles, and we’re using my grandson as a stand-in for the long shots, but he’s growing quickly, which is a problem: I need to not feed him so much!
Alex: We've also been talking about things like podcasts, which hopefully won’t take so long to do. And as soon as they’re ready they will be up on our website, on YouTube, and on Facebook.
Who, from history, would be your ideal dinner guests?
Alex: I’m not sure whether interesting people from the past would make good dinner guests or whether they would just waffle about themselves! I've recently been researching a man called Gideon Mantel, who discovered the iguanodon and who worked really hard, but he was always pushing at closed doors. That perseverance really strikes a chord and so I'd like to talk to him, if nothing else, to tell him how much of an influence his work had because, when he died, he thought he was a bit of a failure.
Abs: Years ago, the first historical film I ever really got into, which I must watch twice a year, was Ridley Scott's The Duellists, a 19th century Joseph Conrad novel spun into a Napoleonic world. And even though Ridley Scott is alive at the moment, I wouldn't mind having a beer with him, as long as he would sit and talk technique. And although he sounds like an amazing chap, I think he would probably say, 'You know what? I just wanna sit and have a quiet drink; I don't really want to talk about work'. So, I'd be asking him about the way he lit that sequence with Harvey Keitel, and he'd probably be thinking 'It's 35 years ago'!
If you had a safety-bubble time machine, when would you go?
Alex: I would actually go back to 70 million years ago to witness some dinosaurs, and I'd take my little boy, Eric, who is mad about dinosaurs, with me. And we'd take a camera and take some pictures, because I think that'd be quite cool.
Abs: Monaco Grand Prix, 1929. I would park just before the finishing straight and slip out in front of Willy Grover as he was about to win; he'd be sitting there waiting for the Pathé newsman and I would roll up and go, 'Thanks, it was great: I came first, mate. You came second'. And then at least we'd get to have a chat and to meet with each other. Without all the health and safety attached to it today, I'd like to take a Bugatti around the 1929 Monaco track; that would be quite good fun.
Information about the History Tellers at Stonehenge for the 2019 October half term can be found at English Heritage’s website.