2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony – a form of modern day pageantry
Photo Matt Lancashire
Modern Pageantry in Britain
AN ONGOING STORY
The Becket Pageant is delighted to collaborate with Redress of the Past, a major Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project which examines
pageants in twentieth-century Britain. It is led by King’s College London, UCL and Edinburgh Universities.
'Historical pageants were enormously popular across much of twentieth-century Britain. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved as performers and organisers; millions more as supporters and spectators. Pageants are still staged in some places today and their wider legacy is apparent in the popularity of “living history” and historical re-enactment societies.
'The Redress of the Past recovered pageants as one of the most important forms of popular and public history in twentieth-century Britain, with many lessons for today. Building from the project’s evolving research database, hosted on an interactive website, our research shaped the cultural agendas of museums and other groups, effecting change in cultural programmes and curatorial practices. It also resulted in real cultural and social benefit for individuals, organisations, and community audiences. Now reaching 650+ entries, the database recently featured in the leading UK family history magazine Who Do You Think You Are? in June 2020. The interest it has garnered demonstrates the enduring appeal of pageants to present-day communities as well highlighting its value as a resource to local historians and community groups.
'More generally, the real-world benefit of the collaboration between the project and local communities led to the co-creation of the Local History Study Guide, with contributions from archivists, project partners and academics. This invaluable new resource details how pageants can illuminate community history and engage communities in their histories creating cohesion between past, present and future.
'Accompanying exhibitions and events have enabled communities to connect their past and present as well as ‘remembering, reliving and celebrating’ their City’s history. The pageants exhibition at St Albans had over 19,000 visitors; Carlisle exhibition over 6,000.
'Our research also led to collaboration with Trestle Theatre, who staged scenes from the 1953 St Albans Pageant to a sold-out audience at St Albans Museum. Feedback highlighted the event’s “immediacy” and participatory feel. The audience felt they were taking part, while also learning about a vital link with their past: “What a great idea and wonderful tradition to take forward in this ‘digital’ Time”.
'One scene required a very special prop: the dragon slain by St George. Two hundred and thirty eight local children and parents participated in a “drop-in dragon-making workshop”, bringing vital footfall to the museum and material benefit to parents during the school holiday. One parent wrote, “Historical pageants are fun and a good way of involving families with children in history”. Pageants remain a powerful means of drawing all members of a community together to make history come alive.
'Perhaps this should not surprise us. Indeed, pageants illustrate the importance of the past in maintaining a sense of community. Coherent and meaningful local—and national—identities depend on the persistence of the past, and on popular engagement with it. Our experiences on the Redress of the Past project have shown us that historical pageants continue to exert a powerful fascination for people. They remain popular in many places across the UK, not least Axbridge in Somerset, which has been staging a major pageant once every ten years for the last several decades. Performances that share many features and characteristics of historical pageants can also be seen in twenty-first-century Britain notably... the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. Created by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce, this told the history of Britain in four major episodes, with thousands of performers cast in an array of different roles.
'Such events are popular for good reason. Pageants foster an appreciation of the history of one’s home community. Stephen Dunn, who performed as a child in the 1977 Carlisle Historical Pageant, recalled in an interview in 2015: "at school, I didn’t know what history was, I know that sounds terrible, but the way it was taught I think, I didn’t get it, it was all about dates and … lists of names and stuff and that didn’t mean anything to me. But then when I was put into a physical way, which the Pageant did in a dramatic form, and you got that sort of community feel, that sort of social side and what it meant to people, and then what it meant to society after that and how society was formed, and how society formed history and vice versa… it just opened up a million cans of worms, and I realised what history was."
'Pageants are drama; and history, too, is drama; re-enacting the past remains a potent means of bringing the history of communities to life.’
For the Redress of the Past project website and database, please click here.