In Australia the majority of our public understanding of history comes not from reading the work of historians but from watching film and television productions based on history. Performance has also become a key interpretative strategy for museum and heritage sites, and digital programs and web-series are playing a growing role in school curriculums.
My PhD explores the process of adapting history through performance – how it could or should be done, and what the opportunities or challenges might be in adapting the work of historians through different performance mediums. My research is practice-based and I’m building upon my background as a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter to develop a series of performance texts that are adaptations of the Founders and Survivors Project, a quantitative history research project analysing the experiences and legacy of Tasmania’s convicts.
In 1803 the British invasion of Australia spread southwards to a lush heart-shaped island named Van Diemen’s Land by Europeans, known today as Tasmania. The island soon teemed with red-coated soldiers, record-obsessed colonial bureaucrats, and ambitious free settlers who over the next fifty years would whittle it into a ‘little England.’ This feat was only made possible thanks to a devastating process of land dispossession from local Aboriginal groups and the forced labour of around 73,000 men, women and children convicted of crimes in British courts and transported from the far reaches of the Empire as convicts.
For the purposes of the colonial administration these convicts were comprehensively documented:
As unfree migrants, the convicts sent to Britain’s Australian penal colonies were described in extraordinary detail that proliferated over time. We know the colour of their eyes and hair, their place of birth, age, religion and literacy as well as the names of their parents and brothers and sisters. We also know much about their former criminal and work histories and the disorders for which they were treated on the long voyage to Australia. So minutely were their bodies examined that we have a record of their scars, inoculation marks and tattoos.
– Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Founders and Survivors Project [i]
The Tasmanian convict archive contains some of the most detailed data about 19th century working classes in the world. As well as describing the convicts, the archive also traces each convict whilst under sentence, keeping track of any work done, punishments borne, marriages sought or babies born.
When convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land ended in 1853 locals began unburdening themselves of the past and scrubbing clean the ‘convict stain’ that many felt had tainted the island. The convict archive was literally locked away, with some records actively destroyed, and society developed an unofficial ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy about the convict past. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Tasmanian convict archive was made available to the public, and it was only near the end of the 20th Century that it became a point of pride, not public shame, to have found a convict in your family tree. In 2007 the Tasmanian Convict archive was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
The Founders and Survivors Project is an ongoing collaborative research project between a number of institutions involving historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are interrogating this UNESCO listed convict archive. Convict records are gradually being transcribed and uploaded by researchers into a massive database, and quantitative analysis techniques are unearthing some ground breaking ‘big picture’ stories about the convict experience. Instead of seeing the archive as a record of convicts’ individual failings and experiences, which has long shaped our understanding of convict history, we can ‘read against the grain’ en masse and see the attitudes and systems of the colonial administration and how convicts’ lives were influenced by political, social or economic factors.
The project’s findings cover diverse territory – from myth-busting entrenched attitudes towards Irish convicts to analyzing height data to gauge whether the children of convicts were at a health disadvantage. Big data is changing the way we do history, and significantly shifting our understanding of the Tasmanian convict experience.
Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania
When adapting this research for performance a key challenge has been negotiating the warring needs of accuracy, artistry and accessibility in developing a performance text for a particular audience. For each performance text I have decided how much fidelity to the original historical research I need (or want) to maintain and what role the slippery and subjective term ‘authenticity’ should play in my choices. Quantitative history enjoys a relatively small audience thanks to the complexity of the methods used by researchers, and one of the aims of my research has been to interpret the data analysis process in ways that allow it to be accessible and engaging for wider public audiences without losing accuracy or misrepresenting the findings. I’ve been exploring techniques around simplification, prioritisation, and providing extra informative scaffolding, and have been experimenting with ways of visually representing the data, inserting the data into narratives and finding ways to perform ‘a likelihood’ rather than an outcome.
The early exploration of performing a Gaussian curve
Because the Founders and Survivors Project is so dependent on digital technology, and the database provides such a highly mediated window through which to view the Tasmanian convict experience, I have used similar digital-based mediums in my performance texts. I am developing a vlog-style series that uses visual representations of data and builds upon contemporary forms of educational storytelling to communicate some of the key findings of the Founders and Survivors Project. I’m also exploring online digital engagement with the Founders and Survivors research and how digital data visualisation might also be integrated into live theatrical performance.
My findings might be used to inform museum and heritage performance practice or performance adaptation projects for stage, film or television, but might also influence the communication practices of quantitative historians, and I’m looking forward to publicly releasing my performance texts and gauging how they bring this exciting new research into Tasmanian convict history to new audiences.
[i] Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish ‘And All My Great Hardships Endured’?: Irish Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land’ in Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History, Routledge, Niall Whelehan (ed), United Kingdom (2015)
Lydia Nicholson is a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Tasmania. She studied at Flinders University and the University of Sydney, has worked with a range of theatre companies in South Australia and New South Wales and developed public programs with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the Australian Museum, National Trust Tasmania and the British Museum.
I should preface this blog post by saying that the story of Muffin the Mule has become something of a pet project of mine, not to mention, a wider part of my Ph.D research. Back in October 2016, the seventieth anniversary of Muffin’s first broadcast was not only a cause for celebration, but a cultural landmark in British children’s television. In commemorating the very first appearance of the small, stringed, ‘kicking mule’ on the BBC, the history of this marionette is but the beginning of a long and ongoing relationship of puppets and presenters on TV. In tracing Muffin, as a wooden progenitor to a growing and somewhat illustrious family of marionettes, puppets (and even Muppets) made for children’s television, the presenter and the puppet as a sidekick has been a mainstay attraction for British children’s television for over half a century. It is this perennial fascination with puppetry that requires further exploration, and how it has been traditionally used as a device for presentation as well as an integral part of storytelling for kids’ TV.
Delving deeper into the ways in which the popular and well-loved figure of Muffin the Mule captured an audience both then and now, the original programme can be regarded as pioneering, on several levels. First shown on For The Children (the original run 1937-1939, with a return in 1946-1951), the inaugural appearance of Muffin the Mule took place in a twelve minute live performance, broadcast from Alexandra Palace in 1946. Moving into the 1950s, puppets played a hugely important role for children’s television, and Muffin was to be joined by several of his puppet friends. These included other characters such as Poppy the Parrot, Sally the Seal and Crumpet the Clown. Although, as Anna Home remarks Muffin the Mule was to be hailed as the first real television star (1993:50). Not alone in his stardom, Muffin was accompanied by actress Annette Mills at the piano, and puppeteer and performer Ann Hogarth of the Hogarth Puppet Theatre – the programme’s producer, Jan Bussell was also married to Hogarth and shared her love of puppeteering for all ages.
The story of how Mills and the Hogarth Puppet Circus came to work together to produce the programme is at the heart of Muffin’s tale/tail. Indeed, the passion and enthusiasm shared by the married couple’s interest in the art of puppetry more broadly, is highlighted in Hogarth’s obituary. Penny Francis comments that, ‘The Hogarth Puppets were Britain’s leading exponents of the art of puppetry for many years. Their work bridged the transition between the naturalistic, imitative style of puppets still common in the early days and the highly stylised work to be seen from the Sixties and Seventies.’ (The Independent: 1993)
Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet Will McNally who, as the grandson of Hogarth and Bussell, was well placed to talk me through the Muffin phenomenon. In spending some time with him and looking through his archive, I saw first-hand some of the amazing Muffin artefacts. These included a range of diverse merchandise, toys, books and programme material, as well as the impeccably preserved marionettes themselves. In explaining to me how his grandparents, ‘were touring puppeteers and had a little caravan they converted to a puppet theatre,’ Will told me how the couple would ‘travel all around the country, going to different parks, particularly the Royal Parks in London.’ As the story goes – in 1934 Fred Tickner was commissioned to make a new wooden puppet, a kicking mule, which Will iterated ‘wasn’t created or designed to be Muffin then.’ It was only when Annette Mills and Jan Bussell, (who at the time was working as a television producer) met that the Muffin as we know him came into being. Mills had the desire to create a programme suitable for children, wherein she could sing her songs.
She [Mills] knew my grandfather was into puppetry, and asked if he would make a puppet to illustrate her songs, and he rather haughtily said, ‘no, come to my house and select one of my puppets’. She obviously thought it was a good idea and selected the kicking mule. It was Annette who named him ‘Muffin the Mule’. (McNally: 2016)
Mills and co-creator Ann Hogarth were credited in their roles as helping Muffin, by ‘writing the songs’ and ‘pulling the strings’. In a decision made by Bussell and the BBC, the choice to place their own approved version of a mother figure in the programme was in that of Annette Mills. This reflected some of the wider anxieties surrounding children’s television at the time. In his work, David Oswell observes that most felt that in an ideal world children would be watching the wonderful new medium with an adult. Naturally, this would not always be the case and in effort to try and counter this concern, the presence of Mills ensured that there would always be a proper, appropriate and perhaps even maternal voice to guide them. In addition to this, McGown notes that, ‘Mills and Hogarth felt non-speaking animal characters better stimulated young imaginations’ – a quality that is reflected in the way Muffin is seen to trot up and down the surface of Mill’s grand piano. The puppet would occasionally pause, perhaps to whisper something into Mill’s ear, which only she would understand and translate for the benefit of the audience.
Being with Will it was clear that he held the memories of both his grandparents and of Muffin dear. He explained to me that, ‘Muffin was loved by everyone…adored the world over, all ages, and seemed to have this knack of bringing people together.’ Whilst the figure of Muffin the Mule has grown into something of icon, he has also become a piece of British television history, both materially and on the screen. The ongoing legacy and the traditional role of puppet on children’s television, has undoubtedly cast Muffin as something of a forefather for the puppet’s place on TV, creating a space for those that followed suit. Glove puppets like Gordon the Gopher, Edd the Duck, and even the contemporary CBBC sidekicks – two cheeky dogs called Hacker and Dodge, now seem to have replaced the stringed marionette. But what remains is the self-same ‘naughtiness’ and foolishness that Muffin instilled. Even this was indicated in the programme’s original theme song:
‘Here comes Muffin/
Muffin the Mule.
Dear old Muffin/
Playing the fool.’
Before I left that afternoon, Will said to me: ‘You asked me earlier about my grandparents and what they thought about Muffin – their aim was to push the boundaries.’
Muffin indeed changed the landscape of children’s television in Britain from the off. Puppets have set the tone, being more than just a mere prop, but as Lury puts it an ‘anthropomorphic pal’ for the presenter for years to come. (35:2001)
Gabrielle Smith is a Ph.D research candidate at Northumbria University, Newcastle and is a Film and Television graduate from the universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow. Her current research identifies the development of the role of the British children’s TV presenter from the 1940s through to the present day, whilst reflecting on gender and performance on screen. She is also a blog-writer for the Children’s Media Conference, Sheffield.