Hampton Court is a former royal palace situated beside The Thames in deepest suburban south-west London. I know its main courtyard from a job I did here back in 2004 appearing as an extra in The Libertine, a middling Earl of Rochester bio-pic starring Johnny Depp. I remember that shoot as a Winter's day spent hovering around a vegetable cart that I was purportedly the owner of, dressed up in period costume with shoes one size too small and trying to spend as much time as possible on the crew bus in order to stay warm. This time round the weather was crisp but not frozen, the period costumes were worn not by me but by my tour guides, my shoes fit me like a glove and I was thankfully rid of that vegetable cart.
Included in the general admittance ticket to the palace were a number of activities and tours for the avid heritage tourist. My arrival coincided with the start of the twice daily tour of the Tudor court, led by a courtier who would introduce us to that world. A group of about thirty of us, gathered in the courtyard where a lady claiming to be part of the queen's retinue welcomed us and said she would show us, "her guests", around court. She led us towards a door which, as she reached it, slammed shut. She pretended she did not expect this, paused in thought for a moment, then said something must be amiss. It certainly was.
We were led into a smaller courtyard where the other performer guides made their appearances. The tour was a three-hander and the theme was palace intrigue in the form of the queen's suspected infidelity. The performers stuck to their characters and talked to us as if we, the audience, were also stuck in the Tudor period and were their guests making a tour of the palace. The tour, then, shifted in tone from Tudor tourism to a trial for treason.
The acting was neither wholly convincing nor was it embarrassing: it simply did the job adequately. Anything too earnest would have jolted the tour into an unwelcome artistic zone so I am guessing the pedestrian tone of it was, quite probably, deliberate. What's more, the twice daily repetition of this show must have drained it of any excess vigour and helped it settle into the quality tourist distraction that it was.
There was a modicum of audience participation. During the scene where the queen's retinue were interrogated, questions were handed out for us to pose to the queen's servants. This did not change the fact that it was a highly controlled tour where genuine interaction would have been seen as a nuisance or even a liability. The questions existed to keep us awake in this historically themed entertainment that offers the impression of having learnt something when basically you have been inside a bumper length soap opera reconfigured as a guided tour.
What the tour did manage to do rather well was to use a variety of spaces around the palace to good effect, showing off its diversity of ambiances. The tour presented us with a series of good photo opportunities not only of the building but of actors in period costumes too. This was a sure-fire hit with the sort of foreign tourists who come to Britain and want to see the country through a historical lens. They come to Hampron Court Palace to see up close what they had previously only been able to watch on the screen. There were no Johnny Depps today to complete the admittedly anachronistic experience, but there were actors recreating the past in this easily digestible package.
Personally, I found the whole thing mildly oppressive. English heritage with its endless palaces and stately homes often has this effect upon me. It is impressive and has been designed to put you (the peasant) in your place and the nobility in theirs. Such architecture and heritage could be very exciting and even liberating if it were not for the fact that Britain still has a very real monarchy and class system. As such, these spaces are all too typically used to celebrate the continuity of that power structure. I tend to regard them and the ways their histories are interpreted as providing an educational role instructing the monarch's subjects on the proper division of power. They urgently require liberating from this narrative and while excellent examples such as counter-tourism exist, and not so great but not unwelcome contemporary art programmes of the likes of the National Trust's also take place, I see no great appetite on the part of the owners or custodians of these heritage sites to use them in a seriously open-ended way that permits questioning the basis of their existence. Their owners instinctively realise that they play an important ideological role and they will not relinquish control of them voluntarily to the riff-raff. It seems to me the alternatives are to ignore them altogether, to subvert them ever so gently or to retell and reuse them covertly.