Public Speaking

Historical Talks

I offer talks on a variety of subjects, some related to my book Cancan!, others drawn from my experience and background as a researcher, writer and editor.
The talks are:

  • Kicks and Frills: the Story of the French Cancan
  • Sophisticated Ladies of the Night: the 19th Century Parisian Courtesans
  • The Truth Behind Les Misérables
  • Haussman’s Re-Design of the City of Paris
  • The Dreyfus Affair
  • Bizet’s Carmen
  • The Life and Times of Franz Lehár and the Merry Widow
  • The Truth behind the Sound of Music
  • Show Boat
  • The Infamous Hollywood Production Code and its Effects on Musicals
  • Women of the Russian Revolution
  • The Berlin Wall
  • Socialist Realism – Stalin’s Policy for the Arts
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • Popular Culture Under Communism
  • The Enigma of the Arnolfini Portrait
  • Great Women Painters from the Renaissance to the 20th Century
  • The Life and Times of Toulouse-Lautrec

Currently I am not able to come in person to give one of these talks owing to the uncertainty over Covid-19. But it may be possible to arrange a Zoom talk online.I am currently teaching all of my courses online and have already given a number of online talks.

Please do get in touch with me if you represent a group, club or society looking for a public speaker and an online alternative to a face-to-face meeting sounds appealing.

“Wow! What an amazingly interesting talk you gave our WI. It was definitely Thrills and Kicks all the way. Many thanks for a super evening!”

 Blisworth WI

“It was so interesting to learn about the  historical background [to Les Mis]. Thank you so much”

Cogenhoe WI

“…a huge thank you for a truly delightful afternoon… a very interesting talk on the Merry Widow

Glooston WI

Here are details of each of the talks:

Kicks and Frills: The Story of the French Cancan

A historical talk about the French CanCan
La Troupe de Mlle Eglantine: poster by Toulouse-Lautrec

Did you know that the first cancan dancers were men?! Or that the original dance was a ballroom dance, and it was only much later that it became an all-women chorus-line stage dance? These and other curious facts are revealed in my talk on the cancan, based on my book on the dance, Cancan!.

The cancan first appeared in 1830 and by the 1860s people were describing it as the “French National Dance”, but it’s most associated with the 1890s, when Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous models La Goulue and Jane Avril were dancing at the Moulin Rouge.

Illustrated with film clips (with music), and contemporary photographs, cartoons and paintings.

Notorious Ladies of the Night: the 19th Century Parisian Courtesans

The courtesan Cora Pearl: photograph by Disdéri
The courtesan Cora Pearl: photograph by Disdéri

In Second Empire Paris, the courtesans were regarded with more fascination than ladies of the aristocracy – and they were often as rich and nearly always better dressed! Yet many were originally poor working-class girls who had caught the eye of rich gentlemen and so embarked on a career of pleasing men, being showered with gifts and money in return.

They weren’t only sought after for sex: many were highly intelligent and witty conversationalists, well versed in the arts, literature, and politics – much more so than most “respectable” women of their day.

Illustrated with photographs, cartoons and paintings from the period.

The Truth Behind Les Misérables

CosetteThe phenomenally successful musical Les Misérables is based on a novel by the French author Victor Hugo, who was actually living in political exile on Guernsey while he was writing. It’s set in turbulent times in France, climaxing in the July Rebellion of 1832 which was brutally suppressed by French troops.

But why did people rebel and what were they fighting for?

Are the main characters in the novel and the musical – Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Javert, Eponine, and Marius – accurate reflections of real-life people? This talk will reveal all!

Haussmann’s Re-Design of the City of Paris

The Paris we know today, often referred to as the “city of light”, was created during the French Second Empire under the supervision of the prefect of the Seine département, bnp-73-boulevard-haussmann-75008-paris-mBaron Haussmann. He was chosen for this task by Emperor Napoléon III, who wanted a capital city he could be proud of, with elegant buildings and boulevards that would impress foreign visitors. But he also wanted to destroy the old Paris, with its dark narrow streets that were so easy to barricade in times of revolution.
This talk describes this grandiose project and how it affected the people of the Paris, causing hardship for the lower classes and providing luxury and security for the bourgeoisie. With slides.

Carmen: Bizet’s greatest failure

It’s hard to believe but Carmen’s first performances in Paris in 1875 were poorly received 1875_carmen_posterby audiences and critics. Its composer, Georges Bizet, was very upset and angry and lamented that Parisians had “not understood a wretched word of the work I have written for them”. He died a few weeks later and so never saw Carmen receive the praise it deserved. This talk looks at the historical background and the nature of society in Paris at this time. With slides and musical extracts.

The Dreyfus Affair

Dreyfus in newspaper
Dreyfus Facesthe Court Martial

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer in France who was court-martialled for treason in 1894. Found guilty, he was sent to Devil’s Island in the Caribbean and many ordinary French people hoped he would die there. But he was completely innocent and eventually pardoned. The Dreyfus Affair exposed deep divisions in 19th-century French society, which some believed might lead to civil war. This talk examines the story and the historical background to the case. Illustrated with slides.

The Life and Times of Franz Lehár and The Merry Widow

Franz Lehár
Franz Lehár

Perhaps surprisingly, the operetta The Merry Widow was highly controversial when it was first performed in 1905. It actually caused riots in Croatia, and in Germany, a local dignitary called for it to be banned because it was so indecent! None of this prevented the composer Lehár becoming a millionaire many times over through its worldwide success.

But notoriously it was Adolf Hitler’s favourite musical work – and this fact probably saved the life of Lehár’s Jewish wife when the Nazis marched into Austria. With video, photographs, and art works.

The Truth behind the Sound of Music

Trapp_Family_Singers_1941The Sound of Music is set in Salzburg, Austria at the time of the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. It focuses on a “postulant” from the local convent who is sent to be a governess to the seven children of Captain Georg von Trapp, a former officer in the Austrian navy. Maria and Georg fall in love and marry and eventually have to flee to Switzerland from the Nazis, who are determined that von Trapp should take a commission in the German navy.

But how much of this was true? Maria von Trapp created a mythology around the family singing group that varies enormously from the truth, and Rodgers and Hammerstein when creating their musical took even more liberties. This talk will look at the political situation in Austria in the 1930s, and try to establish the facts about the Trapp Family singers. With musical extracts.

The Infamous Hollywood Production Code and how it affected Musicals

Gold Diggers of 1933 Joan Blondell
Joan Blondell

The Production Code was self-censorship by the Hollywood film industry, introduced in the 1930s in response to increasingly risqué imagery and dialogue. This talk looks at musicals both before and after the Code, with some amusing examples of scenes that the censors hoped to prevent in future (nothing too shocking!).

Before the Code, dancers’ costumes were often much more revealing, the dancing was much more suggestive, and the words of songs and the situations in which boy met girl sometimes “offended against common decency” – according to the men who created the rules, that is. Including film clips and photographs.

 Show Boat: the First Modern Musical

Show Boat deals with the serious issue of racial segregation and prejudice in America, and  look at history through operettas and musicalsas such was a departure from the earlier lightweight “musical comedies”. It caused controversy when it first appeared and continues to do so. One of its first stars was the actor and singer Paul Robeson, who had personal experience of prejudice, and who later fell foul of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “witch hunt” because of his communist sympathies. McCarthyism also caused problems for MGM when they were attempting to re-make the film of Show Boat in 1951. With musical extracts and slides.

The Berlin Wall: Why Was It Built and What Caused Its Collapse?

berlin wallAn enduring symbol of the Cold War in Europe, the Berlin Wall’s demise came as a shock in November 1989: first, the gates were opened to allow people to cross and then the bulldozers arrived to begin its demolition. But what was the motivation of the communist authorities in East Germany in building it in the first place, back in August 1961? This talk will look at the historical events that led to the imposition of this very physical barrier between East and West in Berlin and how it affected ordinary people living there, and also how it came to be destroyed in the culmination of a revolution that swept through East Germany in 1989. Illustrated with slides.

 Women of the Russian Revolution

Alexandra Kollontai
Alexandra Kollontai

We often hear about the men who led the Russian Revolution in 1917 but very rarely anything about the women. There weren’t many intellectuals in Russia before the First World War, but many of those who did exist were women, and some played significant roles in the revolution.

One of these, Alexandra Kollontai, became the first woman government minister in Europe. Another woman, Fanny Kaplan, effectively undermined the ideals of the Revolution by attempting to assassinate Lenin in 1921. He never really recovered, allowing Stalin to seize power, and later to turn the clock back for women’s rights. Illustrated with photographs.

Socialist Realism – Stalin’s policy for the Arts

gerasimov stalin at 18th

In 1934, the writer Maxim Gorky recommended that authors present a positive, optimistic view of Soviet society. This recommendation was seized on by Stalin, who made it compulsory for all branches of the arts in the USSR: literature, music, fine arts, architecture etc.

Over the next two decades, artists, composers and writers were persecuted if they did not conform. The composer Shostakovich came under intense pressure because of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – yet Shostakovich and others in the arts continued to produce works of high quality despite the pressures. But some efforts to please the Soviet authorities of that era were absurdly sycophantic and, in retrospect, almost comical. With examples from the visual arts and music, illustrating both the good and the bad consequences of Soviet arts policy in this period.

Popular Culture in Eastern Europe under Communism

Ausstellung Geschlossene Gesellschaft / Berlinische Galerie, Pfingsttreffen der FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend),Showveranstaltung im Stadion der Weltjugend, Ost-Berlin, Juni 1989, DDR#whitsun meeting of FDJ (Free Democratic Youth), East-Berlin, June 1989, GDR

We often get the impression that life in Eastern Europe during the Cold War was grey and gloomy, with people unable to enjoy themselves, forever worried about being arrested by the secret police. But in fact, entertainment for the masses was not hugely different from the West – although the authorities were constantly vigilant about youth culture and afraid of the influence of subversive Western groups like the Beatles… This talk looks at how people spent their leisure time in Eastern European countries, concentrating on pop music and television. Illustrated with photos and video clips.

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most popular musicals, even though its subject matter – family life in a small-town Jewish community in Russia at the time of the pogroms – seems far away from everyday reality. But when the musical first appeared in America, it struck a chord with many: the joys and difficulties Tevye the milkman encounters with his wife and daughters were seen as universal. And the musical was also about the American dream – the family seek refuge in America when they are forced to leave their community. Of course Fiddler on the Roof has so many great songs, full of pathos and imagination, and it was these that ensured that the musical became a classic.

The Enigma of the Arnolfini Portrait

el-matrimonio-arnolfini-de-van-eyck-ampliadoThe painting executed in Bruges 1434 by Van Eyck of the the Italian merchant Arnolfini with a woman, assumed to be his wife, raises a number of questions. Why was an Italian merchant in Bruges in the first place? How did he become so influential as to have his portrait painted? Who was the woman he was with? (There are three possible candidates, but none quite quite makes sense.) And why was Bruges, today a quiet backwater, so important in the Middle Ages? This talk attempts to answer these and many other questions relating to the famous portrait. With slides.

Great Women Painters

Sofonisba Anguissola

Germaine Greer once asked the question: “Why were there no great women artists?” A better question would be: “Why are so few great women artists well known?” This talk looks at some of the highly accomplished women painters over the centuries, from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, and how they managed to make their mark despite prejudice and the many obstacles in their way. With many examples of their work.

The Life and Times of Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa (right – in disguise!) was a pioneering artist in late 19th century Paris and became well known for his depictions of the nightlife and bohemian milieu of Montmartre. But his oeuvre was much wider than this and his draughtsmanship was extraordinary, and many artists continue to draw inspiration from his work. Sadly, he was permanently afflicted by an inherited disease that limited his ability to move around, and he later succumbed to syphilis and alcoholism. This talk examines his life, his experiences in Paris, and his art, including his groundbreaking poster designs.

If you are interested in booking any of these talks, please contact me by email or by telephone 01788 334658

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Interested in these talks?

If you are interested in any of these talks, especially in the current circumstances the possibility of an online talk via Zoom, please contact me by email or telephone for further information.

Please do get in touch with me if you represent a group, club or society looking for a speaker.

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