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
- Popular Culture Under Communism
- John Paul II and the End of Communism
- The Enigma of the Arnolfini Portrait
- Great Women Artists of History
Click here for a timetable of talks.
Please do get in touch with me if you represent a group, club or society looking for a public speaker.
“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!”
“It was so interesting to learn about the historical background [to Les Mis]. Thank you so much”
Here are details of each of the talks:
Kicks and Frills: The Story of the French Cancan
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
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
The 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, Baron 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 biggest failure
It’s hard to believe but Carmen’s first performances in Paris in 1875 were poorly received by 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
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
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
The 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
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 as 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?
An 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
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
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
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.
John Paul II and the End of Communism in Eastern Europe
There were many causes of the communist collapse throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 but the election of a Polish pope in the 1970s was highly significant. The Polish people’s adherence to the Roman Catholic faith despite the imposition of Marxism-Leninism was a continual headache for the authorities. But the Vatican’s choice of John Paul II could almost be seen as a deliberate provocation and certainly gave confidence to the underground political opposition in Poland, leading to the formation of the Solidarity trade union in 1980. This talk looks at the relationship between Church and State in Poland from late 1940s to the 1980s. Illustrated with slides.
The Enigma of the Arnolfini Portrait
The 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 Artists of History
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.
If you are interested in booking any of these talks, please contact me by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone 01788 334658
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Whittlebury WI (Northants)||14 May 2015|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Moulton Over 60s (Northants)||26 May 2015|
|The French Cancan||Kingsthorpe WI (Northants)||3 June 2015|
|The French Cancan||Humberstone Heights WI (Leics)||9 June 2015|
|The Truth behind Les Mis||Baddesley Ensor WI (Warwicks)||10 June 2015|
|The Truth behind Les Mis||Rugby U3A (Warwicks)||11 June 2015|
|The Truth behind Les Mis||Austrey WI (Warwicks)||11 June 2015|
|The French Cancan||Narborough WI (Leics)||8 July 2015|
|The French Cancan||Bilton WI (Warwicks)||22 July 2015|
|The French Cancan||Kilby WI (Leics)||20 August 2015|
|Women of the Russian Reveolution||Little Houghton History Society (Northants)||26 August 2015|
|Women of the Russian Revolution||Upper Nene Villages U3A (Bugbrooke, Northants)||21 September 2015|
|The French Cancan||Syston WI (Leics)||7 October 2015|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Gaddesby WI (Leics)||14 October 2015|
|The French Cancan||Countesthorpe WI (Leics)||9 November 2015|
|The French Cancan||Gretton WI (Northants)||10 November 2015|
|The French Cancan||Hugglescote and Coalville WI (Leics)||17 November 2015|
|The French Cancan||Pattishall WI (Northants)||9 December 2015|
|The French Cancan||Long Eaton Ladies’ Luncheon Club (Derbys)||13 January 2016|
|The Hollywood Production Code||Byfield Men’s Breakfast group (Northants)||30 January 2016|
|The French Cancan||Brixworth U3A (Northants)||3 February 2016|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Geddington WI (Northants)||10 February 2016|
|The French Cancan||Wing WI (Rutland)||11 February 2016|
|The French Cancan||Huncote WI (Leics)||12 February 2016|
|The Hollywood Production Code||Husbands Bosworth History Society (Leics)||2 March 2016|
|The French Cancan||Towcester WI (Northants)||3 March 2016|
|The French Cancan||Richmond Retirement Village (Northants)||4 March 2016|
|The French Cancan||Burton Latimer Ladies’ Club (Northants)||9 March 2016|
|The French Cancan||Nene Valley Rotary Club (Northants)||24 March 2016|
|The French Cancan||Coalville Co-operative retirement group (Leics)||4 April 2016|
|The Hollywood Production Code||Thurlaston Ladies Club (Northants)||11 April 2016|
|The French Cancan||The Tuesday Club, Oadby (Leics)||12 April 2016|
|The French Cancan||MAST Leighton Buzzard (Beds)||12 April 2016|
|The French Cancan||Coventry U3A (West Midlands)||13 April 2016|
|Women of the Russian Revolution||Ullesthorpe WI (Leics)||14 April 2016|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Bearley WI (Warwicks)||14 April 2016|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Brackley Over 50s group (Northants)||18 April 2016|
|The Truth behind Les Mis||Staverton WI (Northants)||21 April 2016|
|The French Cancan||Chatelaine Luncheon Club (Leics)||28 April 2016|
|The French Cancan||Newport Pagnell Probus (Bucks)||3 May 2016|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Richmond Retirement Village (Northants)||6 April 2016|
|The French Cancan||Not So Dusty club (Northants)||10 May 2016|
|The French Cancan||Great Linford WI (Bucks)||11 May 2016|
|The French Cancan||Ketton Darby and Joan (Rutland)||12 May 2016|
|The French Cancan||Richmond Retirement Village (Glos)||2 June 2016|
|The French Cancan||Stockton WI (Warwicks)||6 June 2016|
|The French Cancan||Sapcote WI (Leics)||13 June 2016|
|The French Cancan||Stanion Ladies’ Club (Northants)||14 June 2016|
|The French Cancan||Silverstone WI (Northants)||14 June 2016|
|Stalin’s Policy for the Arts||Knuston Hall (Northants)||23 June 2016|
|Popular Culture in Communist Eastern Europe||Knuston Hall (Northants)||24 June 2016|
|The Hollywood Production Code||Hillmorton Townwomen’s Guild (Northants)||5 July 2016|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Cogenhoe WI (Northants)||6 July 2016|
|The French Cancan||Caldecott WI (Rutland)||7 July 2016|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Richmond Retirement Village (Northants)||8 July 2016|
|The French Cancan||Banbury Friendship Club (Oxon)||19 July 2016|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Elmsthorpe WI (Leics)||21 July 2016|
|The French Cancan||Overstone and Sywell WI (Northants)||28 July 2016|
|The French Cancan||Cotswold Duston WI (Northants)||28 July 2016|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Richmond Retirement Village (Glos)||5 August 2016|
|Franz Lehár and the Merry Widow||Richmond Retirement Village (Northants)||26 August 2016|
|The French Cancan||Kettering U3A (Northants)||14 September 2016|
|The French Cancan||Packington and Maxcote WI (Leics)||14 September 2016|
|The Hollywood Production Code||Kenilworth WI (Warwicks)||21 September 2016|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Cosby Ladies Group (Leics)||13 October 2016|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Warkton WI (Northants)||3 November 2016|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Twyford Inns and Outs (Leics)||8 November 2016|
|The French Cancan||Brackley Over 50s (Northants)||28 November 2016|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Upper Nene Villages U3A (Northants||12 December 2016|
|Great Women Artists of History||Coventry U3A||13 December 2016|
|The French Cancan||Brigstock WI (Northants)||10 January 2017|
|The French Cancan||Flore WI (Northants)||14 February 2017|
|The French Cancan||Knuston Hall (Northants)||24 February 2017|
|The French Cancan||Greens Norton WI (Northants)||9 March 2017|
|The French Cancan||Aynho WI (Northants)||15 March 2017|
|The French Cancan||Greyfriars Social Club Coventry||31 March 2017|
|The Truth Behind the Sound of Music||Not So Dusty (Duston, Northampton)||4 April 2017|
|The French Cancan||Finedon Townswomen’s Guild (Northants)||6 April 2017|
|Stanion Tuesday Ladies’ Club (Northants)||11 April 2017|
|The French Cancan||Thorpe Acre WI (Leics)||11 April 2017|
|The Parisian Courtesans||Welton WI (Northants)||13 April 2017|
|The French Cancan||Syresham History Society (Northants)||6 May 2017|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Bitteswell WI (Leics)||13 June 2017|
|The French Cancan||Barton Seagrave Ladies Club (Northants)||15 June 2017|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Towcester U3A (Northants)||28 June 2017|
|Knuston Hall (Northants)||30 June 2017|
|The French Cancan||Kettering U3A (Northants)||18 July 2017|
|The French Cancan||Ketton WI (Northants)||2 August 2017|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Avonside WI (Warwicks)||7 September 2017|
|The Truth Behind Les Mis||Great Glen U3A (Leics)||12 September 2017|
Interested in these talks?
If you are interested in any of these talks, 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.