Dr David Clampin, Liverpool John Moores University
A couple of years ago I was asked by the National Trust to work with them at their Formby Beach site. Formby beach is an important ecological site made up of ‘dramatic sand dunes, surrounded by sweeping coastal pinewoods’. It is well known locally, and beyond, as a wild site with a constantly changing landscape. As that landscape evolves, new features and stories are revealed, such as prehistoric mud layers containing human and animal footprints. The dunes are also important for the Natterjack Toad and Red Squirrels which can be found on the site. But the National Trust also wanted to tell alternative stories to the visiting public, potentially challenging Formby’s reputation as a place of tranquillity.
One of the features there is ‘Devil’s Hole’ (a protected mating ground for those toads), which is believed to have been formed as a result of German bombs during the Second World War. It was from this that the story began to develop. Formby was one of fourteen Starfish sites, deception decoys designed to lure German bombers away from the nearby Bootle docks. Despite the close proximity of those docks and the city of Liverpool, it was also a reception area for wartime evacuees. As a historian of the British home front during the Second World War, my critical gaze focussed on the proximity between these two places – Formby and Liverpool – and the very different circumstances of the two. My desire was to explore the “invasion” of genteel Formby by the working classes of a city down on its luck when war was declared. In addition, I wanted to expose the extraordinary history of Starfish.
My understanding of these stories was different, perhaps more developed, then was the case for others. The challenge we faced was how best to engage an audience with them. The NT did not want to put up permanent signage and were also keen for visitors to explore newly acquired land. The idea of staging a series of promenade performances came to the fore, and with that a number of “challenges” to me, the professional historian. The manner in which I present my history in books, journal articles, talks and lectures, is far removed from dramatic interpretation and re-creation. Ultimately, I was obliged to step away from the research and hand over to those who would be performing the piece.
As a Subject Leader at Liverpool John Moores, I really wanted this project to enrich the student experience and be led by them. So, in the summer of 2018, two undergraduate interns based in History were given an open brief to gather research. They allowed the sources to take them wherever they would, without necessarily having preconceived ideas nor specific objectives. Added to that, they were of a different generation to me: that facet came to dominate the entire project. By February 2019, we had amassed a good deal of material ranging from reports in the local press through to oral testimony collected at an advertised “drop in” session at the local library. We had a volume of raw material, perhaps rather chaotic in nature without any real linking theme.
The inclination of the historian is to enforce some sort of order on the past, to take an array of sources and arrange them in such a fashion as to tell a credible and bona fide story. But my intervention at this point had the potential to spoil the end product. Those who would best know how to engage a public and make the actual performances work were those who would actually be performing. In essence, dramatic performance actually embodies history and highlights the key distinction between words on the page, whether in a book or article, or in terms of the original source, and those words brought to life as living, breathing people.
In mid-September 2019, all of our material was handed over to colleagues in the LJMU Drama department, who embedded the project into an assessed second year module. The only intervention was a presentation by the client, the National Trust, setting out their aims and objectives, and a lecture from me giving a broad overview of the history of Britain at war, with a particular focus on Merseyside and specifically deception decoys. Reluctantly, in certain respects, I then stepped away and left the students to their own devices.
The final “product” was in many ways quite unexpected. Some of the stories that I felt most important did not resonate with drama students in the same way. What was most interesting was that the device that linked the whole two hour performance together came from a brief eleven line piece which appeared in the Formby Times on 10 May 1941: ‘She Wanted To See A Soldier’. This brief snippet recounts the case of a 16-year-old girl who stole a bicycle in Southport to go and visit her soldier boyfriend in Formby some six miles away. For our purposes, this was to become the girl in the yellow dress who was encountered at various points along the two hour guided walk at Formby beach. In truth, this was not a story I might have noticed, nor necessarily collected, let alone prioritised within the context of this final output but, in some way, it spoke to the group developing the material.
Just six weeks after the initial briefing, LJMU Drama staged ‘Formby: a haven for the blitzed’ across the National Trust site. The event was entirely sold out and was performed across six staggered performances across the day. The audience was varied including a range of ages, from six up to 92, from places both local and further afield, and from all backgrounds and walks of life. Feedback gathered on the day was exclusively positive with strong agreement that not only had the event been ‘fun, enjoyable and engaging’ but also allowed participants to learn ‘something about British society during the Second World War’. The event featured on both local radio and local BBC TV news.
Those who witnessed these performances were noticeably moved because, it might be argued, the scenes being played out had real authenticity. Unrestrained by my commitment to absolute historical accuracy, the drama students performed with pathos, invested in their characters and connected with their audience. A good deal of this came from the similarity, in certain cases, in age of the students playing the parts and the characters they represented. Many of the stories revolved around separation and it was easy to project these eighteen and nineteen years olds into the place of friends and couples pulled apart by war, as recorded in the feedback: ‘Poignancy of young people parted by war’.
Another unexpected outcome was the effect of performing this outside and in a (relatively) wild environment. There were several instances where characters were not directly encountered but rather viewed from afar as distant silhouettes on the horizon. There was space for the viewer to think, reflect on what they saw, and make their own interpretations.
Above all else, it was engaging and entertaining with one observing how they had been ‘Entertained…using theatre to bring stories of the war to life’. Yet, that spirit of entertainment was not allowed to get in the way of telling real stories and relaying a reliable historical narrative. Many respondents referred to the research and authenticity, appreciating that these were “real” stories. Ultimately part of Formby’s war story was conveyed because, as one observer noted, ‘the history [was] subtle and period’.
This was the first time I had done anything like this, and certainly the first time that LJMU Drama has done anything on this scale and in an environment such as this. It has been an interesting experience in many ways but, most importantly, it brought a “hidden history” to a public in a meaningful way. The very notion of moving through a landscape and encountering “others” seemingly out-of-place broke down barriers and drew the audience into those stories. In effect, those who took part were drawn into the past in a fashion where they were confronted by a history they were not looking for and did not know was there. The effect appears to have been really positive for all parties concerned and thoughts around the next project are already in hand.
About the author: David Clampin is Subject Leader for History at Liverpool John Moores University and a a historian of the British home front during the Second World War. He is the author of Advertising and Propaganda in World War II (I.B. Tauris, 2014) and is currently working on a project with the Merseyside Maritime Museum examining the marketing of British shipping from c. 1840 to c. 1970.