Useful Stuff for Re-Enactors

On Sunday 2nd April 2006 NAReS (the National Association of Re-enactment Societies, of which ACWS is a member) held its 15th Anniversary Conference entitled "Useful Stuff for Re-Enactors" at the NASUWT Conference centre in Birmingham. The keynote speaker was HOWARD GILES, re-enactor extraordinaire, ex special events boss from English Heritage and now running his own business Event Plan, and all round Good Man.

His talk, to an attentive audience and full house, was entitled "The Changing Face of Re-enactment". He was talking about the way things have developed and the way forward for Re-enacting and he was truly inspirational. Here is my synopsis/interpretation (from my notes taken as he spoke) of what he said.

Re-enacting has been in existence for 39 years in the UK and 45 years in the USA now (2006). Will we be re-enacting still in 50 years time? Can we continue to survive? Where are the re-enactors of the future? We are all getting older!

He espoused the view that, so far, there have been 5 ages of re-enactment.

  1. 1967-1980. The Age of the Big Battalions. This was the "big battle" orientated period, not too authentic but re-enacting was of novelty value then. If more off as clients got more picky and fewer were prepared to pay large sums for us to have enormous fun.
  2. 1980-1990. The birth of Living History. Whilst the larger re-enactment groups especially ECW continued unabated, the advent of the Ermine Street Guard, The White Company etc, came into being and authenticity and historical detail came to the forefront.
  3. The "Ker-pow" BIG BANG time 1990-2000 arguably the Golden Age (so far) of re-enacting, pre too Much Red Tape, when things really began to take off.
  4. The History-in-Action period, which party overlaps (3) & (5) periods, when the multi period events got going starting with Battle Abbey in 1992, then the Sandhurst events, and then the History-in-Action shows of English Heritage, of blessed memory. NAReS came into being and it was possible to get re-enactors to talk to each other and at multi-period events, to SEE each other. This led to a wonderful cross-fertilisation of ideas. Everybody learnt from everybody else. Also, re-enactors began to pick and choose themselves, often moving to other societies or joining more than one re-enactment activity. A challenging period for the established groups.
  5. 2000 - the present time. The last 5 years have seen significant changes to the face of re-enacting. The larger groups are all contracting. As an activity or hobby, its participants are all getting older. There are lots and lots of different things people can do, so choice leads to diversity AND diffusion. No longer is it either English Civil War OR American Civil War, you can be anything from a Spartan, Celt or Roman all the way through to Spanish Civil War, Boer War or Vietnam War these days! There has been a mega-explosion of tiny groups and of diversity.

Nowadays re-enactors are spoilt for choice and also the public are very sophisticated, and like to be entertained all day long. They want lots of variety and choice.

So? The Future?

Howard Giles predicts that in re-enactment

  • Groups will get smaller
  • In the quality vs. quantity "debate", quality will win
  • It will be "survival of the fittest"
  • the fights with "Nanny State" and burocracy will continue and get worse.

In his long career as a re-enactor Howard Giles recalled what were to him his special highlights and memories

  1. His first "best event" was a 1987 American War of Independence event in the States - because of it's authenticity and it's scale
  2. Hastings 1990 & 1995, the latter when there were 100 mounted Norman Knights
  3. Preston Pans - running away can be fun!
  4. History-in-Action 1996, when he began managing to get English Heritage to get it together
  5. Gettysburg 1998. Go to a BIG event in the States. It's AWESOME!
  6. History-in-Action 2000, when Howard blew the budget on hiring 3 spitfires to ground-staff the wheremacht forces in the Normandy re-enactment battle! But what a way to go!
  7. Organising and doing the Battle of Augreve in the Miners Strike
  8. Teaching Jordanians to be Roman Soldiers!

Re-enacting is thus a broad spectrum. As a collective body of people, we have done so MUCH. It has been a very impressive performance.

And the challenges we have met?

Since the Explosives Act 1875 there have been increasing firearms and explosives issues relating to re-enactors. Howard Giles feels we have got off so far quite lightly, until 1987 Hungerford led to the Firearms Act 1989. Then the IRA used black powder when they tried to Mortar bomb Downing Street, and that led to the Control of Explosives Regulations. Dunblane led to even more calls for guns to be banned (and the Firearms Amendment Act 1997). Re-enactors lobbied, and escaped the loss of cap and ball pistols. Then came the Explosives Act 2003 and we are currently embroiled in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill struggle. Yu notice it's always the fault of somebody else, nothing to do with re-enacting that leads to controls proposed that fundamentally adversely affect re-enacting.

Take the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, designed to take guns off the streets of drug infested inner-city ghettos. Bit unfair it so blatantly sweeps up re-enacting and other legitimate gun ownership. But we were hears. There was an avalanche of individual complaints. That's the way to challenge government - petitions don't work. Write lots of letters to MP's and the relevant, targeted bits of government, so they HAVE to respond.

Now there are proposals in Scotland to ban swords and knives: watch out for this one coming south of the border soon.

Then again if there are any dangerous accidents, to the forefront (a) risks issues, Health & Safety and the Nanny State and (b) insurers latching on to anything that avoids them having to make a payout on a claim.

So, what of the Future?

  1. Weapons Control Legislation. Beware the walls are still closing-in and likely to continue to do so - the price of freedom is eternal vigilance!
  2. Black powder legislation. There will be increased control regulations and exclusion zones
  3. EU legislation.
    In the UK we have a learning-like attitude in our legislative and Civil Servants, following EU directives to the letter of the law, not following the "Spirit" of the proposals. The French and Germans understand and "play it their way". The Greeks ignore it all anyway. In Britain we take as law EU suggestions, and make them twice as worse and three times more tied-up in red tape. (e.g. Steam Railway inspections requirements now mean many volunteer run organisations will be pushed out of business - no balance, no sense, and no proportionalism)
  4. The H&S people are so risk averse its ridiculous
  5. Insurance Companies: they love all these regulations as they can hide behind the risk evaluations and other regulations. Any possible chance and the premiums shoot up
  6. The Licensing Act 2003 and other like general legislation e.g. you have to et a Temporary Event Notice or a Premises Notice now, on top of all the other licences for gunpowder etc. etc. etc.
  7. Commercial Pressures
    Sponsors have less and less money now, and want more and more for what little they have. There are on going and increasing difficulties in getting fees which pay the frill costs of staging events
  8. Where are all the young'uns now?
    There are not enough young and enthusiastic kids coming in at the bottom into re-enacting to keep it all alive and flourishing as far so many voluntary organisations (e.g. Scouts, Boys Brigade, TA etc. etc.)
  9. Irritants
    Orica are the only bulk gunpowder supplier left. They have a monopoly. They will no longer deliver to Kent and Essex because it's too much trouble to them. Also English heritage is no longer the organisation it once was. It's been totally taken over by the grey men in suits.
  10. Loss of public novelty. The attention span of the public is very limited. It's all done on films now so they can see it all on DVD, so they expect the standards of the first bits of Gladiator or saving Private Ryan from us all. We therefore have to keep the WOW!! Factor going for our key, paying audiences
  11. Re-enacting is a peacetime activity. If there is a major war, that'll be the end of re-enacting, as we currently know it.

ADDITIONALLY there is the following further POSSIBLE TRENDS:-

  1. Re-enactors are all richer as a breed bye and large now. Most people can afford the kit now, so standards are rising
  2. Also high quality clothing and equipment is now available
  3. We now have lots and lots of diversity in re-enacting: there are all sorts of groups about now. Obscure groups have a novelty value
  4. Standards are very good now - driven by a competitive edge.
  5. Re-enactors and re-enacting is truly International now
  6. How can we encourage more YOUNG re-enactors to join up and enthuse them. Once IN, they're usually hooked - it's getting them in that is the challenge. We all have to help new recruits with kit because today's new Private could be tomorrows lead officer.
  7. The Oldies are not dying-off as soon as we thought they might
  8. The Government does now understand we are harmless eccentrics. Therefore we need to continue to portray ourselves as a force in the entertainments industry.
  9. The public expect us to be at Castles and battle site now i.e. we have become an indispensable part of the Heritage Attractions.
  10. There are professions in the field these days to help and support e.g. Howard Giles' Event Plan, David Smith, Joust, Plantagenet's etc. It is vital to engender and maintain a professional approach and atmosphere to what you do and say.

The "Pay-to-Play" issues. Golfers, boaters, fishers all pay to play, so why shouldn't re-enactors? (sometimes!). For example, Reglia Anglicorum have built themselves a Saxon Farmstead. First World War re-enactors built a trench system. [Should ACWS revive the Ft. Steadman project?] The day of effortless musters supported by a generous cheque from willing sponsors are GONE.

SO, how do you make yourself indispensable? Meet the sponsors requirements - on safety, reliability, an exciting, audience orientated display and shows, give good value for money, minimise the amount of modern camping that goes with your outfit, don't be difficult - be user-friendly, have a continuous programme running throughout the day with variety and diversity, have relevance, be authentic and meet audience expectations.

What Sponsors do NOT like:-

  • lack of safety
  • Unreliability
  • Egos - don't have them!
  • Boring shows ("Yogurt weaving")
  • Expensive and bad shows (from the client's viewpoint)
  • Do not indulge in internal politics
  • Avoid being a Caravan Club society
  • Poor authenticity (camp followers eating ice creams in public etc. etc.)
  • Girlie Soldiers - they MUST be convincing (the "10 foot away test")

Winners & Losers

The current losers tend to be the Larger Societies. They could do better. They often have too many modern caravans, tend to be self-indulgent and only want to do a Big Battle display.

The current winners are often medium sized groups who offer good value for money, are less expensive anyway and offer an exciting mix of arena displays and real living history i.e. Authentic Campers WITH the exciting bits in.

These trends are obvious, and will continue

Filming: If you get to do any of this, DO be professional about it. Charge fair rates. Specialise - the very good at one thing and o what the director wants. DO NOT undercut others/start a bidding war. Do not say you are a re-enactor; say you are "Specialist Extras". Do not cut corners on authenticity. Do not insist as ladies-as-men in close ups. Bite your lips with the film people, go with the flow, and do not be "precious". Be flexible, help the film company get what they want and thus be indispensable. Place yourself correctly in the market and you'll do well.

In 50 years time, will re-enacting be seen as the Arts and Crafts movement between 1880 and 1910 is seen from now, or not? Do we have a future? In response, pose the question - "Have we advanced the knowledge of History"? On TV and film we must do it well and we'll be seen again and again in the repeats required in a multi-media age.

Think also about Commemorations e.g. the WWI last veterans are now almost all gone and those from WWII are already thinning out. Perhaps we should have a Military memorials Society to recall the pas and bring home to the Public that we are re-enacting REAL PEOPLE, who died for real causes. If we can do this effectively and capture the public imagination then surely we do have a future. We must remain relevant by bringing history alive and in context with today.

So, take the hobby seriously, and we will surely survive, grow and flourish, but we still must remember to laugh at each other and enjoy what we do.

Compiled from notes taken contemporaneously by
Philip Clark, Company Secretary to the American Civil War Society.

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2006