British Academy’s ‘Singing Les Roastbeef’
By Dr Hannah Scott, British Academy postdoctoral research fellow, University of Nottingham
In this case study we find out how Hannah delivered a fantastic nineteenth-century French music hall performance as part of the Being Human ‘Open Call’ pathway. Read on to get top tips on being resourceful and building public engagement into a busy academic career.
Can you tell us a little bit about your event?
In the course of my postdoctoral research, I have found an amazing, largely-unstudied body of comic songs about the English from the nineteenth-century French music hall, where French performers would dress up in frumpy outfits, put on comedy accents, and dance rigorous and inelegant dances to pretend to be English. These songs are a fascinating insight into an era when centuries of Franco-British enmity were evolving into the alliances of the twentieth century – as well as being tremendously entertaining! I wanted to draw attention to this forgotten but very significant part of late nineteenth-century Franco-British relations.
The event comprised three parts: first, a short talk giving a brief history of these songs; secondly, a performance, in which I and three students from the University of Nottingham brought a small sample of this comic musical genre back to life for the first time in about 120 years, with dancing, costumes, and singing in French (with English surtitles on a large screen); and finally, a Q&A session.
Overall, the whole process was a great experience and the event itself a success, and I can’t recommend running a Being Human event enough.
How did you put on such an excellent event without direct funding from Being Human?
Fortunately, very few of the elements involved in this event required a budget – I was able to borrow costumes from the university theatre society, I brought my own keyboard and put together decorations from things I had at home, and the British Academy kindly provided the venue at no cost so that tickets could be free. The other performers were undergraduate students from Nottingham, and I had planned to cover their travel and accommodation costs from my current research budget (since this event was a public engagement activity to disseminate my funded research), but the British Academy generously covered these costs for me.
Who was your target audience and how did you go about reaching them? What was the audience’s experience of the event?
I was hoping for a broad audience in terms of age, from teenagers upwards, and I was keen to run this event in London because of the large French (and Francophile) community. We were delighted that tickets sold out quickly, and we had a packed room on the night.
I contacted various French cultural groups and networks in the London area, who forwarded these details on to their members, and the British Academy included the details in their events publicity. I had plans for wider advertising at London universities and schools, but the tickets sold out so quickly that I didn’t have the chance!
With help from the Being Human team, I explored several venue options in London, including pub theatres and old music halls which would have been particularly in-keeping with the performance. However, we also wanted the event to be fully accessible which was not possible at any such venues that were available during the festival week. Instead, the British Academy offered their music room, which was a wonderful space with capacity for approx. 80.
Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future Being Human event organisers?
1. Start preparing early: I did a lot of the initial preparation before the academic semester got started in September and this was a life-saver.
2. Go outside your comfort zone: this was a fantastic opportunity to try something that went beyond my normal academic experience, and it has given me the confidence to do more in the future.
3. Get students involved: it might seem a risky strategy, especially when you only have about 8 weeks of term to recruit and train your team before the event in November, but working with a small team of undergraduates made this event doubly rewarding.