Clarence House: an accessible Royal tour

Yesterday my wife Joanna and I went on a guided tour of Clarence House in London for D/deaf and hard of hearing people. It was organised by the Royal Collection Trust as an accessible tour for deaf and hard of hearing people, who have different communication needs. I had been really looking forward to it ever since we booked the tickets a couple of months ago.

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When we arrived, we met Geraldine, a brilliant BSL tutor on the recent course I did at the City Lit, and her friend, so we had a chat to them while we waited for it to start. Soon afterwards, we met Steve Hudson, the BSL interpreter for the group, and his colleague Linda, the lipspeaker. Sheila, our guide, then began the tour outside the House. She explained that the House was designed by the famous architect John Nash and built in 1827 for its first resident, William, Duke of Clarence. He only lived in it for three years before he became King William IV and moved to Buckingham Palace.

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The House has had another five Royal residents since then including the Queen Mother, who lived there for half a century until she died in 2002, so Charles, who currently lives there with Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, is currently its seventh resident. Many members of the Royal family have lived there and many famous guests (including the Dalai Lama) have been guests there too.

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There were about ten of us in the group, mainly deaf BSL users, but we all had different communication needs, some relying on Steve’s signing and others like me, relying on a combination of BSL, watching the lipspeaker and being able to hear Sheila a little. It was good that Steve made a real effort to be seen and understood by the people watching his signing, especially one lady who was deaf with a visual impairment too, and he provided further clarification to some foreign ladies in the group, who didn’t understand some of the British Royal history that Sheila was explaining. The guide herself explained things very simply and clearly, which helped our understanding a lot.

The first room we saw was the Lancaster Room. Our present Queen Elizabeth, came to live in Clarence House with the Duke of Edinburgh, shortly after their wedding and they lived there for three years from 1949 to 1952, when she became Queen. The Lancaster Room was named after the people of Lancashire, who generously sent the young couple lots of money, which was used to furnish the room. Being from nearby in Manchester myself, I always knew that the people from Lancashire were generous! The walls were decorated with portraits of Queen Victoria and her eldest son Edward, the future King Edward VII. The sofa in that room was apparently where Prince William and Kate Middleton were filmed a couple of years ago when they announced their engagement.

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I liked the fact that the House really felt lived in, with lots of portraits on the walls of members of the past and present Royal family, their favourite horses and dogs, and their photos and personal ornaments on the various tables and cabinets in the rooms.

We then went into the Blue Room, the Queen Mother’s favourite room. The room was decorated with lots of her personal touches, including the ceiling, her Royal Anchor Chelsea porcelain in a display cabinet and her family photos on the table. I really liked the painting of her corgis on the table too, being a dog-lover myself. This room had the first official portrait of our Queen as a Princess, aged seven years old, on one of the walls. It also had the only Claude Monet painting in the Royal Collection, which the Queen Mother bought because the landscape reminded her of Scotland, her ancestral home.

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The next room (the library) was where Princes William and Harry, who grew up here, had their official photos taken as children. The room contains a portrait of the Queen Mother as the Duchess of York, aged twenty-three and on the wall next to that, a portrait of her daughter, our present Queen, painted twenty-five years later by the same Russian artist, when she was Princess Elizabeth, aged twenty-two.

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We then went into the dining room. The dining table was laid for dinner with beautiful crystal glasses, silver cutlery and napkins set at each place. In the centre was a large, very ornate platter made in the shape of a ship, complete with sails. It was apparently meant to represent Lord Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory. Sheila, the guide explained that Prince Charles would sit in the middle of the table, opposite the Queen Mother, who liked to sit with her back to the fire. There was a portrait of the Queen Mother herself above the fireplace, which was unfinished due to the War and a portrait of two of Queen Victoria’s favourite dogs, Nero and Dash on the back wall, which I really liked. Despite the formality of the room, it had some personal family touches to it.

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In the corridor Sheila told us about the portrait there of George III Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge. This was the first Duchess of Cambridge, who was married to Adolphus, the son of George III (the famous ‘mad’ Prince, and she is holding her baby son Prince George of Cambridge, in her arms. The guide pointed out the obvious similarity of the baby Prince George in this portrait with our current baby Prince George.

Finally, we were shown into the Garden Room, Prince Charles’s favourite room, which the guide explained was used by the Queen Mother a lot. It was light and airy, and because it looks straight out onto the garden outside, the Queen Mother often used to have the patio doors open and have her lunch served outside in the garden, which she described as ‘The Green Room’. The room is full of Prince Charles’s favourite objects from around the world, such as a huge tapestry depicting a scene from the Middle East, which came from Napoleon III in France, and a large Welsh harp, representing the Prince of Wales. It is full of amazing plush furniture, rich textiles and exotic carpets. There is also a beautiful Chinese-looking engraved lacquer writing desk from the 1700s belonging to Queen Mary, which was made in Germany. There have been lots of Royal family events taking place in this room, the most recent being when many famous people came to visit the Queen here for her 60th anniversary on the throne.

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After the tour ended, we all thanked Sheila the tour guide and Steve and Linda for doing such a great job. Their passion and enthusiasm for their jobs showed through and I really enjoyed it, particularly because they took the time and effort to make sure that the tour was accessible to everyone. They responded well to everyone’s questions and needs. It was a really friendly, informal tour, which was great. I learned quite a bit about the history of Clarence House and enjoyed the interesting insights and amusing anecdotes about the personal lives of the Royal family. I hope there will be more assisted tours like this one – it makes it so much more accessible and enjoyable for people with all levels of hearing loss and different communication needs.

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STAGETEXT at The Cripple of Inishmaan

I recently read an article in the Guardian about the new production of The Cripple of Inishmaan in the West End, with Daniel Radcliffe playing the lead role of Billy, the disabled boy living in a rural village on an island off the west coast of Ireland. The writer asked why it was acceptable for Daniel Radcliffe, an able-bodied actor, to play the part of a disabled character, and why prejudice against disabled actors remains rife.

While Radcliffe was undoubtedly cast because of his box-office draw and for commercial reasons, it made me want to go and see the play to make up my own mind.

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When I found out that there was to be a live captioned performance of this play by STAGETEXT, it seemed a great opportunity for me to go and see it. We got the tickets directly through the theatre’s Box Office and booked seats, which were in an area of the theatre where you can see the captioning perfectly.

My wife and I went to see the matinee performance last Saturday at the Noel Coward Theatre. It is a beautiful old theatre in the heart of Covent Garden. We found our seats, which were in the front row of the Royal Circle. From there I had a fantastic view of the two captioning units, which were to the side of the stage, positioned at the perfect height on my eye level. As we sat down, we saw that there were quite a number of deaf and hard of hearing people sitting around us. We also met two of the founders of STAGETEXT there, Peter Pullan and Merfyn Williams, David Wise, The Treasurer, and the Chair, Richard Lee.

The play’s story is about a seventeen-year old disabled boy living with his aunts in rural Ireland in the 1930s, as his parents have died. He’s a sensitive, bookish boy, who is taunted, mocked and given the nickname ‘Cripple Billy’ by the locals. His aunts also don’t think he has much chance of getting a girlfriend or earning a decent living, so they imagine him being a burden on them for the rest of their lives. Despite this, when Billy hears that a Hollywood film crew are making a film about Ireland on the next island, he manages to con a local boatman to take him there, so he can make his fortune in Hollywood. I won’t divulge too much more of the plot, suffice to say that he ends up in Hollywood, leaving his aunts devastated and inconsolable that he’s gone.Image

The play is written in a very broad rural Irish dialect, the dialogue is very funny and the characters are really engaging and entertaining. Joanna, my wife, told me that as a hearing person, she also found it helpful to read the captions as she sometimes didn’t understand the broad Irish dialogue.  Although they say many things, which are politically incorrect, they say it in such a way that it’s not at all offensive, just hilariously funny. For instance, when we find out that the Hollywood Director has rejected Billy for an able-bodied actor, we hear that he told Billy that he’d “rather see a normal actor, who can act than a cripple who can’t”.

I felt that Daniel Radcliffe acted the role of Billy brilliantly throughout the whole play. He was definitely the star performer. It can’t be easy playing a disabled character with an inflexible leg and withered arm, but he managed to do it very convincingly, despite the fact that he isn’t disabled. He also managed to make us empathise with him, and show that he had a devious, as well as a vulnerable, human side to him. He wanted the people around him just to call him “Billy” and not “Cripple Billy”, and he really earned the right to this acceptance at the end. When he told us that he’s crippled on the outside, but many people around him are crippled on the inside, he’s asking people to stop judging or pitying him based on prejudices about disabled people, as we’re all human beings at the end of the day. This is the key message of the play.

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 The supporting actors were very convincing and funny too. I particularly loved the character of the village gossip Johnnypateenmike played by Pat Shortt, especially in the scenes when he keeps trying to kill off his cantankerous alcoholic octogenarian mother ‘Mammy’ by plying her with drink. Sarah Greene was wonderful too as the sassy, aggressive village good-time girl Helen, who Billy had a crush on.

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After the performance we went for a drink in a nearby pub with the men from STAGETEXT. I chatted to Peter about the importance of live captioning in the future as with an ageing population, there will be many more people with hearing loss so captioning will become very important to make the arts more accessible to them. I also had a pint of bitter and a chat with Merfyn. For me, it was great to meet the founders of STAGETEXT and see their enthusiasm and passion for captioned theatre. They are all deaf or hard of hearing, but they all shared a love of theatre and the arts, which weren’t fully accessible to them. They decided to set up STAGETEXT to make the arts accessible to other deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people through live captioning.

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 For me personally, going to see a play at the theatre with my wife through captioning has opened up a whole new world to me, which I thought would be closed to me. It’s brilliant to go and see a matinee and have a drink in a pub afterwards. Although I love going to the cinema (when I can actually find something I want to watch at the right time that is captioned), watching a live theatre performance can be electric and very moving. Going out to the theatre again has also really helped to build up my confidence again as it’s something I really look forward to and it is something that my wife and I can enjoy together.

This was definitely one of the best plays I’ve seen all year and I think Daniel Radcliffe is a brilliant young actor. I’d recommend anyone to go and see it. I hope one day, though, that the character of Billy will be played by a disabled actor, as I think that would send out an incredibly powerful message.