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Work Life: Lauren Johnson, Historical Interpreter

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Lauren Johnson, 29, works as a costumed interpreter and research manager for historical interpretation company Past Pleasures. She lives in East Dulwich, south London, with her husband Joe, a lawyer

I loved reading the Horrible Histories books when I was a child, and used to collect animal figurines dressed in period costume from our local shop. I went on to study history at Oxford and developed a fascination for strong female characters. I also loved watching the classic film portrayals of royals such as Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. Now it’s my job to research these characters and impersonate them at the heritage sites where they once stood. One day I might be a Tudor queen, asking you to kneel in front of me at Hampton Court Palace; the next I’ll be a medieval prisoner locked up in the Tower of London.

I get up at 7am and eat rye toast and fruit while I catch up on TV – I’m currently working my way through Justified, a US crime drama. Then I’ll get dressed. All the costumes are kept in our changing rooms on-site, which is lucky because I’d look ridiculous wearing them on public transport. Instead I’ll put on a tea dress from Joy before getting the train to one of the sites.

I’m one of 80 interpreters in the company – several are former history teachers or part-time actors – and we never use scripts. We improvise scenes throughout the day using the character and location notes in our research packs, which I put together in my other role as research manager. I love researching new characters at the London and British libraries such as the prisoner ‘pirate’ Alice Tankerfelde, the only woman to ever escape the Tower of London (although not for long).

I’lI spend 30 minutes getting into costume and I’ll often need a helping hand. All the dresses are historically accurate replicas, handmade by our four company seamstresses, so there are no handy zips or poppers. While their big sleeves and long trains are stunning, they are ridiculously tight, hot and heavy. The gold Catherine Parr dress leaves marks on my shoulders that stay visible for days, and I’ll often feel light-headed if I’ve been wearing it all day. I struggle to lift my arms in some of the gowns so I have to remember to do my hair first: usually an unflattering centre parting squashed under a hat or ‘French hood’, and, of course, no make-up.

Some women are still killed for the same reason Anne Boleyn was

Our first scene starts at 11am and in between performances I talk to visitors while in character. Some people shout, ‘Off with your head’, while others just want a photo, but a few history buffs will try to catch me out. One woman said I wouldn’t have eyebrows if I was a medieval person.

We’ll break for lunch and eat in the Queen’s State Apartments, once used by Queen Mary II, at Hampton Court. It’s funny to see ‘Queen Elizabeth’ sitting opposite with a white face and wig, talking on her mobile. I’ll bring in something light like a salad if I’m in a corset and we wear aprons so we don’t damage the costumes. Some are worth a fortune; we had a banquet gown made for someone to wear as the wife of Charles I that cost £7,000.

I love seeing visitors’ reactions. I’ve had a woman cry when Catherine Howard gets arrested for cheating on Henry VIII, which ultimately led to her beheading. I got emotional myself recently while playing Lady Jane Grey – the great-granddaughter of Henry VII who was queen for just nine days. She was executed when she was about 17; I was looking at the Tower before being blindfolded and realised it was probably the last thing she saw.

My job has made me appreciate how society has and hasn’t changed, particularly for women. I once had a school group ask if people still get beheaded. Unfortunately in some parts of the world they do, and women are still killed for the same reason Anne Boleyn was – because a woman’s adultery is seen as completely differently from a man’s.

I’ll finish at 5pm, and go for a drink with colleagues or head home to unwind with Joe. Earlier this year I spent my evenings writing my first novel – a re-imagining of Robin Hood, which was published in September. I’ll make something easy like pesto pasta for dinner and we’ll be in bed by 11pm.”

The Arrow Of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson (£16.99, Pen and Sword Fiction); pastpleasures.co.uk

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