“Lucky Dicky Crangle & the Cinnabar Moth” – peepshows past & present.

Tony Lidington

Man of your readers will know of Dr Richard Crangle and his work with Dr Joe Kember on digitising the magic lantern slide collections at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), in Exeter. Earlier this year, I was approached by RAMM to see if there was a way in which the digitised slides might be brought before a wider public through performance. There wasn’t a lot of money available, so it was not feasible for me to create a bespoke magic lantern show and in any case, a lot of my work is produced in public, outdoor locations, without the possibility of controlling the amount of daylight. As a result, I suggested that I take a selection of the slides (ultimately 40), from a range of different sets and construct a fictional story that I would tell as “The Raree Man” and which they could illustrate inside my ‘peepbox’.

Having been performing a flea circus at festivals and events for the last 4 years and outdoor puppetry and storytelling for a long time before that, I had become intrigued by the history of travelling shows. For some time, I have been exploring how stories were illustrated and augmented by itinerant showmen in Britain since the Eighteenth Century. It was while exploring the origins of the fleafantocinni, that I came across the early illustrative procedure of cabinets of curiosity and their subsequent evolution into the peepshow. Whenever I bring-up the topic of peepshows, it always suffers from a misconception of insalubrious connotations – largely because of their loose association with the mutoscope (what the butler saw) machines and the furtive peeping of Soho strip-joints. However, for at least 150 years prior to the innovation of the bioscope and indeed, for some years after the beginnings of cinema, the peepshow – presented by a Raree Man, provided the basis of illustrated storytelling and lecturing.

There’s a brief introductory film which may be of interest on my Youtube channel – Promenade Promotions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZc4C7SgtJI )

However, as a very brief synopsis, the raree men were itinerant storytellers who often originated from Northern Italy and Switzerland and whose regional skills in precision engineering were particularly well-suited to the kind of technical requirements of automata, moving scenery and optical illusions, that were brought into the towns, villages, fetes, fairs and seasides from the late Eighteenth and throughout the Nineteenth Century. I am based down in Dawlish, Devon (where the railway collapsed!) and as part of my occasional teaching at the drama department at Exeter University, my research drew me towards the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum – a treasure trove of early cinematic object, literature & ephemera! Here I learned about Bill Douglas cult film of ‘Comrades’ – the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs seen through the eyes of an itinerant magic lanternistraree man. Bill had based this character on a seminal text “’Sergeant Bell & His Raree Show”, published in 1839, which tells the story and schtickof this early showman as he travels around the West Country in the early Nineteenth Century.

With support from Arts Council England, Exeter University and Exeter Unexpected Festival, we created a 21st Century reinterpretation of a raree peepshow: built on a Nineteenth Century handcart chassis, we researched the appropriate sightlines and viewpoints to create a Georgian Theatre interior with working houselights and footlights, working scenery (including a sprung trapdoor, stage pyrotechnics, swagged and rouched curtains and a scrolling panorama. The interior of the peepbox is a theatre, a puppet booth and a cinema – with sound, lights and projections all run off lithium batteries, so that it can perform even on a green field site, independent of the mains. The stories I tell as the Napoleonically-dressed Raree Man are told both live and recorded as part of the performance: they cover a similar range of material as the original peepshows in content…mythical tales, morality tales, historical events and they use every conceivable means of cinematic device, from flicker effects and text boards, to 3-D projection mapping. The shows are rooted in meticulous research and even use some of the raree men’s authentic texts, but all are also designed to have contemporary relevance and radical intent.

“Lucky Dicky Crangle& the Cinnabar Moth” is the latest creation for the peepbox – inspired by the slides from the RAMM collection, this is the tale of a plucky hero (Dicky) and how, after the terrible Torbay potato blight of 1877, he seeks his fortune by sailing away aboard the Good Ship Magalouf, only to find that it is overloaded with other migrants and sinks beneath the waves, leaving Lucky Dick as the sole survivor…you’ll have to see the show to see the climax of the story! We are touring all these show to green field Festivals throughout the country this Summer and looking to play at venues, museums, educational & academic locations, etc. during the Winter. We are always looking for future projects to develop new shows and hope to create a science-based show called “Wonders of the Deep” (a Nineteenth Century peepshow version of David Attenborough) and another that is historically-specific about the Battle of Waterloo (maybe using the Bill Adams material as an inspiration source), it would be fun to explore the possibilities of a phantasmagoria show, or even just to run workshops on how the performance form relates to cinema history and current practices. As more and more people consume films and their gaming experiences through single view platforms such as tablets or smartphones, so the parallels between the peepshows of the past and these peepshows of the present become more and more apparent.

Do come and see a show, or get in touch if you would like to talk about how to develop some new ideas – we have a Facebook site (Promenade Promotions) and also our website www.prom-prom.com , the more the merrier!

The Magic Lanternist: “’Lucky Dicky Crangle & the Cinnabar Moth’ – peepshows past & present”
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