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Behind the Scenes at the Royal Palaces: Meet Lord Onslow

Ahead of the course A History of Royal Food and Feasting, from the University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces, the team from Reading interviewed the historical interpreter who plays the part of Lord Onslow.

Bringing history to life on screen isn’t always easy, especially with something as visceral as food and feasting. To help people experience dining at court in way that’s truly vivid we used ‘historical interpreters’ who appear in a cameo role each week. So, what does it take to transform into a historic figure? We thought we’d ask Past Pleasures interpreter TJ Holmes, who played the part of Lord Onslow, a great favourite in the court of King George I, who had a reputation for being a good drinker and a lover of chocolate, a popular food in the Georgian period that was associated with power and kingship (get a sneak peak of Lord Onslow with his personal account of life at Georgian Court).

FutureLearn Royal Food and Feasting Lord Onslow

TJ in action as Lord Onslow (left)

Reading Open Online Courses (OOC) team: TJ, can you tell us how you became involved in Past Pleasures?

TJ: I applied to join PP’s team of interpreters at a period when the company were seeking new recruits for the reopening of Dover Castle. Henry II’s Great Tower there had just been given a superb medieval makeover, so I arrived at an exciting time.

OOC team: We made A History of Royal Food and Feasting to bring the changing tastes of successive generations of royalty and the splendour of their palaces to a broader audience and the learners who have taken previous runs of the course commented that Lord Onslow ‘brings history alive’. Why do you think historical interpretation is such an effective way to share history?  

TJ: Thank you, learners! It’s easy to think of history as the stuff of dusty old books, and books are of course key to its exploration. In trying to breathe life back into it, though, historical interpretation strives to give audiences a more vital and sensory understanding of the past. And, for those who visit sites and experience live historical interpretation, it is wonderfully immersive and interactive too.  

OOC team: What’s it like filming in costume in the places where history happened, such as Hampton Court Palace? How did this add to your performance?

TJ: It’s a treat and a privilege. Past Pleasures pride themselves on the historical accuracy of their costumes, and wearing them at a site like Hampton court, which is so richly steeped in history, does make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. It certainly elevates your performance! And the clothing and location are, of course, prime resources for interpretation.

OOC team: What other historical figures do you play?

TJ: I have played a rebek-wielding troubadour, a dung-spattered medieval zoo-keeper, an assortment of mail-suited knights, a highwayman, a counterfeiter, Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, the ever-popular Judge Jeffreys and many more. Variety certainly is the spice of life!

OOC team: Can you describe Lord Onslow to us in a sentence?

TJ: A courtier and bon viveur who likes to think of himself as a bit of a raconteur.

OOC team: How did you prepare for the Lord Onslow piece?

TJ: I was provided with a resource pack by Past Pleasures which I duly gobbled up and supplemented with some further reading. I then tried to find the most palatable way of getting the most important and interesting parts of my research across. This meant trying to find a through-line so that ideas followed one another in a fluid and conversational manner. It’s also helpful to stay open to what happens in the moment, though, and to benefit from the director’s guidance.

OOC team: Your performance of Lord Onslow is very charismatic and amusing  – what was the thought process behind this portrayal?

TJ: Thank you kindly! His status within the court naturally informed the heightened level of etiquette and his cut-glass accent, and, whilst it’s hard to say precisely how our forebears would have sounded, there are period writings that provide excellent insights on matters of etiquette. Then we always try to inject some humour into proceedings to give the ball of learning a bit of extra bounce; the unofficial Past Pleasures motto is from William Schwenck Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame): “I can trick you into learning with a laugh”.

OOC  team: You wear a magnificent wig in the video. How heavy was it? What is your favourite part of the costume?

TJ: Wigs can be quite heavy and hot, but hasn’t it always been the way that you must suffer for your style! I love the clothing of this period, especially the waisted coats which, like the stockings and britches, are tailored to fit the male form. It’s a refreshing change from today’s fashion for men which often favours concealing the figure.

OOC team: And finally, do you like chocolate as much as Lord Onslow?

TJ: I’d challenge him to a chocolate-swilling duel any day!

Want to meet TJ in character as Lord Onslow, and explore all things royal food? Join A History of Royal Food and Feasting today.

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