Hartlebury Castle: Bishop’s Palace and Worcestershire County Museum

When I tell Americans that my grandmother is British, they usually say something like “Oh so when you visit her, you drink tea and hang out in castles?” No, she prefers coffee and — hmm. We do actually spend a lot of our time together at castles or palaces or other “stately homes,” as big country mansions are called in the UK, because we go to National Trust and English Heritage properties on day trips. This past spring, we even ended up at a giant house that looked a little familiar to me, and my grandmother casually remarked that I’d been before, for her and my grandfather’s 40th anniversary party. Because of course she had an anniversary party at a 12th-century palace.

img_7734-pano

Hartlebury Castle was built in the 13th century, and from the start was the seat of power for whoever was Bishop of Worcester at the time. Various royals have visited over the years — Mary Tudor stayed there instead of nearby Ludlow because Ludlow had the plague (a serious vacation downer); King George III and Queen Charlotte took a walk in the gardens in front of 8,000 people (what a strange zoo); and Queen Elizabeth II planted a tree here once (it’s still there). But the best royal story is when Bishop Hurd renovated an entire bedroom for the Prince of Wales to stay in, only for the prince to leave after less than an hour. Rude!

That same Bishop Hurd built a library renowned for holding many works from the Age of Enlightenment. Today, it is the only Anglican bishop’s book collection housed in the same room and shelves built for it. The photos on the website look beautiful, but when we visited, it wasn’t on one of the days the library is open to the public, so I’ll content myself with my grandmother’s memory of having cocktails there during some fancy event a few decades ago. She said it is indeed a lovely room. So there you go.

Why has my grandmother been a fairly frequent visitor of this mansion? She’s very involved with her church, and has known the last 6 bishops of Worcester through her work with the diocese. In fact, she and my grandfather were a part of the history of the palace. In the 80s/90s, my grandfather, as Chairman of the Board of Finance for the Diocese of Worcester, was tasked with finding an artist to paint Bishop Philip Goodrich’s portrait. He had decided on someone, but hadn’t yet asked him to do the job, when my grandmother said, “Dear, you’ll have to find someone else to do it. I’ve just seen the obituaries…” So the two of them drove to London and spoke with a curator in the National Portrait Gallery. They recommended an artist who’s most well known for her sculptures but does many paintings as well, Maggi Hambling. Later, once the painting was completed, they drove back to London to ferry the official portrait back to Worcestershire. The portrait tends to polarize people; I’m one of the ones who likes it, but apparently some people think it doesn’t capture Bishop Goodrich’s warmth. What do you think?

img_7751

The final part of the castle is the Worcestershire County Museum, which holds a large toy gallery (including a large map of fairyland drawn by an artist according to instructions from his children), a Victorian school room, clothes from various decades, and even a display of archaeological finds, including a mammoth’s tusk! I especially liked the large display of gypsy caravans, with their bright colors and sometimes ornate carvings. The display plaques made an effort to dispel some of the racist stereotypes still repeated about travelers; dispiriting that people need a museum to remind them that others are fellow humans deserving of respect.

Stately homes nowadays are always trying to make accessible the lives of the people who used to live there, so that visitors can feel more of a connection with the place. I like the places that try to do this across class lines — introducing visitors to parlor maids as well as ladies of the house — and the ones that ambitiously try to show the changes in a house over the hundreds of years of its existence. I think it’s just what a national property open to the public should attempt, making history feel real and immediate. But history doesn’t have to be ancient; it can be much more recent than that. And different histories layer themselves on top of one another (one of my favorite themes). Going to Hartlebury with my grandmother layered the histories of the palace for me: a 1980s cocktail party in the 18th-century library; a 1990s celebratory dinner in the great hall that has held feasts since its construction in the 13th century; and a line of paintings going back hundreds of years, including one portrait driven down from London by the woman I was sharing tea with in the castle restaurant. Well, I had tea; she still prefers coffee.

img_7749

Connie & Carla: A Movie Review

Connie and Carla should have made it bigger, or become more of a cult hit. It’s got all the right elements – wacky plot, over 20 songs from musicals, drag queens, quotable lines (“your voice is giving me shingles!”), Toni Collette. But a combination of it being made in 2004 and directed by Michael Lembeck, whose other notable directorial credits include the Santa Clause sequels and some episodes of Friends, means that what could have been a brilliant gender-bending comedy stuffed to the gills with songs to sing along to was instead a fun bit of misdirected fluff weighed down by a dreadful hetero romance subplot. 

Written by and starring Nia Vardalos, the plot is a gender-flipped Some Like It Hot: Friends Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Collette) witness a mob murder in Chicago, and they flee to West Hollywood, where they hide from their pursuers by dressing up as men dressed as women in their own drag show – which they sing in, rather than lip synch as is usual. The drag queens of the establishment befriend them, and Connie and Carla feel increasingly uncomfortable lying to them and hiding who they truly are. In the end, the mob guys are defeated, the women confess their secret to their fans, and everyone lives happily ever after in a dinner theater bonanza featuring Debbie Reynolds.

It should be camp af, but despite the best efforts of the actual drag queens who appear as Connie and Carla’s friends and co-performers in the film, it never reaches those flamboyant heights. One of the main reasons for this is the subplot involving Jeff (David Duchovny), who can’t cope with the fact that his brother Robert (Stephen Spinella) feels free and beautiful in heels and makeup. Connie falls for Jeff, and Jeff is confused and disgusted to find himself attracted to her (who he thinks is a man he only ever sees in drag). In the end, Jeff reluctantly declares his brotherly love for Robert, and he’s relieved to find Connie is a Real Woman so he doesn’t have to question anything about his sexuality. I love the story of the friendship between Connie and Carla, but the way to add to that story isn’t to add a casually bigoted dude or gloss over their other friendships.

In a better movie, there wouldn’t be a Jeff to drag time and focus away from the other characters, and the issues of sexual attraction and gender expression, as well as the many layers of identity and oppression would be explored from the perspective of the drag queens and the women in double drag. Instead, Connie and Carla have a few sadface moments when they hear about how cruel people are to their gay friends, but mainly Carla misses her boyfriend and Connie wants to sleep with Jeff. I can imagine a movie where they all sit around talking about their ideal man – it’d be hilarious, and we’d also get to hear more from the gay men and how their desires do and do not intersect with the women’s.

If you’re going to make a movie about drag queens, you have to center them; otherwise, they’re just backdrops and props for the hetero women learning lessons about how to love themselves for being different. The movie has some of those moments but doesn’t make the leap. It inserts a straight man who is both an audience proxy who learns tolerance (you can hardly call it acceptance let alone allyship) and a reassuring sign that this movie isn’t going to be Too Gay for middle America.  

The best part of this movie is the joy it takes in musical theater, performance, and being way too much for normal life. This is what unites the drag queens and Connie and Carla, and it’s the main message of the movie. If only they’d committed to that world and all the layers within it, and left the people who just don’t get it to watch something else.

Photo.