Seminar: ‘Staging the aerial theatre’

Last Friday, 3 October 2014, I gave the Humanities Research Seminar at the University of New England on the topic of 'Staging the aerial theatre: Britishness and airmindedness in the 20th century' (kindly introduced by Nathan Wise), in which I expanded upon my ideas for a research project involving aviation spectacle. You can watch the seminar itself above; the abstract is below.

The place of the sea and the navy in the construction of British national identity has recently come under scrutiny from historians, for example in the way that spectacular fleet reviews and ship launchings were orchestrated in a kind of naval theatre in order to display national strength, assure imperial stability, and enact international rivalry. With the coming of flight in the early 20th century, however, the air and the air force became increasingly more important to both the defence of the nation and to its self-identity: for example, think of the Battle of Britain and the Spitfire, in popular memory Britain's salvation and the agent of its salvation, respectively. But the process began long before 1940, in large part through an aerial theatre: aerial displays, aerial reviews and aerial races. This kind of airmindedness, or the enthusiasm for aviation, advertised and celebrated British technological and destructive capabilities, though how it was interpreted by its audience is another matter. In this seminar I will outline a research programme to investigate how airmindedness was conveyed by aerial theatre, and how this worked to construct Britishness in the 20th century. My primary case study will be the Royal Air Force Pageant, held annually between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London, in which British airpower was demonstrated in highly choreographed, large-scale aerobatic routines and battle scenarios for the enjoyment of huge crowds. I will also look at other examples of British aerial theatre, such as Empire Air Day, the Aerial Derby, and Operation Millennium, as well briefly touch on some international comparisons. Aerial theatre helped define what it meant to be British in the 20th century; but in so doing it also revealed tensions over alternative identities, as well as anxieties about whether Great Britain could in fact continue to be great in the aerial age.

The presentation itself was a bit rough. Normally I would speak off the cuff, and in the past I've read out talks verbatim, but this time, because of the length of the seminar and because I wanted to keep the slides themselves low in information density, I used notes, which of course just tripped up my tongue and made me sound even more inarticulate than usual. Partly as a consequence, I don't think I really gave a good explanation of why I think the aerial theatre is so interesting, which was really the whole idea of the thing. If I gave the same talk again (which almost never happens), I'd do it a bit differently. But I got some really good questions at the end and had fun choosing photographs and newsreels to talk to. Also, it was possibly the first time I've used the phrase 'pure sex' in a public forum. So it wasn't all bad.

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6 thoughts on “Seminar: ‘Staging the aerial theatre’

  1. Alan Allport

    Apropos of nothing in particular, but congratulations on being reviewed in the London Review of Books - very prestigious (but also unfortunately very paywalled, so I can't read it).

  2. Post author

    Thanks! As I've just commented on another thread, I'm fairly amazed to have a LRB review (link here, for anyone with access). Not many books get that, and I may never get another...

    Still, while the very fact that it exists is welcome, it's a slightly frustrating review. I don't think it's a bad review, but it's the kind where the book itself takes a back seat to the topic itself (which I guess is par for the course in literary reviews). The reviewer, David Trotter (a professor of English at Cambridge), clearly does think the topic is important and worthwhile, and there are some good bits: 'The great pleasure of [Holman's] book is the cacophony of individual voices it entertains: a babble of speculation concerning the methods, up to and including a version of drone warfare, by which the world would very shortly be brought to an end.' He is however somewhat critical of my methodology and, I take it, thinks I exaggerate the extent to which people were panicked by the prospect of bombing. That's fair enough; there's plenty of room for doubt and I'd welcome other approaches to this question.

    And in fact I did a bit of a double-take when I read this bit of his review, speaking here about the Illustrated London News (which as he notes I don't mention in the book, but I agree it's a valuable source and have used it elsewhere):

    A good proportion of the news the Illustrated London News aimed to illustrate was made by the air displays, pageants and parades which by the mid-1920s had become a staple of popular entertainment. Holman thinks that the huge crowds attending these events were drawn by a ‘love of spectacle’ alone, and therefore didn’t derive much from them in the way of instruction. I’m not so sure. The Illustrated London News distilled spectacle into a powerful propaganda narrative about the ever intensifying readiness of the nation’s air defence system. A fabulous double-page spread from June 1928 shows an ‘action’ at the Hendon Air Pageant during which fighter planes take off a mere seven minutes after the alarm has sounded, climbing rapidly to engage the enemy. Replace the Siskin biplanes with Spitfires, and it could just about be the storyboard for a scene in a Battle of Britain movie. Pie in the sky, perhaps. But the magazine’s enduring (and endearing) geekiness did stimulate – week after week – a curiosity which, while it remained technological in scope, nonetheless had profound implications for an understanding of the potential uses of air power.

    My double-take was because this is exactly the sort of thing I've been talking about recently (literally, in this very seminar!) with regards to aerial theatre. So this is a criticism I can get on board with; although I must point out that in the book I said it may have been a love of spectacle, not that it definitely was, I obviously agree that it's something that is missing from my book, it's something which should be done, and I hope to do it myself. And in the end, I don't feel it's a bad review; and if I never get a review harsher than this one I'll be very happy!

  3. Chris Going


    You probably don't need to know this (a wallet thing) but from time to time original Illustrated London News artwork turns up in UK auction houses.

    You might find some aviation related stuff is still out there.


  4. Erik Lund

    I'm taking a moment off being jealous* to say congratulations on making the big time, Brett!

    *Joking. Or is he? Dunh dunh dunh.

  5. Post author


    Luckily for my wallet I've got access to the ILN digitised archive!


    Thanks – it's a bit of a waste of my 15 minutes of fame, though.

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