Monday

How the Victorians ruined the world, Brighton Science Festival review

Think flushing toilets, beard proliferation and immigration of the squirrel kind. The sprightly and amusingly competitive Arney sisters offered us a subversive take on the Victorians and what they did for us.




Bouncing on to the stage in bosom enhancing corsets the gifted pair with science backgrounds, one in Physics, the other in Biology introduced themselves as the thinking man's Sue Perkins and a member of a steam punk band.

Their intention for the evening was to discuss four topics and show us how the reign of "Vicky Regina", as the doughty old Queen got dubbed, should not be "Hurrah'd" but rather "Bah'd" instead.


I had ended up going to this event as a last-minute replacement so I wasn't sure I was actually going to enjoy it.

Although I love history I'm not so interested in the Victorians as I associate them with a clamp down on free thinking and enlightenment that had flourished in the previous century.

Anyhoo, what I did know about them was that they had a pioneering spirit and that much of the world around us has its origins in this era. This I thought in my innocence was at least something to Hurrah.

Ms Helen Arney was the first to offer her rebuttal of this attitude with a diatribe on "chin furniture". We have now reached peak beard, she said and we should as a nation desist from growing any more. Otherwise she said it would lead to women growing them too just to be taken notice of.

Ms Arney then took the craze back to the beginning when only one MP, Muntz wore a beard. Back then he had been forced to defend himself from attacks as it was considered that only cranks or artists would wear one.

This situation began to be reversed when soldiers of the Crimean war were encouraged to wear beards as protection against the freezing conditions. Then back in Blighty the great stink of 1858 caused more beard acquisitions as a way to filter out air-born infections.

However, despite her best efforts the Brighton audience decided to keep the beard and Hurrah it's popularity. Ms Helen seemed disappointed.

Next came an assault on advertising and the celebrity endorsement. Dr Kat Arney took us back to a Mr Barratt who married into the Pears soap family and persuaded them to increase their advertising budget from 80 to 100,000 pounds. He created the slogan, Good Morning, have you used pears soap? and it was seen everywhere.


He then introduced the first celebrity endorsement with actress Lillie Langtree. Dr Arney it appears is not a fan, nor it seems is she of Katie Price horse wear or Bill Wyman metal detectors.

Her lively argument won over the crowd and celebrity endorsement was well and truly Bah'd. Except can I say, I still like them!

The sisters kept the pace moving on rapidly with an extract revealing the Victorian dislike for the female bicycle face and their responsibility for introducing the grey squirrel into Britain.

Ms Helen came back for her next proposal, this time the flushing toilet. Surely she couldn't win this argument?


With pictures and information to back up her argument she explained that this technology had ended up being exported across the world and to places where it shouldn't have gone.

Litres and litres of fresh water are used to flush out our waste. It then takes chemicals and energy to extract the unusable sludge from the water that is reintroduced into our homes.

If only we'd gone down the earth closet route instead and our waste, containing valuable nitrate could be used to fertilise the earth.

The crowd won over, Ms Helen received the looked-for Bah! for her efforts.

Finally, the Biologist Dr K Arney attacked Darwin. Shock. Ok, it was indirectly, as it was his weird cousin Galton with the extraordinary eyebrows who was held up for scrutiny. Nevertheless said Dr Kat it's still Darwin by association.

It turns out Galton popularised the notion of eugenics, widely rubbished today, as well as amongst other things, inventing the Gumption Reviver, a method of waking up dozing students. So he wasn't all bad was he?

After an hour spent in the company of these jolly and erudite sisters I left not loving the Victorians but big fans of their entertaining show. Go and see them if you can, you're bound to give them an Hurrah. Sorry that's very cheesy of me.

Thanks to Otherplace productions for complimentary tickets to review this event.

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