It’s an exciting time to be an historian. Everywhere you look history is being rewritten, and old stories are being told to new audiences with a fresh perspective. Hamilton has put a forgotten founding father ‘back in the narrative’, Six has been ‘switching up the flow’ and making us remember that Henry VIII’s six wives were actual real people with thoughts and feelings… and now its time for Tudor tyrant Bloody Mary to have the same treatment.
This August, London-based theatre company Part of the Night will launch Bloody Mary: On Air, a podcast that delves into the life of England’s first queen, Mary Tudor. In the podcast’s easily digestible 20 minute episodes, host Olivia Miller chats to experts about the truth about Mary (hint: these Protestant propagandists have a lot to answer for!)
But Bloody Mary: On Air was never planned to be a podcast. The project originally began as a one-woman show entitled Bloody Mary: LIVE!, which was due to be performed at this August’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With the show postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19, host Olivia Miller, the playwright and performer behind the original show, decided to take the extra year to explore the first Queen of England’s life.
Assisting her in the transition from performance to podcast are producers Olivia Munk and and Jessica Bickel-Barlow, the founders of Part of the Night, a production company that creates inclusive entertainment for nightlife spaces with the goal of making them more accessible to people whose gender identity often makes them feel excluded in these environments.
I caught up with them as they prepared to release Bloody Mary: On Air into the world on August 11th.
Q. So Olivia, there’s a bit of a trend at the moment with theatre productions ‘rewriting’ history – Hamilton and Six are great examples of this. Do you see your show and your podcast as part of this movement?
Olivia Mi – There is a trend of going back into history, seeing where the gaps are, who told the story and how the story was told. I would love it if people associated my show with all these other shows. Its a really interesting creative terrain to enter into. Frequently these stories have been told through a white, male lense. Its exciting to be part of a bunch of artists that are finding creative fulfilment in exploring the past and finding something that you never knew existed because you had only read the textbook saying Bloody Mary had burnt hundreds of people at the stake.
Q. Why choose Mary?
Olivia Mi – I got stuck on the fact people skipped straight from Henry VIII to Elizabeth’s legacy – there’s a whole queen in the middle there! It piqued my interest that the only thing I knew about her was that she burnt a bunch of people at the stake and had this moniker.
As I started to dig deeper I started to see a lot of myself in Mary. I related to the fact she was the eldest child who never got any credit. She was extremely driven academically and one of the most educated women of her time. I was fascinated by the relationship with her mother, and the tragedy of that story. Once I started seeing myself in Mary it became easy for me to cultivate a story about her.
Something that kept popping up during my interviews with the experts was Elizabeth’s PR machine. The people who were writing the history in Elizabeth’s reign really characterised how we view Mary’s reign now. I was just getting the research that had been passed down, so interviewing these experts has been really enlightening. I now have this whole other level of understanding of the political and religious motives of writing this history.
Q. Have you changed the content of your show based on things you have learnt while making the podcast?
Olivia Mi – In the beginning I deliberately kept a distance from the historical detail. Now I have a whole year its been really interesting to get so much in-depth information. I’ve started to go back to my show and make changes because of what I’m learning. I imagined Mary as being a very angsty teenager having gone through so much – I really latched on to this idea she would be a bit of a rebel. One of the experts mentioned how Mary was very reserved, stoic and strong through all of it. Instead of switching my interpretation I pushed it back further in the opposite direction. Some things make me want to go back, revise and be more accurate – somethings push me in a more extreme creative direction.
Q. Olivia and Jessica, what was it like to switch from theatre and show production to making a podcast?
Jessica – I actually studied film at undergraduate level. Some of those things do transfer as you do learn a bit of audio editing for example. Olivia (Monk) is an avid podcast listener and she has ALL the podcasts to listen to for inspiration.
Olivia Mi – Its been interesting to step into an interview role – its definitely less performative. As someone that has always been interested in the Tudors its been easy as I’m genuinely interested in the subject matter and genuinely surprised by the things that I learn.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you learnt about Mary in the course of making the podcast?
Olivia Mi – In terms of historical surprises, the interview where we discuss the nature of her phantom pregnancies – I had never really heard of anything beyond the fact that she had an hysterical pregnancy. The term hysterical pregnancy is the one that’s thrown out but it doesn’t really capture the heartache or the trauma of that moment, which some people would say lead to her death.
Q. Olivia and Jessica, when planning this podcast were there some other history podcasts that you were inspired by?
Olivia Mo – The podcast was Jessica’s idea. We thought what could we do that would help Olivia develop her show and help us develop an audience for the show? It was Jessica’s suggestion to actually talk to some historians about Mary.
I recommended You’re Dead To Me. I think the model is really simple and fun. There’s really nice interplay between the historian and comedian. There’s almost a teacher-student relationship. I also looked at You’re Wrong About, which is mostly about maligned women from the media. Me and Jess are huge My Favourite Murder fans. From there we devised a structure for the podcast. Olivia is the interviewer but she’s also in that student seat, and we also play a game with guests to get some Tudor trivia out there.
Q. There have been a lot of new history podcasts released during lockdown – what makes yours different?
Jessica – Its dealing with myth making in history, and its from the unique perspective of Olivia Miller as an artist figuring out what is important to her in telling her story. It isn’t just a history podcast with fun facts. Its a really interesting lense of how shes processing it as an artist and how she relates to it, and through her you get to relate to what she is learning about Mary too. It just makes it so much more personal and its the relationship we want to have with these people that feel lost in history.
Bloody Mary: On Air is now available to listen to here. And don’t forget to check out out my other posts about history podcasts!