The young people’s first interview.

Q: ‘What if he doesn’t speak much?’

We’re about to get the ball rolling. The day of the young people’s first interview is here. And so are the nerves. Suddenly it’s a real situation. I’m sat in a meeting room at the Dean Heritage Centre with three of the primary research group. Waiting for John to arrive. Suddenly all that role-play we did back in the rehearsal room becomes very real. And they are feeling the pressure. As I did when preparing for my first meeting a month back. I try and reassure them.

A: ‘John’s lovely, he’ll be great. He loves to talk’.

Q: ‘What if we run out of questions?’

A: ‘Just remember what we looked at in the training: Listen, listen, listen. If you do that new questions will pop into your head. I promise.’

Q: ‘What happens if it’s over really quickly?’

A: ‘It’ll last as long as it lasts. Just give him time to talk and it’ll be fine’

Nerves throw up even more questions including some discussion about who will lead the interview. After some negotiation, they decide.

John arrives.

He’s warm and relaxed, as usual. It turns out he knows the father of one of the interviewees.

(That breaks the ice nicely.)

Our lead is off. He starts the recording device and the dialogue flows.

I observe them during the interview. Looking for signs of the training we did. And in my head I have a hundred questions of my own:

  • Did we prepare them enough?
  • What must they be feeling right now?
  • Are they truly listening?
  • Will the interview go as I described?
  • Will they want to do another after this..?

The interview lasts for about 50 minutes. A good enough time to dig under the surface and to get some useful stories for the project. I’m pleased there are some off-the-cuff questions; a good sign that the young people are truly listening.

It’s been a good first meeting. After John leaves we talk about how it went and some of his stories are discussed.

We all survived. We have our first group recording.

The ball is rolling.




Training young people.

Armed with the toolkit provided by Craig we begin three days of training our young people, our Primary Research Group (PRG). The challenge becomes clear. We need to impart the knowledge we learnt during our training day but in such a way that excites the imaginations of young people but without overwhelming them with information and, as a consequence, terrifies them in equal measure.

We decided to split the training over three weekends, a couple of hours each, filled with as many practical tasks as possible. The young people are actors. There’s a certain level of expectation when it comes to their drama sessions. They want to ‘get things up on its feet’ and just give it a go. We construct a series of practical role-playing activities including interviewing each other, getting used to the recoding equipment and getting to grips with speaking and listening.

  1. They start off in pairs, taking it in turns to be the interviewer and the interviewee. They ask and talk about their aspirations, expectations and fears for the project. As a group they listen back to the recordings, we discuss what worked and what needed adjusting next time.
  2. They are off again, but this time are interviewing each other about a chosen subject; their love of drama, their music preferences, their favourite films etc. They discover it’s a lot easier to talk about something you are passionate and knowledgeable about.
  3. A member of the adult team is brought in as a guest, and each time role-plays a different type of interviewee: someone who is hesitant, someone who over-shares, someone who goes off topic. In pairs the young people record the interviews and share their experiences of what they might encounter out in the real world.

The training goes well. The group seem excited and ready to take on their first interviewee.

And so we set one up for next week.

We’re ready to go.

Our first response.

There’s a note from the office.

Just had a call from Michael Burns (80)He lived through the war in the forest as a child and has lots of memories…couldn’t stop him talking! Very happy to meet with people for a cup of tea and talk through his memories.

Our first response to the call-out ad we placed in the local newspaper.

I call the number.


“Hi. You called us about the ‘Secret Forest’ project we’re doing..?’

‘Oh, yes..’

‘Are you still happy to talk to us about your memories?’

‘Yes, of course’

And we’re off! I find out he lives less than a 2 minute walk from my parents’ house. Ideal for the first meeting. Turns out the memories really are on our doorstep, if you just look for it.

I arrive with my list of questions for the meeting. Armed with my recording device.

Michael’s dug out all sorts of documents as well as a hand-drawn map of where he used to live – in Broadwell, between two prisoner of war camps.

I quickly realise the memory recollection for him started as soon as the phone went down in our previous conversation. He’s ready to talk. He’s ready to share his life. Right now. With me, right here. I feel a sense of responsibility, a pressure not to miss anything which might be the golden nugget which unlocks this whole project. I take a deep breath and heed Craig’s advice;

‘If they want to talk, just let them’. I breathe. And…I listen…’

A plentiful flow of golden nuggets follows.


The training starts here.

The team are at the Dean Heritage Centre for a day of training with oral history expert Craig Fees from the Oral History Society. I’m thinking ‘how can he possibly fill a whole day out of training a group of people to switch on a voice recorder and chat?’. Turns out, quite easily…

The day is packed with unexpected and brilliant insights into the heritage and importance of oral history. We look at the ethics behind the whole process; the weight of responsibility that comes with asking someone to open up and talk about deep-rooted memories. The careful balancing act between letting the interviewee ‘just talk’ and prompting with just the right amount of questions to keep the dialogue flowing.  Not to mention how to build up a carefully constructed rapport so that interviewees feel they are in safe and trusted hands. And then the technical requirements involved in making sure you actually capture these important stories, right there and then.

But the day goes further than that. Craig looks at our own histories, our own reasons for wanting to be part of this project, and crucially how we transfer that energy and enthusiasm to our young team who will be tasked with conducting these chats alongside us. We look at the challenges inherent with placing two different generations in the same room as each other, and ways to help them connect and to feel rewarded from the experience.

We all open up about own own connections to history, to our own family’s past. It’s what I imagine a pre-production research meeting would look like on ‘Who do you think you are!’ And the end of the day we are all changed in some way. We are armed with the information we need to light the blue touch paper on this project and fuelled with the energy to succeed.

[So, as it turns out it’s not just as easy as ‘switching on a voice recorder and chatting…’]

Next stop: To find some willing interviewees willing to open up about their past.

Our Secret Forest: Journey into the past.

I was born in Gloucestershire. Grew up in Gloucestershire (in the Forest of Dean). Went to school and college here. After University I took up a position with the arts charity ‘Arts in Rural Gloucestershire’ (‘AIR in G’), a job which reconnects me with the area on a weekly basis. So, the idea of getting involved in a project called ‘Our Secret Forest’, all about delving into the history of the Forest of Dean should be a simple one, right? I should have a head start, shouldn’t I? Well, as it turns out, not really. I can recall snippets of half remembered memories of my great grandmother talking about life during the war when I was growing up and some research we did in school, part of a project called ‘Black Diamonds’ – which culminated in a theatre production about the Forest of Dean’s coal mining heritage. But aside from that it’s amazing how sketchy my knowledge is. So, going into this project is fascinating. Now older, perhaps a little wiser, I’m ready to properly reconnect to the place I still often refer to as ‘home’.

Alongside three other members of AIR in G we’ll be working with a team of adventurous and curious young people from the Forest – part of the theatre group ‘Found in the Forest Youth Theatre’. Our collective mission: to dig into the past and uncover the history of this beautiful place. To uncover what life was like living through WWII. To unearth memories, dust them off and preserve them for further generations who, like me – when the time is right – will want to know just what makes this place so unique. We’ll be reaching out to those who lived through this period, recording their spoken memories first hand. And finally commemorating this in a unique live theatre performance and exhibition.