Setting the scene with the women behind the Goodwood Revival

by Charlotte Vowden
6 October 2023 10 min read
Setting the scene with the women behind the Goodwood Revival
(Kieran Cleeves/PA Wire)

Charlotte Vowden attended the Goodwood Revival last month, where the theme was, aptly, The Greatest Show on Earth. Set design at the Revival has always been critical to the dreamy escapism it offers. Otherwise, it’s just old machines going fast. In and amongst the blatting, roaring, roiling, cheering great action of such machinery, she caught up with some of the women powering the spectacle. – ED

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Her lips are painted crimson; the application accentuates her Cupid’s bow. A racy shade, indeed rebellious, it was beloved by the suffragettes. It says, “I’m here,” without her uttering a single word. Softly waved and jet-black, her hair falls to meet a sharp-shouldered leather jacket embellished with silver studs. She is hard not to notice.

On the back of her Amaranth Red 1958 Triumph Speed Twin, Karen Odare-Sharman is one of many; 200 riders surround her. She is also one of very few, because although this is a moment of distinct on-track camaraderie, fewer than five per cent of the people alongside her are women.

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In there somewhere is Karen on her Triumph. (PA Wire)

In the saddle to open the circuit at 2023’s Goodwood Revival each morning, Karen and the contingent of classic motorcycles are making history as the biggest parade of two-wheelers to ever take to the track. A choppers and bobbers anniversary tribute to manufacturers including Royal Enfield (celebrating its 130th birthday this year), it’s also a coming together of biker gangs, with The Fortyfivers Club on their flatheads leading the charge.

Tuning up, there’s Sarah Bradley on a Harley-Davidson and Lucy Valentine on a BSA. Again and again, the riders rev, a percussion section to the pageant’s overall orchestra; once unleashed, the air reverberates with a thunderous rapture. Heat shimmers off exhaust pipes as motorcycles hurtle – and some pootle – away.

“The noise, the smell, the scale of it…” says Daisy Callanan, in an attempt to summarise the spectacle that she, as Goodwood’s motorsport content planner, has put together. “I was given free reign to run with the idea and I made it my own, but trying to brief that many people at once is tough. I really did feel the pressure.”

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Daisy Callanan in the hot seat of an AC Cobra. (Harriet Media)

Chiefly concerned with curating a compelling grid, this is Daisy’s first year in the role, and she’s the first woman to do it. “I wouldn’t be able to work here if I didn’t think women’s voices are respected.” To organise the Revival, there’s the planning and logistics: deciding themes, inviting drivers, and liaising with the British Automobile Racing Club. “Nothing is off the table if you can speak to the right people, but that’s when we get to the nitty gritty of what we’re allowed to do within the rules.” Then, she says, with a look of resolve, there’s the “best laid plans” part of managing the live event. A touch of “drama” is par for the course.

Bubbly in personality, there’s a calm sense of authority in Daisy’s voice, and in a white-on-white outfit she has the demeanour of a power dresser who doesn’t hesitate to roll up her sleeves. “I want to be hands on, running around, pushing cars and getting out of the way of them.” On this morning, she recalls, she was hanging bunting in the paddocks before drafting in a security team to guard the first ever Le Mans 24 trophy. “It’s one hundred years old and it’s never been outside of France. I don’t take for granted the privileges that are involved in what I do.”

A motorsport obsessive, Daisy moved from Cork in the Republic of Ireland to West Sussex for her job. “It’s the best thing I ever did.” To keep such glorious days of motor racing going, though, she says that serious discussions are taking place about the feasibility of running all vehicles on synthetic fuel. It’s not always prudent to look at historic motorsport solely with fond nostalgia; some things inevitably need to change.

Interrupted by the crackled dispatches that are coming through on Daisy’s radio, duty ardently calls, and off she goes in search of the problem that needs solving.

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Bertie McDonough and her weekend ride. (Harriet Media)

“It’s a Hotchkiss Jeep!” hollers Bertie McDonough over the distinctive sound of its modified Go Devil engine. The wind, in a favourable direction for conversation when transiting in a roofless light utility vehicle, carries her elegant articulations as she bounces along the driveway in front of Goodwood House. “Gosh, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” she says, before pausing to tally up the years. “Since I was 17, so that’s a decade.” And “this”, in case you were wondering, is serving as a volunteer driver for the Goodwood Revival Transport Corps.

Chauffeur to event VIPs, including marshals as well as the rich and famous, Bertie’s responsibility is to see their safe passage between key locations. “I’m not very good at picking out the celebrities,” she confides, but boasting high-profile passengers was not a prerequisite to get involved.

Praising the pluck of other women who offer their skills, and their vehicles, for the job, Bertie joins forces in her commitment with her mum and two sisters. They bring a lot of female power to the fleet, Bertie says. With a touch more gusto, she puts her cream brogue to the pedal as the Hotchkiss hits the open road. Arriving at the Revival’s main gates at a quick-smart pace, Bertie then savours a moment in the last of the summer sunshine. Her teal tea dress, with its short sleeves and full skirt that settles just above her knees, was a wholly practical, and wonderful, choice.

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Hannah Owen beneath the Big Top. (Harriet Media)

“I adore it, I love it, I won’t want to take it off,” says Hannah Owen, with a shimmy of her shoulders. A dancer in the Revival’s circus ring, (the festival’s theme this year was “The Greatest Show on Earth”), her silver sequin and rhinestone leotard is glitzy from spaghetti strap to swishy trim. It’s an ensemble she stepped into at 5.30am. “Yep, that’s our call time.” After costume, it’s hair and make-up, with curtains up at the temporary big top, at 8am. “We perform the same routine 12 times a day.” A day that can last well into the night if the performers are requested to bring their art to a festival ball.

There is magic in the circus’s evanescence. “The shows get more energetic throughout the day,” says Hannah, who twirls through the repertoire with aplomb. “As the festival gets busier, our audience gets bigger, and I love it when the kids join in.” It’s then that the ring becomes a chaotic and colourful carnival of unrehearsed activity as children dance and jive without inhibition. Some are given wands festooned with ribbons to wave triumphantly in the air. It’s a joy to witness.

After successfully auditioning for the Goodwood Actors’ Guild in 2020, Hannah has been encouraged by the esprit de corps that is shared by the men and women who form the estate’s theatre company. “In something like this,” Hannah says, in reference to her showgirl getup, “I’d normally be a bit, ummm,” she hesitates and fails to find the right word. “But,” she continues, “I feel so comfortable because Leanne, our chaperone, has eyes on us all the time.” Receiving applause is a hard-earned and hoped-for reward, but not everyone in a crowd respects boundaries. “Having her out there, having that sense of security is great; I know nothing bad is going to happen.”

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Leanne Stevenson oversees the Revival’s actors. (Harriet Media)

Wholesome, approachable, and dressed like a ’50s housewife who rarely escapes the hum drums of the home front, Leanne Stevenson is anything but a hulking bodyguard. She’s far more sophisticated than that. As stage manager, her remit is to stay out of the spotlight and maintain a low-key first line of defence presence; she blends in rather than stands out. “My primary responsibility is to ensure the welfare of all the actors, to make sure they are happy with what they are doing, that they are safe in what they are doing, and to troubleshoot any problems.” she says. “Quickly.”

Wearing dark sunglasses, (but no earpiece), Leanne does more than merely audit the audience for “untoward” attendees who pose a potential risk. “Yesterday we had an issue with sand.” Expect the unexpected and you’ll never be caught off-guard. “There was too much of it in the arena and so the girls couldn’t dance in their heels and it caused havoc for the acrobats.” Sounds and costume malfunctions are also common occurrences. “Goodwood has a massive amount of resources that you can call upon, but it’s about knowing who to ask for help because the show has to go on.”

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Grace Timothy (left), shown with Miesje Chafer, curates Revive & Thrive. (Harriet Media)

When there’s a garment in need of mending, Grace Timothy is the woman to sew up a solution. Curator of the festival’s Revive & Thrive village, a place where ‘make do and mend’ skills are showcased, talked about, and taught, she has the means to extend the lifespan of a cherished item. “It’s all happening in there,” she says with an infectious and effective enthusiasm. “We’ve got designers recycling vintage textiles into beautiful clothes as well as sewing classes for people who have never even picked up a needle, so when you walk in, no matter what stage you’re at in your sustainable fashion journey, there’s something for you to see, do, and enjoy.”

The Revive & Thrive hub is an indoor-outdoor area that has the feel of a secret garden; it’s a leafy enclave that is within mooching distance of the startline grandstand. “The cars and the fashion share the same ethos – it’s about restoration, not throwing things away,” Grace says. “It’s a lovely, natural environment, but I’ve had to sweep leaves off the live stage.” Open-fronted timber sheds (or craft cabins as they’re more eloquently known), are a goldmine of one-of-a-kind goods. From a classic original by Chanel to a contemporary upcycled scrunchie stitched together from fabric scraps by seamstress Annie Phillips, it’s a coming together of the environmentally conscious, the creative, and the tremendously chic.

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Fashion blogger Paula Sutton and ‘style activist’ Dandy Wellington hold court. (Martin Hoare)

“To have [jazz bandleader and ‘style activist’] Dandy Wellington here to share his message about ‘vintage style, not vintage values’ is just epic,” says Grace, aglow with admiration. Fashion can be frivolous, it is often cyclical, and it can also be part of how we express belonging and political ideas. By providing a platform upon which people can tell their stories, Grace has established an inclusive and educational domain that openly acknowledges the complexities of fashion’s history. “A lot of people have the privilege to say, ‘I wish I was born in another era,’ without acknowledging, or knowing, that those times would have been very difficult if you were a person of colour, if you were black, gay, or trans.”

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Micheala Beardshaw reimagines your author’s ’do. (Harriet Media)

From what you wear, to how you wear your hair. It’s also prudent, says vintage hair stylist Michaela Beardshaw, to run a fine-tooth comb through the history of follicular fashions to understand the significance of their origin and true meaning.

“The ‘40s was such an important era for women,” she expounds above the hullabaloo of chit chat that gives Betty’s Salon an effervescent beat. A pop-up palace of pink booths and bulb-studded mirrors, it is here that Revival-goers flock for an old-school up-or-down ‘do’ that’s faithful to their chosen look. “The men were at war so the women had to be strong,” continues Michaela, who rocks a cherry-covered frock. “They did all sorts of things they were never allowed to do before, working in fields and factories, but they still did their hair. It is such an important part of a woman’s identity.” In a time of rationing and austerity, it cost nothing but meant everything.

Vexed by the idea and injustice that women lost their “empowerment” in the 1950s when “it was all about having dinner on the table and looking pretty for your husband and not yourself,” Michaela’s insight brings an entirely new, and bittersweet, perspective to the victory rolls she is shaping. “I always make it spectacular at the back, as well as the front.” A practical coiffure, it’s glamorous too.

Called to arms, nae, curling tongs and bobby pins, to carry out up to 15 appointments a day, Michaela has a catalogue of 20th century styles that she can recreate on a whim. It is an artistry that she has been honing since 1985. “I started learning in a little granny salon in Germany,” she reveals. “These older ladies were war-time people so I needed to know these traditional techniques.” For Michaela, who now travels the world lending her heritage skills, it seems a fond reminiscence. “A lot of people have insecurities, but when women get up out of my chair, I see their body language and their posture completely change. They seem so much more confident.”

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Lottie Hammond, the Revival’s lifestyle editor (left), and photographer Cat Bring.

In the bustle outside Betty’s, photographer Cat Bring is turning her lens on such subjects. Assigned to take portraits of those looking tip-top and top-drawer, she allocates two to three camera clicks per person. “Just to make sure I get that amazing photo,” she says. Catch a blink and it’ll be destined for the cutting room floor.

There to document the details, the darlings, the diarised moments, and the spontaneous goings on, “from sunrise to sunset,” Cat estimates that she’ll have taken around 5000 photographs by the time the funfair closes on Sunday night. The shoot she held with an Audrey Hepburn lookalike, she anticipates, will deliver some of the most striking shots. “This is the best place,” says Cat, poised so as not to miss a frame. “Everybody is dressed to impress and the background and setting is so beautiful.” This is a pullulating world of pictures.

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(Harriet Media)

Cat is accompanied by the Revival’s lifestyle editor, Lottie Hammond, a woman who has little time to rest on her laurels but the good manners to pause and converse. With three days to capture 365 days worth of “engaging and heartwarming” content for publication on Goodwood’s print and digital platforms, Lottie has reached out to some of media’s most authoritative females for help. Contributing editor and creative director to British Vogue, Susan Bender Whitfield, and social media influencer, Paula Sutton, haven’t let her down. In pursuit of narratives that are woven away from the motor circuit, Lottie says, “I want them to bring that emotion and passion to the fore.” She has arranged for a 1930s Rolls-Royce to be used as an intimate hosting suite. There’s an ‘ask it basket’ of questions ready to be dipped into on its back seat. A prompt for memorable anecdotes.

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Fashion historian Amber Butchart and British Vogue creative director Susan Bender Whitfield (Jack Beasley)

“There’s such a sense of sadness when it’s all over,” laments Lottie, who is inspired by the stories that she is confided with at the festival; from visitors, as well as those in the fold. Retelling them, she says, “keeps the spirit of the Revival going,” until the party begins again in a year.

Slightly flushed but naturally radiant, there’s a whisper of peachy pink on the apples of her cheeks. It’s a visible embellishment, a telltale sign, that she puts full steam ahead heart and soul into her role. Wisdom, intuition, creativity, and expertise, these are the qualities that define the women of the Goodwood Revival. An elaborate and illusionary otherworld, a step – a leap – back in time, these women are intrinsic to enriching its mythology.

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A duo of Spitfires fly as the sun sets on the Goodwood Revival. (John Nguyen/PA Wire)

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