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Old 01-11-14   #5
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Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: South Coast UK
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Default Re: Folk and Mummers' Plays

Anatomy of a Mumming tour.

I'm not going to identify the team, because I'm going to say some things about a couple of the pubs involved and they'd be obvious if I identify the team (though anyone who wants to tag along next year, I'll gladly give directions). But, this is how I spent the latter part of the winter solstice. This tour in the New Forest works pretty much the way the original teams did, uses a script recorded in 1929, and takes it back to the original pubs. Almost. Well, it seemed like a god idea when the leader and I were in a pub at a folk festival a few years ago. The owner of the third pub actually saw the 1929 performance, which is kind of nice.

Five days before the tour, I dig out the script. I'm 'First Turkey Snipe', by dint of beiong the only one that gets killed, and therefore has to get up when cured. I'm not by any means what people would call 'fit' any more, but I'm better at break-falls and getting up than the rest of them. Of course, statistically, in 1929 we'd all be dead by now, if that makes any sense. 'First Turkey Snipe' (Turkish Knight) gets an in-cue, does two lines which have to finish with the correct out-cue, repeat process, followed by sword fight in which I die. I then lie there like a lemon for something like five minutes, until I'm fed a potion from a bottle. I then stand up, try to keep out of the way until I hear my final cue, at which point I thank the landlord or landlady and hope people will stick some money in the hat.

As I think I've said before, the perversity of collecting licenses is that although we're collecting for the local hospice, we're not allowed to say so, and have to pretend it's to defray our expenses. This tactic, however, actually worked well at Ascot Ladies' day, where at the first spot I tried 'it's all for MacMillan Cancer' because we had all the right documentation, and got practically nothing. Switching to 'Every penny drunk tonight, support you local licensed victuallers' association' and the money rolled in.
On the day, the first performance is at seven in the evening. At four, we assembled at the leader's house for a light buffet, then run through a couple of times, eat a healthy vegetarian and gluten-free hotpot. This under-rehearsal is actually fairly authentic: one of folklorist Cecil Sharp's informants told him 'occasionally we'd get organised enough to rehearse twice'. However, the original teams didn't have a problem we have – they just performed the one script. Everyone in this cast does at least two, and as I pointed out last year, I do five. It gets confusing. Sometimes very confusing. Now we costume up and put the make-up on. With four of us in black-face (mine has a white vertical stripe across the left eye) crammed as passengers into a Fiesta, stopping it rubbing off onto other people's costumes is... interesting.

Hit the first pub, one where the play was traditionally performed. There is a sort of gradient of performance quality. This one is always the start: they like us, everyone is proud that we bring the traditional play back, (although not quite enough to take it over, which was the original idea) and we'll get applause whatever happens. King George leads off, asking whether anyone will take him on with a sword. I pause. My cue hasn't come yet. It rapidly becomes obvious that he's finished and is expecting a response. Do I use my line, which makes no sense in the context, or do I follow his lead and take the line from the script I think he's thinking of?

In the end I did neither: I took the John Cleese line from Secret Policeman's Ball – 'oh dear, I appear to be doing the wrong play', then follow with the line from this script. So far so almost good. Much laughter. My wife is less impressed than the rest of the audience, though. After twenty plus years of marriage, I can tell. The next four lines are a bit like listening to two modems in the old day negotiating a comms protocol. Then he takes a swipe at me, I take a swipe at him, He 'kills' me earlier than expected so I miss the break-fall, wrenching my shoulder. I lie there listening to Second Turkey Snipe negotiating the fee for curing me, trying very had not to laugh out loud because, although this all went well in rehearsal, they've got the same 'multi-script' problem. The potion this year was baileys and cointreau, a distinct improvement on some – last year I once had white wine vinegar. I never did get my third cue. When everything went quiet I just launched into my lines. Then we sang 'The Holly and the Ivy', amazingly to the same non-standard tune and all in the same key.

Get our free drink, plus a respectable amount in the hat, back into the car, for the second spot. We do this one only because the gaffer thinks it's a good idea. It's a posh wine-bar. Last year there were just one couple, obviously on a romantic date and totally bemused by what was going on. This year there are four standing by the bar – except that they're all mates of mine who've driven out here only to find that there's no real ale. I have a brief conference with King George and we write the cue-lines on betting slips which are then taped to the inside of his shield. I don't get a shield, possibly just as well because despite the glass of wine my shoulder still hurts. George gets the lines wrong but at least feeds me the correct cue. We fight. He trips over a chair and knocks a table over. These things are Heavy – they're designed so that you can't lift them up to hit someone with them – okay, not here, but basically all pub furniture is built to the same spec.

I wait patiently for him to untangle himself, then have to help him up so he can kill me. This really isn't the point. I get the break-fall right, but Second Turkey Snipe falls over the chair whilst trying to pay the doctor. This really isn't the point either. I stand up and try to take the chair away without being noticed, provoking heckles of 'it's behind you', which was at least original. When it all goes quiet at the end, I stage-whisper to King George or look at his shield. He gets the cue. I think the landlord, only to discover that he's lost interest and gone out to the kitchen. Embarrassingly I then have to take the hat round my mates. They cough up and ask for directions for the next pub, where there is really good ale. We get our free drinks – you'll probably start to understand why there's this 'quality gradient'. I ride with three of them in their car, the hapless fourth gets into the back of the Fiesta. I don't think I mentioned the immaculate white shirt and blazer he was wearing?

Spot three. This is the optimum place if you're only going to watch one performance. (a) we've pretty much got the hang of it, (b) this is the one whose owner saw the 1929 performance, and we've only had two drinks. My shoulder doesn't hurt so much now, though. King George is hobbling a bit, though. The owner comes down, looking slightly frailer than last year, and we go for the ritual examination of the newspaper article framed on the wall, at which point as usual she produces a hip-flask of carrot brandy. Be rude not to, and she always does us proud. The place is full. My mates can see the real ale, but are having difficulty getting served. I explain to the owner who rustles up a barman and insists on getting the four of them drinks on the house. They're well chuffed and maybe I'm going to be forgiven. All goes to plan except when I have to turn round to check that there's room to fall over. I'll come back to that later. We sing the carol, the hat is passed around and we get a goodly take, enhanced by a tenner from the pub and a fiver from my mates. We get our free drinks, accompanied by sausage rolls and mince pies. My mates set to with gusto, then leg it before they have to watch another performance.

Spot four. This is the last traditional spot and we're always well received. By now, though, alcohol has somewhat taken its toll and Second Turkey Snipe and the Doctor lose track of where they are in the negotiations. They do the only sensible thing and reset to 'say not so' and 'what can you cure?'. It takes ages – the audience either haven't noticed or are too polite to comment, but frankly I'm getting bored. Eventually, the ad-lib the last bit. I stand up thankfully and stretch. My shoulder is hurting again. We get our free drinks. From here there's just the last spot.

Five. This is another wine-bar. We do it because it's the leader's local. It's packed with diners, so we struggle to fit the play into the aisle without knocking food or drinks over. To be honest, I don't think anyone except the landlord and the leader really want us there. George feeds me the right cues, then 'kills' me with a single stroke, all there's room for in any degree of safety. I judge the distance to the top of the bar, break-fall appropriately, and only then do I remember the solid brass foot-rail six inches in front of the bar. At least I can't feel my shoulder any more. Tentatively I feel the back of my head. Probably just a bruise. I squirm into a slightly more comfortable position and wait to be cured. The doctor applies the potion bottle to my lips: I grab it and down the lot. He stage-whispers 'bl**dy hell, was that for real?' and helps me up. Since I am able to give my wife instructions on how to check for concussion, I conclude that no real damage has been done, and go on to take my last cue. One last carol, the hat goes round and against the odds we get a good take – I suspect part of it was from sympathy and the fact that I was still on my feet. We get a free drink. Mine's a very large neat scotch. It evaporates and the manager gives me another. I was sober again by the time we got to Stonehenge for the solstice moon – pain does that, sometimes.

mankind's greatest advances are launched on dreams
(dedication in Tess Gerritsen's "Gravity")
...the dreams that stuff is made of
(a tee-shirt for the top quark team at CERN: now the title of an anthology of papers on quantum physics edited by Stephen Hawking)
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