Britishness, culture, entertainment, history, leisure, lifestyle, Sport, tourism

Newmarket: The home of English horse racing

There’s nothing quite like a day at the races – particularly if you happen to go to Newmarket, otherwise known as the home of English horse racing and birthplace of the ‘Sport of Kings’.

 

So to continue the ‘great British tradition’ theme that seems to have permeated my 50th birthday celebrations so far  (although that will change somewhat when we go off on our road trip to the American Southwest and the stunning state of Arizona), my Beloved and I took ourselves off by train to the pleasant rural county of Suffolk.

 

Once at Newmarket itself, we recklessly upgraded the free tickets he’d managed to blag and sashayed elegantly from the Grandstand and Paddock to the Premier Enclosure  – with more than a pang of regret on my part for failing to dress up a bit more, it must be said.

 

Drinks at the Premier Enclosure
Drinks at the Premier Enclosure

But as the action started and our luck kicked in, the smart-casual state of my attire was the last thing on my mind. Three straight wins off the bat, followed by second or third placements in the final four races – and most of them outsiders. Incredible. Certainly a good bit of birthday fortune there. Literally.

 

In fact, we made a tidy £70 profit for our trouble – not bad for a minimum bet each way of £2, which I’d misunderstood in the first place anyway, thinking it would cost me £2 rather than the £4 it actually did. Duh.

 

And the secret to our success? Instinct – or certainly more luck than judgement anyway. So unlike many of the serious race-goers there, it was all about going for the names we liked, or at least had some connection with. None of this studying-the-form-and-being-guided-by-the-odds nonsense. But it obviously worked, which is quite something if you’re as rubbish at racing as we are.

 

Before one of races, for example, after exclaiming about the greyness of the horses and how pretty they were, we found it was actually the ‘Pantile Stud Grey Horse Handicap’. At another, we were so busy looking for my Beloved’s horse which we felt had to be at the back of the pack that we completely missed the fact it had won – until it was announced, that is, and we nearly collapsed.

 

First horse racing meetings

 

We didn’t even choose our bookie based on the odds, but more on the fact she was a woman – a relatively rare entity in such a male-dominated world even today – whose queue looked smaller than the others but who seemed nice. So we thought we’d give her a go – and again it paid off. Despite having to fork out each time we returned, she was gracious in defeat, limiting herself to a wry smile and an “Oh, it’s you two again, is it?” through gritted teeth.

 

As for Newmarket racecourse itself, it was much more expansive than we’d expected, with not just one but two racetracks: the Adnams July course that we were at, and the Rowley Mile. But the importance of the sport to the town shouldn’t be too surprising perhaps as it turns out to be the place where the UK’s first horse racing meetings ever were held – as we’d know them today anyway.

 

Newmarket's July race course
Newmarket’s July race course

While it was the Romans who first brought the idea of horse racing to our hallowed shores, for hundreds of years it was a mainly informal pursuit that tended to occur on public holidays at big, local fairs and festivals.

 

The first recorded race gatherings didn’t actually take place until the reign of King Henry II when in the latter half of the 1100s, knights, earls, barons and other assorted nobility would apparently gather at Smithfield in London for a bit of bartering at the annual St Bartholomew’s horse fair to the sound of young men galloping around the open spaces of the square and park.

 

Although racing remained a favourite royal sport for another 400 years or so, it was James I who really started it on the path to what it is today, after interest had waned during the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I. In 1605, he happened to be out hawking when he came across the then small village of Newmarket and decided it was the perfect spot for a bit of racing fun.

 

In fact, James spent so much time at his new amusement that Parliament petitioned him on more than one occasion to get himself back down to London to do a bit of ruling rather than playing about with his horses  – the reason perhaps that the town is still known as the sport’s true home. In fact, the Rowley Mile, which as previously mentioned is one of its racecourses, still bears his name to this day. James was, it seems, given the nickname ‘Old Rowley” after his favourite nag.

 

But where royalty goes, everyone else inevitably follows and so regular race meetings started taking place up and down the country, and silver bells began to be offered as prizes. The fact that it was de rigueur for nobility and a royal must-do also led to the moniker, the “sport of kings” being adopted, which is still used to this day.

 

A great British tradition

 

The first racing thoroughbreds didn’t appear for another 100 years or so though. Interestingly, they are all descended from three Arabian stallions imported to the UK in the early 1700s called Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and most famous of all Godolphin Barb, which happens to be buried quite close to my home town of Saffron Walden in the tranquil setting of Wandlebury Country Park in Cambridgeshire.

Wandlebury Country Park
Wandlebury Country Park

Anyway, these stallions, which were known for their long necks, large frames and high tails, were mated with British mares to create a perfect combination of speed and endurance, henceforth making them the racing standard all over the world.

 

And by the middle of the 1700s century, horse racing had upped its game to such an extent that it had become a professional sport. Which led to various assorted aristocrats getting together in 1750 in the now-deceased Star & Garter pub on London’s Pall Mall to set up The Jockey Club in order to regulate it.

 

Their meetings moved to Newmarket a couple of years later, however, and it was from there that the Club set and administered the rules of British horse racing until 2006 when its responsibilities were passed on to the British Horseracing Authority. It still owns a good number of iconic British courses to this day though, including Newmarket, Aintree, Epsom and Cheltenham, all of which are important fixtures on the domestic and international sporting calendar.

 

Due to Britain’s former empire, which stretched its tentacles into so many corners of the world, meanwhile, horse racing proliferated around the globe. But while it transmuted into many forms based on different distances and track types, most of the breeds and regulations that control the sport are still based on our originals to this day.

 

And it’s still a hugely popular pastime here too. Worth around £3.4 billion per annum both directly and indirectly to the British economy, it is in fact the country’s second most popular spectator sport after our collective national obsession in the shape of football.

 

In fact, some would even go so far as to say that horse racing is an intrinsic part of our national identity – which truly would make it a great British tradition indeed.

 

 

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British cuisine entertainment, Britishness, culture, entertainment, food, food and drink, history, leisure, lifestyle, social class

Taking afternoon tea: A great British tradition

It’s difficult to think of anything more English than afternoon tea – or “low” tea as it’s also uncommonly known.

 

With its dainty sandwiches, melt-in-the-mouth scones and multitude of pretty confections, it really is one of our most noble British institutions. So I feel it’s my duty to give heartfelt thanks to TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off for rehabilitating the tradition and restoring it to national glory after so many years spent languishing quietly in the parlours of maiden aunts.

 

And in honour of this ritual, which has such a special place in our collective hearts these days, I decided to dedicate one of several 50th birthday celebrations to partaking of its delights. So following a recommendation from my Beloved, we plumped for a family afternoon out with both sets of parents at Luton Hoo. The former manor house in Bedfordshire was formerly owned by the Anglo-Norman de Hoo family, which a couple of generations after the name itself died out, spawned Anne Boleyn of King Henry VIII fame.

Luton Hoo gardens
Luton Hoo gardens

Anyway, not to be confused with Sutton Hoo, a renowned burial site of Anglo-Saxon royalty near Woodbridge in East Anglia, the mansion with its stunning vista, originally landscaped by none other than Lancelot Capability Brown himself, is now an 18-hole golf course and spa hotel. And the rather odd name ‘Hoo’ is less of a badly spelled question, it seems, and more of a Saxon word meaning “spur of a hill”.

 

As for afternoon tea itself, although very nice, the wealth of tiny, rich cakes made it somewhat sugar-rush-inducing, which lost it marks. As a result, it failed to make it into the global top three carefully devised by my parents and myself over several years. After jointly indulging during various trips both at home and abroad, the number one slot simply has to go to the exquisite repast provided by the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, which was only enhanced by its discrete and solicitous service.

 

Next by mutual agreement came the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, followed by Tea at the Ritz in London, which despite the cliché managed only a (very worthy) third.

 

High and low tea

 

But it all set me to wondering just where this glorious convention came from in the first place. Interestingly, while the name itself obviously refers to the beverage that sits at its heart, its application appears to be of rather more mixed heritage.

 

At the lower end of the social scale during the Industrial Revolution, when working class families came home after a wearying day at their looms and factories, they apparently sat down to a table set with all manner of cold cuts, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and, of course, the drink of the day, tea. Because the meal was partaken of at a high dining table rather than a low tea table near a sofa or chair in the drawing room like the aristocracy, however, it was known as “high tea” – a name with which afternoon tea, or low tea, is all too often distressingly confused. And as might be expected, “tea” is still the working class name assigned to one’s big evening meal to this day.

 

As to the original creator of afternoon tea as we think of it now, meanwhile, that is believed to be one Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford and one of the young Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Because the upper class lunchtime meal was petite and the evening meal distinctly large and late, the Duchess proclaimed that she suffered from a “sinking feeling” at around four o’clock in the afternoon.

Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg
Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg

At first, she had her servants sneak her up a pot of tea and a few dainty morsels of bread to tide her over. But as time went on, she adopted the habit of inviting friends to her rooms in Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the summer months to indulge in a cup of tea and a bite to eat at five o’clock.

 

Her menu consisted of bread and butter sandwiches, small cakes and assorted sweets – and the practice proved so popular that she transported it to London when she returned for the Season. There she sent cards to friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and her quaint idiosyncrasy was quickly picked up and emulated by other society ladies, making it quite the thing to do.

 

At this point though, I feel I must inject and clarify the difference between afternoon tea and a cream tea, which is something different again and is actually thought to be a much older tradition. According to local historians, the dish was actually created by monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, West Devon, around 1,000 or so AD.

 

Cream tea

 

They had suffered their home being plundered and wrecked by a band of marauding Vikings, but Ordulf, Earl of Devon, sent some workers to try and sort out the mess. They were lucky enough to be fed on plates of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves for their trouble – and so the Devon cream tea was born, although the bread eventually morphed into scones, of course.

 

Anyway, so popular did the cream teas prove that the monks continued serving them to passing travellers, which saw their fame only grow and spread – although such idle talk is, of course, hotly disputed by arch-rival Cornwall, which also claims the cream tea as its own.

 

But there is, of course, a significant difference between the two varieties: After breaking (rather than cutting) their scone in two as is correct practice, the good people of Devon cover each half with thick clotted, (rather than whipped cream, God forbid) before putting strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, however, it is de rigueur to butter your scone first, layer on your strawberry jam and then complete the whole pretty picture with the aforementioned cream dollop.

Cream tea
Cream tea

On a final note though, there is, unsurprisingly given its origins, a whole raft of etiquette associated with the afternoon tea tradition, which I learned by strange coincidence only the week before my Luton Hoo jaunt from a speaker at a Women’s Institute meeting. Although my pearls of wisdom were to fall on deaf ears on the day itself, I nonetheless did attempt to appraise my recalcitrant audience of the finer points. These include:

 

  • placing your napkin on your knee as soon as you sit down, ensuring it’s folded down the middle into a rectangle shape, with the fold facing your stomach. If you have to leave the table at any point (not recommended), be careful to fold the napkin up and place it on your chair rather than just dumping it down on the table, covering your fellow guests with crumbs in the process
  • putting sugar in your cup first, followed by tea. Last of all comes the milk – a sign in the old days that you were wealthy enough to afford porcelain rather than regular china, which would shatter with the heat if milk wasn’t poured in first to cool it
  • stirring your tea by placing your spoon at six o’clock and folding it towards the 12 o’clock position, being careful not to chink against the sides and set everyone’s teeth on edge.

 

So as you can see, although such great English habits may appear to have been invented quite arbitrarily to confuse the lower classes, there is some rhyme and reason to them, no matter how obscure.

 

 

 

British folklore, Britishness, countryside, entertainment, Essex, history, leisure, lifestyle, UK

Essex mysteries: The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Say what you like about Essex, but it is a county that knows how to celebrate its own, sometimes unusual history.

 

Take the Dunmow Flitch Trials, for example. Although they only take place once every four years in Great Dunmow, a small market town in north Essex, they apparently date back to the twelfth century, which makes them an astounding 900 or so years old.

 

And while I doubt the pantomime and light-hearted revelry of it all would have been particularly appreciated by peasants of yore, it certainly went down well with the present day audience last weekend, seated on plastic chairs in a marquee in Talberds Ley park.

 

The Trials are intended to establish the devotion of couples no matter where in the world they come from, who have been married for at least a year and a day. If, in the word of the Flitch Oath, they can persuade a judge and jury of six local maidens and six bachelors that they have “ne’er made nuptiall transgression”, indulged in “household brawls or contentious strife” and, most importantly of all “not wisht themselves unmarried agen,” they are awarded a flitch, or side, of bacon (basically, half a pig cut lengthways).

 

Dunmow Flitch
Dunmow Flitch

The Trials themselves, meanwhile, take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, in our case Dave Monk, who has been a radio presenter with BBC Essex for the last 30 years and played a slightly befuddled old soak. There were also four lawyers in full regalia, three of whom were actual real-life barristers and the other writer and witty stand-up comedian, Steve Bugeja.

 

Two of them were there to represent the couples or claimants, while the opposing counsel was employed on behalf of the Flitch, which stood demurely suspended from its wooden frame throughout the whole proceedings. The opposing counsel’s role was to test the claims of each couple and convince the jury not to grant them the bacon.

 

And so the entertainment began. It all kicked off with a lively procession of local majorettes, clog dancers, a town crier, the jury, barristers, a couple of big solid oak chairs and, of course, the Flitch, carried by burly local men or ‘simple folk’ in peasants’ smocks and straw hats from the Saracens Head Hotel in the middle of town to Talberds Ley.

 

Once in the marquee, my Beloved and I settled down to watch the two afternoon Trials (there are morning and evening ones too), one of which consisted of a couple who lived locally and had been together for 30 years, and another that hadn’t yet made their second year anniversary but who lived in Cambridge.

 

The older couple’s Trial was my favourite though. Soon after they’d first met, an event that he described as love at first sight although she wasn’t initially quite so keen, he’d been really eager to see her. So he tracked her down to one of several potential hospital sites (she’s a nurse) and left a pot plant for her outside the nursing station – his rationale being that cut flowers invariably got nicked.

 

But the defence for the Flitch construed that the real truth of the matter was that he’d stalked his poor Missus relentlessly until she eventually gave in and then got her hooked on drugs (pot plant – get it?). Needless to say, the couple lost and the Flitch won, but it was very amusing all the same.

 

Ancient tradition

 

On the way back to the Market Place though, it was their fate to make a walk of shame behind one of the two wooden Flitch Chairs – although they did seem remarkably cheery about it all. Luckily according to ancient custom, they were still entitled to a gammon (hind leg) of bacon, which actually seemed to morph into a bottle of champagne instead. But that was alright.

 

The second couple, however, who won their Trial in a well-matched contest of wits, were carried shoulder high through the streets on a Flitch Chair by the burly, local smock wearers. Once at the Market Place, they kneeled to take the Flitch Oath, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some stones, before the smock wearers all threw their hats in the air. And following the presentation of a certificate and bottle of champers to the winners, that was that – for another four years anyway.

 

Flitch winners
Flitch winners

Interestingly though, while Dunmow may not be the only place in Europe where the ancient tradition of rewarding marital harmony with a side of bacon exists, it is completely unique in still performing it – which it’s been doing on and off since 1104, it seems.

 

As to how the whole thing came about in the first place, however, the most popular story goes that Lord of the Manor in nearby Little Dunmow village, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife decided to dress themselves up as humble peasants and beg for the blessing of the head of the local Augustinian Priory a year and a day after marrying. Impressed by their fervour, the Prior decided to reward them with a Flitch of Bacon.

 

On revealing his true identity though, Fitzwalter promised to bestow his land on the Priory on condition that a Flitch be awarded to any couple who could prove they lived a life of similar marital devotion and harmony. And by Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the Trials had achieved such fame that he included mention of them in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a collection of 24 stories that is deemed among the most important in English literature.

 

The tradition lapsed for a number of years during the 1830s, however, as it was considered “an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”. But by 1855, it was happily revived by Victorian novelist and master of historical potboilers Harrison Ainsworth, following the publication of his popular novel ‘The Custom of Dunmow’. This recounts the efforts of a local publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in a bid to find the perfect one for him. Which is certainly one way of going about it.

 

But as similar traditions are found across northern Europe, I’d be rather more inclined to side with British historian, Helene Adeline Guerber as to origins. Her theory goes that it can be traced back to an ancient Norse custom linked to the pagan Yule feast, which is celebrated today as Christmas.

 

Although Yule is mainly linked to Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, the protection of mankind and, interestingly, fertility, it is also important to the god Freyr. He was likewise a fertility god and often invoked by married couples for his ability to “bestow peace and pleasure on mortals”. Incidentally, he also rode about on a wild boar called Gullinbursti.

 

As a result of all this, a boar was eaten in Freyr’s honour at each Yule feast and could only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. This, in turn, led to the custom of rewarding married couples who managed to live in harmony with a piece of boar meat. So it’s not a huge jump to switch boar for bacon.

 

And with that particular little thought, I rest my case.

 

 

 

 

British cuisine entertainment, food, food and drink, history, lifestyle

Is the end nigh for our Great British staples?

I’m not entirely sure what it says about the Great British People, but the top  symbols of nationhood that make our chests swell with collective pride relate to food and drink.

 

First on the list of iconic delights is the inevitable Sunday roast, complete with meat and two veg, roast potatoes, and of course, Yorkshire pudding, said by many to be our national dish. Second is greasy takeaway staple fish and chips, followed by the BBC, the Union flag, Wimbledon and that most enduring of British cliches, the “nice cup of tea”.

 

So it was with shock that I learnt recently that sales of our national beverage are actually in decline – between 2010 and 2015, it seems, overall black tea volumes slumped by a huge 22% from 97 million kilograms to a mere 76 million. And according to market research agency Mintel, this outrage was attributable to one key thing – dwindling teabag purchases.

 

Sales of your bog-standard black teabag nosedived by 13% between 2012 and 2014 to £425 million as people such as myself forsook them with gay abandon for healthier, trendier – or, in my intolerance-scarred case, caffeine-free – alternatives ranging from green tea (sales up 50%), fruit and herb (up 31%) and speciality blends such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Assam (up 15%).

Nice cup of tea
Nice cup of tea

The increasing popularity of coffee, stimulated by premium-priced coffee shops springing up on every street corner – more than 20,000 such establishments now exist across the country, it seems – also didn’t help, of course, but did serve to create a market currently valued at more than £1 billion per annum.

 

Incidentally, coffee when first brought to Europe in the 16th century was apparently viewed with suspicion, being as it was the drink of choice in a Muslim world that Christendom had been at war with for centuries. On rather adventurously giving it a go though, Pope Clement VIII, under pressure from his advisors to declare it the “bitter invention of Satan”, is said to have stated: “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

 

And this ringing endorsement led to it it taking off all over the region pretty quickly after that. Europe’s first coffee house opened in Vienna in 1645, while the UK’s followed in Oxford seven years later – and still exists to this day under the name, The Grand Café.

 

Within as little as 25 years, some 3,000 or so such concerns had sprung up across the country, becoming popular places to meet and chat about the news, politics and gossip of the day – to such an extent, in fact, that Charles II tried unsuccessfully to get them banned in 1675 for being hotbeds of sedition. Unusually coffee shops were open to all men irrespective of their social status and so were associated with such dissolute notions as equality and republicanism, which obviously didn’t go down too well.

 

Anyway, even though the devil’s drink may once again be trying to assert its  fiendish grip on the nation, reassuringly according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, black tea is still by far the country’s most popular hot drink. More than 165 million cups are imbibed every day compared to coffee’s mere 70 million.

In fact, more than half (54%) of the population drink at least one cup each day, with men aged between 16 and 44 being the biggest fans (four out of five indulge their vice on a daily basis). The only people that drink more of the stuff per head than us apparently are the Irish.

 

Great British bangers

 

Another staple that seems to be falling equally foul of the current migration to all things healthy, however, is the Great British Banger. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of sausages sold has slumped by more than a quarter – or a huge 260 million packs – since 2008 – although the value of those sales has dropped by a mere 2.1% to £820.7 million.

 

The problem seems to lie in the fact that shoppers are now moving to healthier, non-processed meats such as chicken and steak, put off by reports of sausages’ high fat and salt content as well as the inclusion of cheap fillers such as breadcrumbs or wheat rusks.

 

But people also didn’t appear too keen on reports last June that the superbug MRSA had been found in sausages and minced pork sold in UK supermarkets. Or on last October’s revelations from the World Health Organisation that processed meat was a major cause of cancer – all of which, when taken together, has unsurprisingly done a fine job of hammering sales.

 

But it’s a shame in a way because sausages are, apparently, one of our oldest processed foods. A culinary gift from the Romans, their name is derived from the Latin word “salsus”, which means something salted.

 

Sausages
Sausages

They gained their nickname of “bangers’ during the First World War though, when food shortages led to a big reduction in meat levels. As a result, they were packed with scraps, cereal and water, which made them pop, hiss and even explode when cooked over open fires in the trenches.

 

But despite the sausage’s demotion in status in the national diet, thankfully all is not lost – last month, we were able to stand proud once more when the humble black pudding was dubbed a “superfood” by online health retailer, MuscleFood.com – and the word seemed to spread like wildfire.

 

Packed with protein, practically carb-free and rich in iron and zinc, the (pig’s) blood sausage and staple of the ever-popular full English breakfast was ranked among black beans, sprouted grains and kohlrabi (the new kale) in terms of health-giving properties.

 

Although various spoilsports have since burst the bubble by indiscreetly mentioning its high fat and salt content and equally high calorie count, that doesn’t seem to have put off sales of the Stornoway Black Pudding, for one. This particular titbit was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2013, putting it on a similar footing to champagne in France and tea in Darjeeling.

 

As a result, Charles Macleod Butchers in Scotland’s Western Isles told the Mail that it had seen postal demand for its iconic delicacy jump eight-fold in the days after the story broke, and the expectation is that sales will as much as treble over the next five years on the back of it.

 

So despite ongoing fears of obesity epidemics, endless food and drink fads and all too frequent food scares, it seems that at least some of our Great British staples could triumph yet.

Christmas, entertainment, history, theatre, Uncategorized

Discovering British pantomime

I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do love a good pantomime. Oh no you don’t, I hear you cry. But I do. I really do.

 

So it was with great delight that my Beloved and I took ourselves off to Saffron Walden town hall last weekend to view the annual festive season Spectacular in all its camp glory. And this year, it took the form of Beauty and the Beast – an esteemed work that I must confess I wasn’t previously familiar with. Dick Whittington, yes. Aladdin, yes. But Beauty and the Beast, no.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

After swallowing the mild embarrassment of being more or less the only people there without young kids in tow, we quickly got into the swing of things and settled down to enjoy a fine selection of Carry On-style innuendo and the usual “he’s behind you” tomfoolery.

 

My favourite character wasn’t so much the hero and heroine of the piece though but the cocky but ultimately thwarted suitor of Beauty (or Belle) named Jean-Claude (it was all set in a French village, which might have been random or could also have been in honour of the French woman who originally wrote the fairytale down in the 18th century, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – who knows?) who modelled himself on surreal TV comedy the IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm, boss of Reynholm Industries.

 

I was also quite taken with Madame Cruella, who seemed to have made a surprise appearance from 101 Dalmations and did a cracking job of being evil, keen as she was to get her sinister claws into young Prince Ferdinand aka the Beast. All very entertaining.

 

But, despite the consummate daftness, it turns out that pantos are actually a pretty old form of musical comedy theatre – and one that, as it happens, is unique to the UK, although it does make an imported appearance in former British colonies such as Ireland, Jamaica, and even Canada and Australia now and then, apparently.

 

Traditionally performed over the Christmas and New Year time, pantomimes are believed by some to have their roots in the so-called Mummers Plays of the 13th to 16th century. These consisted of a kind of processional dance and mime show, to which dialogue was added over time. They were performed during the festive season by troupes of amateurs known as ‘mummers’, a word thought to be derived from the eponymous old German term meaning ‘disguised person’.

 

Ancient traditions

 

The name was assigned to them as many of the performers wore hats or painted their faces red or black to obscure their features out of fear of being recognised (this custom is also associated with English Morris dancers). As mumming was a means for agricultural labourers to raise extra money for Christmas, they went from big house to big house in the area to do their thing. But they didn’t want to be associated with begging – hence the disguises.

 

Nonetheless it seems to have been a lucrative business – it was said that they could raise as much as a whole month’s wages by performing for as little as three evenings.

 

Mummers play
Mummers play

The performances themselves, meanwhile, were broadly-speaking short comic dramas with themes based on duality and resurrection. Generally involving a battle between a couple of characters who are believed to have represented good and evil, one would inevitably be killed and then brought back to life by a doctor wielding a magic potion – an activity that some believe has pagan symbolism relating to the death and rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.

 

Others hotly dispute the notion, however, attesting that a lack of extant Mummers Play texts prior to the mid-18th century can only mean that they did not exist in drama form before then. They believe that while mummers may have cavorted around in masks, it was actually “guisers” who performed the traditional folk dramas, which were themselves actually influenced by early versions of English pantomime rather than the other way around.

 

Whatever the truth of the matter though, the plays seemed to contain a bunch of elements similar to today’s pantos such as stage fights, coarse humour and gender role reversal (the lead male role generally being performed by a young woman and the dame by an older man).

 

Incidentally, this role reversal, although a later Victorian addition after it went out of fashion for a time, actually reflects a tradition relating to Twelfth Night. It marked the end of a Medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and ended at the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Samhain, which is celebrated today as Halloween took place from sunset on October 31 to sunset on 1 November. It was a period when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was said to be thin and the natural order of things reversed.

 

Pantomime history

 

Interestingly though, mumming and guising were also a key part of this festival too. People went from door-to-door dressed up in costumes or disguises as a way of hiding and protecting themselves against the spirits of the Other World, often reciting verses in exchange for food – all of which suggests to me that the whole symbolism of the thing could be much older than it is generally given credit for.

 

Anyway, it seems that during the 16th century, English folk drama, whatever name or form it took, began to be absorbed into a form of Italian travelling street theatre called the Commedia dell’arte. Productions, which had become really popular by the middle of the 17th century, included music, dancing, acrobatics and general buffoonery and were put on in fairgrounds and marketplaces around the country. They were based on a repertoire of comic, and often satirical, stories that contained moral lessons and also included a series of stock characters.

Harlequinade poster
Harlequinade poster

 

From the 1660s onwards, these stock characters began to appear more and more in English plays, until by the first couple of decades of the 1700s, actor-manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre, John Rich, made one of them in the shape of Harlequin the star of his shows.

 

Rich, who has been dubbed the father of pantomime, was also the inspiration behind the chase scenes that became a key part of an early version of panto called a ‘Harlequinade’. These Harlequinades, which dominated the scene for the next 150 years, saw two eloping lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, being pursued by other adapted Commedia characters including her father Pantaloon and his comic servants, Clown and Pierrot. And the pantomine traditions of slapstick, chases and transformation are still based on Harlequinade antics to this day.

 

By the 1870s though, the Harlequinades began to die a death and were replaced by dramas based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’. These productions became so popular and elaborate, in fact, that they sometimes lasted as long as five hours and boasted up to 600 performers.

 

The most extravagant were held at the still thriving Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, London, which was responsible for adding many of the panto elements we still know and love today such as principal boys and pantomime dames, the appearance of celebrities and the use of popular tunes – in those days, Music Hall songs, but today pop ditties.

 

All of which appears to imply that what goes around does seem to end up coming around eventually too.