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.

 

 

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Briitish industry, employment, regeneration, tourism, UK

Durham: An historical theme park in waiting?

Durham, the county in the North East of England where I grew up, is barely recognisable these days. Gone are the pits and the slag heaps and the steel works to be replaced with fecund sweeps of arable crops, fluffy, white sheep and trees – lots and lots of trees.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

But even though most of the ugly scars that pitted the landscape are gone, that’s not to say the county has buried its industrial heritage in the same careful manner – in fact, it’s still very proud of it, and rightly so. Because without the coal riven from its mines by men who sweated, suffered and, in some instances, even died to produce it, the Industrial Revolution could never have taken place.

 

So, aptly, memories of the past are still held onto and treasured not only by individuals, but also by organisations such as Beamish. Beamish is an open air, working museum that provides fascinating insights into the daily life and employment of North Easteners during the early 1800s and 1900s, and one, it must be said, that gets bigger and better each year.

 

But a former pit village in East Durham called Horden is also doing its bit to honour its heritage. The Parish Council has just bought an iconic sculpture of a nine-foot tall miner for the princely sum of £19,000 in a bid to try and spark some interest in the place and promote regeneration – something that should also be helped by the tourism generated by Durham Heritage Coast Partnership’s attempts to conserve and enhance the nearby flora- and fauna-rich coastline.

 

Fittingly though the statue has been called “Marra”, an old pitmatic word for a good mate or member of a crew of miners who worked together and watched each other’s backs. Pitmatic, meanwhile, for those not in the know, is a local dialect that was used extensively in mining communities across Northumberland and Durham.

 

It’s based on the ancient, traditional language of the countryside, which the men were still using when they migrated to the pits to work in the 17th and 18th centuries, simply adapting it to their new requirements.

 

So this language of theirs was, and is, special in that it had retained lots of words from the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and the Old Norse of the Vikings – Durham, belonging as it did to the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, had been part of the Danelaw.

 

Although pitmatic was predominantly a male dialect, the language of a working pitman in fact, lots of the more general-purpose rather than work-specific words were also employed by the rest of the community, and were certainly still in common parlance when I was a kid – people were still eating their “bait” (packed lunch), for instance, poking “spelks” (splinters) out of their fingers with a needle, and walking through fields of “claggy auld clarts” (sticky old mud) after the rain.

 

Marras

 

As the old miners continue to die off though, pitmatic’s usage is now, sadly, almost as defunct as the pits that shaped it, and you hear its descriptive, onomatopoeic phrases employed less and less these days, particularly by the young ones.

Banner at Miner's Gala, Durham
Banner at Miner’s Gala, Durham

But anyway to get back to the point, the Marra in question is particularly emotive because he has his heart ripped out. A telling metaphor to illustrate what the demise of mining meant to the North East, it is particularly poignant in a place like Horden.

 

Horden Colliery was one of the biggest mines in the country, employing 4,000 men at its peak before being closed in 1987, two years after the miners’ strike.

 

The statue itself, meanwhile, which was unveiled in Horden Welfare Park on Saturday 21 November, was the brainchild of local artist, Ray Lonsdale.

 

The idea behind the piece was apparently a news story revealing that a statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose regime was responsible for wiping out the British coal industry without putting any plans in place to support the communities dependent on it, was to be erected in Westminster to celebrate the good she had done for the country. But as Lonsdale drily put it: “That’s not the way it’s seen up here.”

 

Thankfully though, after years of neglect from Westminster by parties of all political stripes, Durham now seems to have got itself a champion in the shape of Jonathan Garnier Ruffer. On paper Ruffer, a financier who speaks the Queen’s English and made his millions in London, may not be an obvious advocate. But he was actually born in the North East in a village near Middlesbrough on Teesside and so was aware of the issues.

 

A committed evangelical Christian and member of the Church of England, he credits English merchant and philanthropist William Rathbone VI as the inspiration for his good deeds. But of what do such good deeds consist?

 

They’re essentially about transforming Bishop Auckland, a pleasant, if somewhat deprived post-industrial market town 12 miles south west of Durham City, a Unesco World Heritage site, into a huge historical theme park to pull in tourists and help regenerate the area, not least by creating lots of jobs. And the latter is vital in a region where unemployment stubbornly remains the highest in the country at 8.1% compared to the UK national average of 5.6%.

 

Historical theme park

 

Although in 2012 Ruffer had never even visited Bishop Auckland before, he’d heard that the Church Commissioners, who manage the Anglican Church’s finances, were selling a dozen 17th century paintings by Spanish artist Francisco Zubaran. They hung in Auckland Castle, private home of successive Bishops of Durham for 900 years, who incidentally from 1071 until 1836 were unique in England for being Prince Bishops – and the county is still known as the “Land of the Prince Bishops” to this day.

Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland

Given the strategic position of the county, which acted as a buffer between England and its enemies in Scotland, the Prince Bishops were awarded secular powers that enabled them to raise their own armies, mint their own coins and levy their own taxes – as long as they stayed loyal to the king and diligently performed their role in protecting the country’s northern frontier, that is.

 

Anyway, Ruffer felt that the Zubaran paintings should stay in the region and so he bought them, and the castle they were hung in, for the tidy sum of £15 million. But he didn’t stop there.

 

He’s now not only restored the castle and opened it up to the public as a tourist attraction, but also purchased the site of the little-known but extremely important Roman fort of Vinovia or Binchester nearby, dubbed “The Pompeii of the North”. The aim is to make it into a major heritage destination too.

 

But Ruffer’s piece de resistance is his decision to set up a £100 million historical leisure park on a 115-acre site in the shadow of Auckland Castle. Also in the offing is a Night Show, inspired by the internationally renowned one at Puy du Fou in the Vendee region of the Loire in western France.

 

The open air light show, which will operate as a not-for-profit venture, will dramatise 2,000 years of North Eastern history and, with a cast of 600 volunteers, will apparently resemble the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – except it’ll be about Viking invasions, Roman gladiators and the like.

 

As of spring 2016, the objective is to put on 30 Night Shows per year and to pull in 6,000 visitors with each one. While the complementary historical theme park itself won’t actually open until 2020, the Show is expected to create 10 full-time jobs initially, rising to 300 by 2024.

 

But plans also include the creation of an Eleven Arches Academy – Eleven Arches being the name of the former golf course, which is crossed by the Newton Cap railway viaduct complete with its eponymous number of archways – which will train 300 young volunteers annually between the ages of eight and 25 in the key skills required to put on the spectacular. These include sound, lighting, pyrotechnics and set construction.

 

So with all of this great work in mind, all I can say is that Ruffer seems to me to be a git canny gadge who’s done hees bit sel’ and hees new hyem proud. Champion.

 

 

 

 

 

culture, genetics, history

Celtic myths: It’s all in the genes

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Celt. And being of mixed English-Irish heritage, I’d have said I was least partially entitled to lay claim to such a title.

So it seems a shame that, in some ways, the whole “Celtic” thing appears to be a bit of a romantic myth. Let me explain: according to the British Museum’s rather good latest exhibition entitled “Celts: art and identity”, which I popped along to see with my parents a couple of weekends ago, this ancient people were not so much a single group inhabiting broad swathes of Europe from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

British Museum
British Museum

They were instead more a bunch of individual local communities and tribal clusters, connected by similar worldviews, values, languages and artwork, but also quite distinct from each other. As the Celtic culture was predominantly an oral one though, they left no written records to elucidate or explain themselves.

And so the vacuum was filled by others, notably the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who has shaped our beliefs about these so-called “barbarians” ever since through the rather superior, “civilised” Mediterranean opinions that he espoused in the first century BC.

But he patently didn’t get them. Or their incredibly sophisticated, shape-shifting art forms, which, unlike classical, naturalist styles, hid animals and birds as well as multiple layers of symbolic meaning in their apparently simple abstract swirls. So it was a totally opposite way of looking at the world.

Interestingly though, Siculus, or any of the other Greeks or Romans knocking around at the time for that matter, didn’t ever explicitly refer to Britain or Ireland as the lands of the “Keltoi” or “Keltae”, roughly translated as the “hidden people” or “those who are different”.

The term seemed, in fact, to be applied mainly to the societies of central Europe and Gaul (France) – even though the “Celtic” moniker is now attributed exclusively to the indigenous cultures and traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and, of course, Brittany in France as well as their various diasporas.

In fact, the name was only assigned to their collective languages as late as the 1700s in order to reflect their pre-Roman origins. But by the 19th century, the whole thing had morphed into a revival movement known as the “Celtic Twilight”, which drew on Celtic artistic and literary traditions and recast them in the form of a reimagined, romanticised Celtic past.

Over time, however, the word seems to have become increasingly true to its original meaning of “outsider”. And as such, it has been used widely as a tool to help the peoples it denoted affirm their difference to and independence from their dominant English and French neighbours, becoming in the process a hook to hang their increasingly confident national identities on. Which, depending on your viewpoint, is really no bad thing.

The power of genetics

Anyway, another area in which the Celtic myth comes into further question is in the field of genetics. According to a Wellcome Trust-funded study led by Oxford University over the course of 20 years and published in the journal Nature in March this year, there is simply no genetic basis for claiming the existence of a single “Celtic” group in the UK or Northern Ireland.

In fact, amazingly, inhabitants of the so-called Celtic regions are among the most genetically different from each other when compared with other groups from the British Isles. This is likely because people from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the like diverged over time to form separate genetic clusters – a finding that provides a scientific basis for the idea of regional identity for the first time.

And one which also appears to support the opinion that the Celtic thing these days really has more to do with traditions and culture than it has to do with DNA or race per se.

But that is not to say that certain genetic remnants don’t still remain. Take red hair, for example, which is definitely usually considered a Celtic trait. And interestingly, it is among the Irish that you’re more likely to find a redhead than anywhere else in the world – indeed they account for up to 30% of the population.

Red-haired girl
Red-haired girl

Next come the Scottish at up to 25%, followed by the Welsh at up to 15%. But because red locks are the product of a recessive gene, both parents need to bear it in order to produce a flame-haired baby. So lots more people carry it rather than show it.

Another much more unpleasant hereditary condition though, and one that is even nicknamed the “Celtic disease” is haemochromatosis. This disorder, also caused by a recessive gene, leads the body to store too much iron, which is then deposited on vital organs such as the heart, liver or pancreas and, over time, prevents them from working effectively.

Over the course of years, this situation leads to an iron overload, which can prove fatal. But in the interim, it generates symptoms that are unlikely to become apparent before middle age and that can make it tricky to see a direct link. These include low energy levels, stomach or abdominal pains, arthritis and depression. In reality though, the only reliable way to find out if you’ve got the condition really is to have a blood test.

Meanwhile, although, as its nickname suggests, haemochromatosis is most commonly found among people of the so-called Celtic nations, it is – rather unfortunately for me and my ilk – by far the most widespread among the Irish, and particularly those from the west of the country.

While across Europe as a whole, between one in 300 to 400 have the offending DNA, the figure jumps to a huge one in 83 in Ireland – with a horrendous one in five people being carriers. So when folk say to you ‘it’s all in the genes’, all you can do is hope to God that, in this case at least, it simply isn’t.

Britishness, leisure, tourism

What does “Britishness” really mean?

Eight months or so after returning to the UK following my two-year-long South African adventure, I decided to give myself a birthday treat and go back to blogging.

I’ve missed it. There’s something about putting your thoughts down on paper that makes you look at the world through slightly different, more observational, and perhaps rather more emblematic eyes. And, as I’m now back to being a freelance journalist full-time, I do find it eminently satisfying to write about the things that fascinate and amuse me rather than the things that pay the bills.

So what better topic to light upon than that of life in the UK in all its mundanity, its drollery and its singularity? Having been born and brought up in these Hallowed Isles, I am, of course, far from being the dispassionate observer of society, culture and everyday experiences that I was in South Africa. How could I be when I’m imbued with it all to the core?

But there are many ways to skin a cat, as the rather gruesome proverb goes. So my aim is to portray life here, for good or bad, through the prism of my own experiences for anyone who may be interested.

And what better place to start such a venture than with the vexed idea of “Britishness” and what it actually means. It’s an issue that people appear to have been wrestling with since the identity crisis brought on by the collapse of that doubled-edge sword, “the Great British Empire”, and the upheaval provoked by the Second World War – and with no satisfactory outcome to date.

Sure, lots of tired, old clichés still abound regarding our collective stiff-upper lip, our notions of fair play and our propensity to drink lots of tea. But that would scarcely seem enough to sum up a nation.

So it struck me as interesting when a friend of mine who’s into astrology informed me there’s a certain branch of the discipline that relates to countries. While astrology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, bear with me as the insights afforded are quite interesting – whether you hold any store by the influence of heavenly bodies or not.

Astrological_signs_by_J._D._Mylius

Apparently how it works is that, when drawing up a star chart, you plump for an historic date that could be seen as the birth of the nation. A common one for us Brits apparently is the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey in London at noon on 25 December, 1066, following the Norman invasion.

Collective nature

This would mean that the UK has a Capricorn sun sign, with an Aries ascendant, the sun sign being the essence of who you are and the ascendant being how you present to other people.

Aries, so it’s said, is ruled by Mars, the planet of action, which means that people – or countries, for that matter – influenced by this sign tend to have a rather pioneering nature. They are also natural leaders, but can, on the downside, be aggressive, competitive and warlike. And they strive to be first in everything, sometimes to the point of ignoring the rights and feelings of others.

Sound familiar? Certainly notions of Empire would fit very nicely into many of the categories above, I’d have said, as would various ground-breaking events such as our creation of the first Parliament as well as sparking off the Industrial Revolution.

Capricorn-bonatti

The Capricorn side, meanwhile, is characterised by hard-working, practical, ambitious people (or countries) who are dedicated to achieving their goals and let nothing stand in their way. Responsible and methodical, they are often skilled administrators, hang onto established traditions and prefer slow, piecemeal reform to outright revolution.

So that’s where things like our cool British reserve and detachment would appear to come from as would the general focus on duty, and our apparently interminable love of Monarchy.

But my friend also believes that, given the liberal, eccentric and creative elements of our collective nature, the UK must likewise have a healthy dose of Aquarius thrown in there too – which I must confess is the bit that I’ve always tuned into most.

Along with just how feminine the energy of our country feels. I’d never noticed it before, but after going to Japan about 20 years ago for a dear friend’s wedding who is sadly no longer with us, it struck me just how immensely masculine that country was by way of contrast.

It wasn’t just the overt male domination going on all around or the seemingly diminuitive nature of the women, giggling behind their hands. It was just that the country felt so utterly and palpably male – I’d never experienced anything quite like it, and despite having an amazing time there, was really quite relieved to get back to our gentler, reassuringly female shores.

British birthdays

So anyway, just to tarry on the theme of Britishness a while longer, I had, due to the tender ministrations of my Beloved, a most appropriately British of birthdays.

Saffron_Walden_market_square

After indulging in that childhood classic of fishfinger sandwich, complete with very adult tartare sauce, at the Old English Gentleman pub in the charming, old market town of Saffron Walden in north Essex where we live, the next step was to take ourselves off to the historic city of Cambridge for a lovely roam around.

After working up a suitable appetite with our wanderings, we then treated ourselves to the traditional British fare on offer at The Cambridge Chop House opposite King’s College in the heart of town.

For those who aren’t familiar with chop houses, they, like coffee houses, alehouses and boarding houses, are essentially great British institutions of hundreds of years standing.

Originally, male-only establishments, they actually date back to the start of modern commercial trading in the country during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Businessmen would gather there to hatch deals over hearty plates of traditionally cooked meat such as the chops after which they’re named, all washed down with a fine selection of local ales.

Even in the face of the new-fangled European cuisine sweeping across from the continent at the apex of their popularity in the 19th century, the chop houses, it seems, still managed to cling to their resolutely British mores.

So in keeping with the spirit of the occasion and despite not being a huge red-meat fan, I opted for herb-encrusted lamb chops while my Beloved went for a 10oz Tail on Rib Eye steak – whatever that means. And excellent they were too – traditional British food at its best.

Our final and ultimate indulgence then was an evening watching Shakespeare’s Macbeth in pergola-bedecked gardens near King’s. So all in all, a more British birthday couldn’t have been had if we’d tried.

So good day UK – it’s great to be back.