A century of folk customs and ancient rural games
British Film Institute BFIDVD920
Well I never! A pair of DVDs featuring British traditional, revival and other customary events (we'll ignore the cover blurb about the sexy, savage Cornish May Day rites!) on film and other media, from 1912 to 2005. And it must be said at the outset that it's a great pleasure to have 365 minutes of this stuff available to the ordinary man-in-the-street at last.
Disc One starts with some sequences from the Kinora Spools - flip-book devices of the type used in the old What-the-Butler-Saw machines on so many seaside piers. Given the age and unsophisticated nature of the technology, the resulting moving pictures are surprisingly good. We get to see George Butterworth and the Karpeles sisters - who can dance well - and Cecil Sharp - who can't!
Then amateur film takes over; much of it of inferior quality compared with the Kinora Spools. There's a set of 5 short clips of morris dancing from Bampton - most of it a complete shambles! When people say "It's not like the old days" they're quite right! We get ten minutes of Sam Bennett, from Ilmington, who Sharp viewed with suspicion, and I have to admit that, on this evidence, I tend to share his opinion. This piece, made in 1926, by the De Forest Phonofilm Company, used a new sound-on-film system, one full year before The Jazz Singer, making it probably the first published piece of film with sound in the UK, if not the world. Both sound and picture quality seem good, but it's a little difficult to be sure, as everything is much too fast! Surely the BFI could have slowed it down using modern digital processes - or it that taboo in vintage film circles?
There's quite a lot of sword dancing, from North Skelton, Handsworth, Sleights, Westerhope, Grenoside and High Spen. Much of the dancing, particularly that of Grenoside, is very good. The piece on the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance reinforces my long-held opinion that Trading Standards should be called in, and the word 'Dancers' removed from their name. This is not dancing - it's just walking about in fancy-dress with antlers!
The five minute piece of the Bacup (sic) Coconut Dancers is probably the best-filmed example so far, giving a good idea of what the event feels like, although not providing a clear picture of the dance(s) shown. It's really only the sword-dance films which have done this.
There's a well-known saying: "If you want something done properly - do it yourself". There's a rather less-well-known second part: "provided that you actually know how to do it properly yourself." This usually doesn't matter too much in the case of an individual's enterprises - but when it comes to an outfit like the BFI, they really need to think hard about what they do know how to do properly, and what they don't. Maybe they did, and enrolled the assistance of the EFDSS for the know-how on the actual subject matter of the films. Whoever was responsible, there were some very strange decisions made about one aspect of the presentation - the sound used for the silent films. The cover tells us that 'The silent films feature innovative fiddle and melodeon accompaniments by contemporary folk musicians.' I had qualms when I read the word 'innovative' - and I was right!
The three 'contemporary folk musicians' concerned are Dan Quinn, Laurel Swift and Pete Cooper - all excellent players. Dan had by far the easier job; playing for various sword dance sides. He opted to use the 'correct' tunes and similar ones from the repertoire, playing at the mean tempo of the dancers' stepping, and just carrying on until the end of the dance. This may not sound to have been a difficult decision - but these old pieces of amateur film feature uneven camera speed, and numerous missing bits where breaks have been spliced together, not to mention places where a completely different performance has been spliced into another one! OK, so sometimes the dancers are out of step with the music, but it doesn't seem to matter too much. I find this interesting; we seem to have grown used to the idea that old film like this is always too fast or too slow, and has skips and judders - it's part of what we expect to see. But music which speeds up and slows down for no apparent reason and is full of skips and judders is another matter entirely. It's absolutely horrible!
This is the approach Laurel Swift has chosen - she tries to play to the dancing (as any good dance musician should always do). But she's playing principally for morris dancers here - no continuous double stepping like the sword dancers - and they require that the musician follow precisely what the dancer's doing, particularly in the solo and double jigs. There aren't too many morris musicians who do this well, but I know that Laurel is perfectly capable of doing it (I've seen her do so) ... if it were not for the uneven camera speed, and numerous missing bits where breaks have been spliced together. She makes valiant efforts to match what's on the screen ... but it's never quite there! I can't imagine anyone making a better job of it, but the decision to try to match the music exactly to the film image was the wrong one. The result is hideous, and I found that the only way I could actually enjoy these film clips was by turning off the sound!
Unfortunately, this is not the only criticism I have about the 'innovative accompaniments'. The film of the Clipping Sunday custom, at Painswick in Gloucestershire, is accompanied by a medley of Scottish tunes! Even more weird is the music used for the Britannia Coconut Dancers, from near Bacup in Lancashire; it's a sort of new-age ambient moody piece which eventually resolves into one of the correct tunes - but not, I think, the correct one for this dance. It's also rather un-nerving to see a concertina player, or a brass band, playing on screen - and to hear a fiddle!
But the thing that really irritates me is the fact that, in most cases, there's actually a musician with the present-day side who could, and should, have been asked to record the music for these film clips! That would, at least, have shown some sort of respect for the traditions the BFI and EFDSS spend most of the 60-page booklet telling us are so wonderful and important! Or maybe they should have been left silent, as nature intended.
Wake Up and Dance is next. This is a 1950 colour piece of self-promotion by the EFDSS - and it has sound ... although the sound is not actualite and is seldom quite in time with the dancing. It's the first piece to actually be embarrassing to watch. It's followed by the now-well-known title piece, Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, Peter Kennedy's Blaxhall Ship film. This also gives a good idea of what an evening in the Ship's bar feels like, and there's some good stepping - some of which is by women. Indeed, there seem to be many more women in the audience than would have been typical in 1952.
Barry Callaghan's 1979 film of Dick Hewett, the Norfolk step-dancer is next, and although the credits name the excellent Percy Brown as the melodeon player, two others are seen and heard before the main man appears - but he's worth waiting for! This is the first time on this disc that real music and dancing, recorded properly at the same time, are to be seen and heard. Since he's such a capable player, I remain surprised that - using a two-row box - he never uses the third chord! And let's not forget that Dick Hewett was a fabulous dancer - his fame was well-deserved! This 12 minute piece is exactly what filming traditional performers should be like, and Dick also tells us much about the tradition, and demonstrates it, too.
The second part of DVD One is entitled 'Extreme Sports' and is not very relevant to this magazine, since there's no (or very little) musical aspect to the customs depicted. This hasn't stopped the producers adding 'new musical accompaniment' to it, this time by Pete Cooper, on fiddle. Again, the logic for doing so utterly escapes me.
Because of the lack of musical elements, the second DVD is also of less pertinent to this review - though it's certainly not lacking in interest. We start with the Tichborne Mummers' play, from Hampshire, filmed in 1919 - so there's no sound - but the costumes are pretty impressive. This is followed by a 26 minute film of the Symondsbury Mummers' play, from 1952 - with sound, though it's rarely in sync. The same is true of Oss Oss Wee Oss, Alan Lomax's 16 minute film of the Padstow May Day tradition. It's certainly visually impressive, but the attempts to make it 'interesting' to a casual viewer are excruciating, and few of the 'facts' we're told seem to be credible. But next comes Ian Russell and Barry Callaghan's film of the Ridgeway Derby Tup play, in black and white, from 1974. This is, without any doubt, the best thing on either DVD (in my opinion!) - just telling the story of the play, the village and the people involved, in an utterly down-to-earth way, without any theorising about its 'ancient' origins, or proselytising! Absolutely superb!
There follow a number of short newsreel items showing May Queens, children's games, gurning and the like. The best one is, surprisingly, Children of the Moor, a 26 minute film of various Dartmoor traditions, performed by children, with a introduction and voice-over by Peter Kennedy. No question, this is a good piece of work ... maybe because it was made by Westward TV, not the EFDSS - and so does't have an agenda!
The Face of a County is a 19 minute piece well-made for South Yorkshire County Council by Barry Callaghan. There's not a great deal of traditional music in it, but we do get to hear most of Hail Shining Morn and some of Hark, Hark from The Castle Inn at Bolsterstone - though we only get to see them for a moment at the end of the piece - and there's a bit of good longsword dancing from Handsworth.
Then there's a nice 6 minute piece on the Castleton Garland Day, by Jeremy Deller. This is rather spoiled by the fact that there is no commentary whatsoever, making the whole thing opaque to anyone who doesn't know what it's about. In pride of place - last - comes Doc Rowe's excellent 8 minute piece about the South Queensferry Burry Man tradition. This also has no commentary, but the participants' remarks tell us enough to keep us interested, and Doc questions the Man at the end - making it a very satisfactory piece of film-making, if not particularly illuminating about the tradition itself.
The booklet is pretty good, with some pertinent short essays by Malcolm Taylor, Steve Roud and Chris Metherell. There are also quite a number of shorter pieces relating to the individual films - some of which contain some pretty questionable opinions. There are also a lot of excellent photos, though you'll have seen most of them as part of the films. One aspect of the booklet's presentation is rather strange - the title of each film clip is printed Italicised in Grey, whilst the headings for production company, director, musician, etc is in Bold Black. This makes finding the particular piece of film you want to look up difficult, and seems to suggest that the technical aspects of the production are more important that the custom or its performers.
Anyway, for all its many faults, this is an extremely welcome piece of work, making available loads of material that most people will never have seen before. I only wish there had been more of people actually doing stuff - the Harry Cox and Sam Larner short films spring to mind - and less of the EFDSS trying to persuade us that folk dancing is super fun if only we'd get off our backsides and have a go. This is a 21st century publication - it's a shame that so much of it still has a 1950s' mentality behind it.
Rod Stradling - 11.9.11