Strictly Am-Dramming

  • Inside the mysterious world of competitive amateur theatre. This article was first published in HOT, WILD & FREE magazine (don’t blame me – I didn’t name it) in September 2011. 

THE LETTER comes inviting us to Tamworth. It’s £25 to enter and feedback on each play performed at the festival will be given, in public, by the adjudicator. Hurrah!

GODA LogoIt’s amateur theatre, it’s the Tamworth Drama Festival and the adjudicator is the expert from the Guild of Drama Adjudicators (GODA) who’ll put one lucky group through to the Regional Final to compete with winners from the other local festivals. Other GODA adjudicators will determine its fate should the group then make the English Final, British Final, World Final, Solar System Final and Universe Final.

I may have made those last three rounds up. It’s competitive, this am-dram lark.

On a Budget

My village drama group says that if you can a) write your own play so you don’t have to pay royalties, b) have almost no-one in it because it’s easier to rehearse, c) not have to hire the venue you’re performing in and d) make sure your set will fit in the back of a Vauxhall Zafira (or similar car), your production’s good to go.

I’m not saying that we’re careful with money but our bank account’s more secure than a combination-lock chastity belt, in a sealed vault with 24 hour CCTV, guarded by a patrol of heavily-armed soldiers, in a castle with an iron portcullis and a moat filled with sharks, on a remote desert island protected by an impenetrable forcefield, whose top secret location is known only to an elite band of deadly ninjas. I mean it. There are ducks’ posteriors less watertight.

Some ninjas - protecting our theatre group's finances - yesterday
An elite band of deadly ninjas (protecting our theatre group’s finances) yesterday

So taking part in someone else’s event for £25 is good because you can just turn up and let other people do the admin. Everything is perfect.

But if it wasn’t for that pesky adjudicator.

One Lovely, One Drunk

We’ve been adjudicated before. Oh yes. First time, a lovely lady called Jill. Adored our show, a one-man play converted to a two-man play to meet the ‘minimum two characters’ entry criteria. She called it ‘wonderful,’ said we’d won and gave us two awards. Great for the cast. But not for the bank account because of budgeting for the next round and expenses for the trophy engraving.

It would be impolite of me to suggest that the next festival’s (non GODA-approved) adjudicator was ‘a little tiddly.’ In his defence, I’m sure his decision to punctuate his feedback on our show by careering haphazardly into furniture was made in our interests. I think he needed the toilet. I’m a father to two young kids and I know a pee-pee dance when I see one.

This bloke didn’t say anything complimentary about our show, a two-man play converted to a three-man play to meet the ‘minimum three characters’ entry criteria put in place to stop a one-man play converted to a two-man play winning all the trophies again.

But then he said we’d won anyway and gave us four awards.

Great for the cast. But not for the bank account because of budgeting for the next round and more expenses for the trophy engraving. They charge you by the letter at Timpson’s. ‘Calverton Theatre Group’ (at twenty-one letters a pop) is really costly so it’s been suggested in future that we either enter rubbish plays with no hope of success or continue to win things but change the name of our group to ‘Jeff.’

Stiff Competition

Anyway. As you move through the rounds of these scarily competitive events two things become clear – 1) the groups you’re competing against are a better standard because, like you, they’ve already won some local festivals and 2) the adjudicators are more eccentric and unpredictable. There’s an escalation in scale of what you have to face to progress. Adjudicators are like baddies in Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare on the X-Box. More difficult to conquer the higher you go up the levels.

Sepp Blatter arriving at Batley Light Operatic's recent production of 'The Mikado'
Sepp Blatter (not an adjudicator) arriving at Batley Light Operatic’s recent production of ‘The Mikado’

On balance, everything’s above board (unless you’re mates with the adjudicator in which case the brazen FIFA-esque favouritism can fair take your breath away). But in the end, for all their alleged expertise, adjudicators are fallible human beings judging talent shows, hard-wired like the rest of us to either like something or not. And when you like something, you’re more likely to say positive things about it at the expense of something else you don’t like which may actually have more artistic merit.

The Regional Final

I need to accept that adjudicators either love the plays I write or they hate them. In their eyes I am theatrical Marmite. And when an adjudicator doesn’t like you / is jealous of you / has already decided another group’s going to win anyway so big cheesy cobblers to you, all you can do is try to take the moral high ground. Strangely, the greatest praise given to one of my shows by any adjudicator took the form of two pieces of criticism at a regional final.

Firstly, the basic staging of our show (one chair, no actual set) could, the adjudicator suggested, have been improved by a chorus of heaven’s angels floating around the stage at the show’s opening, ‘as intended by the writer in the script.’ Given that I was the writer of the script and now intended quite differently due to my production budget being non-existent seemed to have escaped him.

Moody production shot of me at Regional Final (illuminated crotch not pictured)
Moody production shot of me at Regional Final (illuminated crotch area not pictured)

Secondly, we’d botched the final lighting cue. Due to a misdirected spotlight the last thing the audience saw as curtains closed was my illuminated crotch area. A fair point from the adjudicator on this one, because there’s nothing worse than having a show ruined by the final tableau being the actor’s particulars lit up like a beacon. Maybe if we’d brought in the chorus of heaven’s angels right at the end, it would have distracted the adjudicator. I suppose we’ll never know.

The adjudicator said nothing about the writing, or the acting, or that the audience had found the piece so powerful many were moved to tears. Competitive am-dram it seems (and this is its biggest flaw) takes no account of the impact of a play on an audience as a measure of its quality because – heh – what does an audience know?

So in summary. Two picky comments from adjudicator = nothing else to find fault with = resounding moral victory = no trophies = no engraving costs.

Rules is Rules / Keeping it Real

If this isn’t bonkers enough, read the competition rules. Each group has thirty minutes to put up their set and you’re timed with a stop watch. I hold the record for shortest rig at seven seconds, which was how long it took me to pick up a single chair and place it on the stage. I said timing me was pointless. The stage crew timed me anyway. Afterwards I said could they time me again, because maybe I could get the chair in place in three seconds now I’d warmed up a bit. They told me I was taking the Michael.

So why even take part at all, you may ask? Because it’s absolutely blooming brilliant, that’s why. These festivals are quirky, antiquated and arbitrary and I love them. Also, did I mention it’s dead cheap to take part?

If you’re in a group that takes this sort of thing seriously, please accept my apologies. I don’t mean to poke fun unfairly. It isn’t that we lack respect for this wonderful British thespian institution. It’s just that our group has different priorities. We just want to have fun and entertain some people, and that’s really about it. We’re quite happy, thank you, to turn up at an arts centre, do the best show we can, blag a couple of trophies, drive off with our set in the boot, pitch up at a camp site and drink whisky until sunrise.

Richard Burton (as 'Tommy Tumble' in the 1968 Felixstowe Players production of 'Crikey, Vicar!')
Richard Burton (as Mr Tommy Thump in the 1968 Felixstowe Players’ production of ‘Crikey, Vicar!’)

Our acting idols? Oliver Reed and Richard Burton. They’re still with us, you know. In spirit.

And they were certainly with that adjudicator I referred to earlier. You know, the ‘tiddly’ one.

Maybe we’ll see him at Tamworth.

Disclaimer: the author’s suggestion that a GODA-approved adjudicator would be biased – and therefore not judge all plays with complete objectivity – is not intended as a criticism of all GODA-approved adjudicators.

It is, however, based on a real example where it was blindingly obvious to a room full of people – and each of the drama groups taking part – that this is exactly what the adjudicator was.

I’m not bitter.

Please don’t take away any of our nine awards :-)

copyright (c) carterbloke 2011-2019

Photo credits

The following photos all used under Creative Commons licence.


  • Two more awards at Tamworth. Boom!

Devil Went Down To Blidworth – The Calverton Plough Play

SOMEONE TOLD me once that I was romanticising the whole thing, that I was taking our Plough Play far too seriously. The evidence for this was apparently compelling.

I’m a CRAPPPSoholic

Paul Prior 350x468I’ll admit I was a bit obsessed. I’d just written a screenplay for a movie called Plough Boys based on our group, and I’d just been asked to share the part of Beelzebub with Paul Prior who I now realise I hero-worshipped. It’s no mean feat to keep a voluntary activity going for more than thirty years, to keep the participants keen, to keep the goodwill going. People tend to be flakier these days and don’t seem to stick at things. You try keeping something going that long. Until I met Paul I’d have thought it impossible. But he’d managed it, and I massively respected the fact.

Paul, thirty-plus years a devil in a long-established Nottinghamshire folk tradition. Me, a soft southern jessie from West Sussex. This wasn’t exactly textbook succession planning but the group had decided, with Paul’s blessing, that I should double up with him as Beelzy and ultimately succeed him, and that I should even ask my mother-in-law to knit me my own horned balaclava.

I wasn’t about to take on the responsibility of taking over from Paul lightly but this playful accusation of romanticism, of this meaning far too much to me, had been levelled. Surely this was ‘just’ a bit of old-fashioned nonsense I did round the pubs every January, raising a few quid for charity, and nothing more.

Truth is, I couldn’t respond objectively at the time to such comments. And I can’t now because, for the avoidance of doubt, you need to know that my name is Simon and I’m a CRAPPPSoholic.

Beelzy Hardwick Inn 300x450I run the Plough Play website. I love doing it. I spend something like two hundred hours a year keeping it updated. I don’t have to do this. I keep the Flickr account updated with all our latest snaps which I’m sure must be of limited interest to the population of the Planet Earth in general. I don’t have to do this. And every January I paint my face, pull on three layers of lycra and charge into pubs smacking a bloke in a dress over the head with a squeaky plastic club. I certainly don’t have to do this.

I’ve written scripts for our group including a rebooted St George’s play and a live action Punch and Judy show. I’m writing lyrics for a Plough Play-themed comedy single to raise a few more quid for charity. And I find myself on the bus right now, writing an article about our bloody Plough Play. It’s unhealthy, this hobby I have. There must be tablets I can take.

And one gets reflective as the year draws to a close. With the January 2016 Plough Play on the horizon, I look back at our antics in 2015 and ask myself: ‘Was it all worth it? Do I still love this as much as ever?’

2015 Remembered

Because on the 2015 Plough Play run, I’d been wondering if all the work we’d put into our show really, truly justified what we got out of it. Had we overegged the whole thing? And come the run itself, was I actually enjoying myself anymore?

A couple of gigs into the Friday night and I’d become pretty darned grumpy – a right sulky, stompy prima donna. It was mainly to do with a misunderstanding about who was managing the collection and how we’d forgotten to fetch big enough plastic coin bags because the small ones we had were simply incompatible with my dripping pan. You know. The big, important, world-changing stuff.

But my usual chirpiness and spark was missing completely. Come Farnsfield, I was still a bear with a sore head.

The Lion, Farnsfield

And then The Lion happened. And it was extraordinary.

The pub is packed, the atmosphere is electric and the audience response is stunning. And, being the total show-offs we are, we play up to the pub’s undivided attention. Every line delivered with gusto, every little improvisation met with howls of approving laughter, every little stumble over the lines turned into an opportunity for humour, and a near standing ovation at the end.

CRAPPPS Plough Play 2015 23

And I know that this is no random accident. Because the people in this pub are not here in spite of us but because of us. This is a show based on a script written in 1890, a script that in all honesty can make little or no sense to an audience of pub-goers in 2015. And yet – there are people there finishing our lines for us, mouthing the words back to us, joining in with us. Knowledgeable people, respectful people. Young and old, man and woman, they’ve come out not just to see our play unfold before them, but to be part of it.

And I think: this tradition’s not dead, Paul. On this evidence it’s brilliantly, vibrantly alive.

And I realise: this is so much more than words on an old script and a hodgepodge of colourful costumes. This is about friendship, and fellowship. It’s about heritage, and culture, and community. And it’s a real privilege to have a role to play in this. Lucky, lucky me.

And every man Jack of our team is loving it. Insofar as it’s possible to fuse mumming with rock ‘n’ roll this is as good as it can get, surely.

Fox and Hounds, Blidworth

Then the Fox and Hounds at Blidworth Bottoms happens. The single best gig I’ve had the privilege of being involved with as a Calverton Plough Boy, followed by … the single best gig I’ve had the privilege of being involved with as a Calverton Plough Boy.

For the uninitiated, the way I describe the Fox and Hounds is that it’s the Wembley Stadium of the Calverton Plough Play. Paul’s long association with the pub is the stuff of local legend. On the one year I was lucky enough to share the part with him, there were certain gigs he wouldn’t let me do, like the Fox and Hounds, where he told me: ‘I need to do this one. I’m expected.’

CRAPPPS Team 2015 Tape 600x400

I think back to 2012, when Paul couldn’t make it because he was too ill. I remember walking into the Fox and Hounds as Beelzy (where he was expected and I wasn’t). And the pub caught its breath when it saw me – because not to see Paul standing there meant that there was trouble with Paul. It was exhilarating and heart-breaking all at once, and I didn’t know where to put my shiny, painted face.

Now, in 2015 the pub is standing room only and the show … just … delivers. It’s a rollercoaster ride of absolute, unbridled, adrenaline-fuelled joy to be in the pub, to be part of it.

Nights like this are why CRAPPPS members are gloomy when it’s all over and we know we have to wait another year. Give us the stamina, the liver resilience and the money to subsidise it and we’d probably be out there every night. Just try stopping us.

Woodborough / The CD in the Dripping Pan

So. Collection taken at The Fox, Mole Catchers sung and sing-out finished, Woodborough happens.

Two brilliant back-to-back gigs at Nag’s Head and Four Bells. With the previous two pubs already in the locker, this makes four of the best, four of the very best, Plough Plays I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of and, from mardy beginnings, the best single Plough Play night I’ve ever had.

Somewhere in the middle of it, I discover a CD in my dripping pan, placed there by Peter Millington. On it, I discover an interview CRAPPPS recorded for BBC Radio Nottingham back in 1996.

And there’s Paul on it, and some of the current team, captured in history. And listening to Paul talk it’s like he’s in the room again, egging us on, drumming into us the importance of what this is, and what it means, and why his wish is that this great tradition is kept going.

I’m bowled over when he talks about one day handing over his part to a younger man. He was seventeen years a devil in 1996 and thirty-two years a devil when he last appeared in a Plough Play in 2011. When he first performed as Beelzebub in 1979, his replacement was just five years old, a schoolboy who would one day grow into a soft, southern jessie from West Sussex, writing about his wonderful hobby on the bus.

Moving On

Paul Prior Calverton Echo Tribute 350x391The Plough Play was an enormous part of Paul’s life. It was so important to him, in fact, that he asked to be buried with his Beelzebub costume when he went. Pat Hemstock, vicar of St Wilfrid’s Church in Calverton, ever the voice of common sense and reason, determined they should fold up the costume next to him rather than have him wear it. Paul needed a chance at St Peter’s Gate and being dressed as the lord of darkness wouldn’t help.

Paul was buried with his costume bar one item, mind – the leather pouch, which I now wear with pride on my belt, was his. Paul wasn’t a man of pomp and ceremony. He was never one to make a fuss. But we both understood the meaning of that private, misty-eyed moment at the Admiral Rodney in 2011, last knockings on the Saturday, when he passed that pouch to me, shook my hand and wished me luck. Paul would play Beelzy again, but never in a Plough Play – his last outing as Beelzy was in a St George’s Play in Woodborough on Royal Wedding day, 29 April 2011.

Five years later I’m Beelzy in my own right and I’m wondering how I’m going to make it another twenty-six years, just to keep up with Paul.

Health permitting, I have one wish.

In something like 2050, when I’m deep into my seventies, I want to be looking into the eyes of a younger man and handing him a leather pouch.

And I’ll know the fellow when I meet him.

For all I know he’s just started school.

Me – a romantic?


But, you see, this is in my bones now. It’s part of who I am.

Also, I made a promise to a jolly old man. I fully intend to keep it.

copyright (c) carterbloke 2015-2019