- What can I tell you? I’m a mummer and I’m proud. This article was first published on the website of the Calverton Real Ale & Plough Play Preservation Society on 26 December 2015. For more information on mummers plays and British folk traditions visit the brilliant mastermummers.org.
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
I’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.
I 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?’
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.
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.’
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.
The 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