QUAINTLY DRESSED MEN PRESERVE OUR CULTURAL FOLK HERITAGE AT CHRISTMAS

Published at 10:32, Thursday, 30 December 2010

HAVE you come across a bunch, numbering some five or six, of extremely quaintly dressed men going the rounds of the pubs, clubs or any other locations during the run up to Christmas?

And when I mean “extremely quaintly dressed” I don’t mean sporting those various ultra-fashionable garments favoured by younger male peacocks. The outfits I’m referring to would be much more bizarre!

They’d be wearing black jackets turned inside out, preferably showing white sleeve linings and, a touch of the Black & White Minstrels, they would each have blackened their faces. They would each be carrying a wooden sword – except for one of the group, who would be carrying a club in one hand and a frying pan in the other.

If you’d frequented one of the pubs on Workington’s downtown circuit at Christmas time some 80 or so years ago, you probably wouldn’t have been able to escape them. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without visits from the local mummers who put on their version of “St George and the Turkish Knight.”

It’s a local tradition which, as far as I know, has long disappeared. Unless, of course, you know any different. And if so, please let me know.

In its original form, as I’ve been told, it was a bunch of local youths who’d latched on to a way, as their fathers had no doubt done before them, of making a bit of spare cash during the festive season. Nowadays it would no doubt be seen as part of our national folk heritage, have been risk assessed, and have had Arts Council cash thrown at it – always assuming that the text had been suitably amended to make it politically correct.

There are innumerable versions of this play. The folklorists and the academics have set about listing and recording them – entire plays or just snippets – by talking to informants, of all ages, from all over the country. And, of course, seeking to discover “significance” in the various texts collected.

In the local knockabout version the group would find an excuse to have a go at each other with their wooden swords until one of the group fell to the floor, having been killed. So what to do? Answer: Send for the ten pound doctor! Cue for the entry of “the doctor” to the words of “Here comes Dr Brown, the best old doctor in the town.”

He produces a bottle and causes the deceased to take a sip from it, bidding him to “take a sip and rise again.” The group would then cart the “patient” around the pub (on a stretcher?) before he’d been miraculously cured.

After a bout of silliness, the group would sing a carol, pass the hat round for donations (the job of Jimmy Funny, the man who collects the money) and then make their way to their next unsuspecting venue.

We will now probably never find out what the full version of the Workington play was. We do have snippets, but that is all. Unless some early eager beaver folklorist did get it all down on paper.

Whitehaven’s mummers’ play, however, has been preserved; entitled “Alexander and the King of Egypt; a mock play.” It’s purely a personal opinion but I found it an incredibly boring read.

I don’t know who would have performed it – or stood around long enough to listen to it in its, albeit admittedly brief, entirety. I know I wouldn’t.

And there’s no way a bunch of youths could have made a few pence by touring it round the pubs. I don’t know how professional actors could have made any money out of it. But it must have been in demand as, from 1816, it was published three times.

And it has also been performed recently in St Bees in the past few years. So somebody must like it. Or could it be that, regardless of its entertainment value, local societies continue to stage this play in order to preserve our cultural folk heritage?

Some versions of the play have St George fighting the Turkish Knight. A strange one this as, according to some people, the real St George, our patron saint, came from what is now Turkey. Others, of course, disagree. Interesting minutiae for the academics to chew over!

Not something those Workington lads from the 30s would have worried too much about. Nor, I imagine, would they have been too concerned about “preserving the heritage.”

What they produced was spontaneous, of its time and inherently authentic. The only pity is that we have no complete record of that Workington Christmas play.