The characters of the Sidmouth Mummer’s Play are an interesting mix. There are the usual Heroes and Villains to be found in plays from other parts of the country and there are also genuine historical figures such as Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, King James II, William of Orange and several others. Also included are several intriguing minor characters, the origins of which are open to speculation and about whom we often have to use our own imagination. Historical accuracy is not a strong point of our play – indeed some of the characters could never conceivably have met each other, let alone fight (even if they did exist!) but in each pair of combatants there is always a perceived hero and a villain, and the hero always comes out on top.
There are seventeen characters in all, making it one of the largest plays collected to date. Our version includes one extra occasional character, Little Johnny Jack, who did not originally appear in the Sidmouth play but was introduced to provide an additional costumed collector if required at the end of the performance. This version of Little Johnny Jack was ‘borrowed’ from the mummers play from West Malling in Kent and was chosen for his brief but effective speech guaranteed to charm coins from purses for the benefit of our preferred charity.
The original troupe of 1905 simply ‘doubled’ or even ‘tripled’ parts as there were only seven players. Nowadays we change the characters used from year to year to vary the look of the play.
The known members of the ‘old’ team were as follows:
Arthur Baker, Fred Baker, Harry Baker, Fred Shepherd, Charlie Maeer, Albert Howe, Wlliam Bovett, Michael Bovett, Bert Dunn, George West, Fred Tucker, Bart Fox and Robert Leask. Among their occupations were; a farmer, several farm labourers, a bricklayer, a sailor (Royal Navy), a fisherman, a shopkeeper and a printer.
In 2009 the members of Sidmouth Traditional Mummers were:
Back row: Pete Wilson, Russell Smith, Adrian Clode, Barry Morton, and Mike Coles. Front row: Lewis Hanson, Henry Piper, and Keith Hudson. Plus John Flanagan, Rowan DeLaSalle and Ashley Leeds. Among their occupations are; a farmer, several builders, a firefighter, a window-cleaner, a chiropodist, an ex-sailor and an IT technician. A surprisingly similar range of occupations in many respects!
Here are the characters in order of appearance and some of our thoughts on their origins, together with the names of some of those who have played them over the years.
Room is a Master of Ceremonies who introduces the play to the audience and takes his name from his constant exhortations to ‘make room’ for the players. He is traditionally the first person to enter the room and he introduces Father Christmas. Nowadays we rarely cast Room as a separate character and his speech is incorporated into Old Father Christmas’s opening address. When we have used Room recently he has always been played by Tim Rylands in the manner of an unctious TV games show host! In the old days Room was usually played by the actor portraying King James.
Old Father Christmas
He is the embodiment of the Midwinter spirit, providing the link between the old year and the new. As well as the usual attributes of ‘Santa Claus’ he has a kind of magical, even pagan authority as he dirests and guides events throughout the play. We dress Old Father Christmas in green rather than the more usual red. His costume is based as closely as possible on the description of the 1820 performance. Throughout Europe, until the early twentieth century Father Christmas traditionally wore green. The change to red gradually came about from that time helped by an advertising campaign starting about 1910 by the Coca-Cola Corporation featuring a red-clad Santa drinking a bottle of Coke (yuk!) In 1905 Old Father Christmas was played by Bart Fox. We don’t know whether he had a red or green costume but we would like to think he wore the traditional green. Our first ‘red’ Father Christmas was played by Dave Tresize, a local thatcher who also played melodeon and provided music and the occasional song during the performance.The role of Old Father Christmas then passed to Tom Conway who played the part until the mid eighties. Nowadays Old Father Christmas is played by Henry Piper who also plays the melodeon, but thankfully doesn’t attempt to sing!
Prince of Orange
William, Prince of Orange and his wife Mary were invited to ascend the throne by the British government in 1688 when the openly Catholic sympathiser James II began to ally himself more closely with France. This caused concern that he might attempt to re-establish Catholicism in Britain. After William landed in Brixham there were minor skirmishes between his supporters and those of James in various parts of the country but generally he was welcomed by the English as a kind of Protestant saviour After Mary died in 1694, William ruled alone until his death in 1702. Our original Prince of Orange was Pete Wilson, who played the character until a few years ago. After a period of rest, the Prince of Orange has been re-introduced, played by John Flanagan.
The brother of Charles II, who died without a legitimate heir. James was therefore able to claim the throne on his brother’s death. He was unpopular with parliament due to his openly Catholic sympathies and following the Revolution of 1688 he was forced to flee to France, leaving the way open for William and Mary to jointly ascend the throne. Our earliest King James was Tom Organ, who subsequently handed the role on to Alan Squance. On one occasion Russell Bellairs, a teenage relative of one of the troupe stepped in at short notice and saved the day by taking on the part. King James has also been played by Rowan DeLaSalle.
A cowardly ne’er-do-well who is full of bluster and threats but ultimately collapses when threatened by the Heroes of the play. Masquerading as an old soldier in an obviously fake military tunic, intent on mischief, he has been played by Rob Piper. Will does not always take part in the action of the play, instead he is more likely to be found banging the drum as part of Mr Baker’s Orchestra. We have been unable to trace any historical reference to a Will Watts and presume he was a local personality who was incorporated into the play long ago. If anyone has any further information, we would be delighted to hear it.
The hero of Trafalgar and Britain’s greatest sailor. We previously surmised that Nelson was written into the play in 1905 in celebration of the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. We now know that he was included as early as 1820, only fifteen years after the events at Trafalgar. In 1905 and successive years Lord Nelson was played by Arthur Baker from whom the play was collected in 1954. Our first revival Lord Nelson was Henry Piper. He has also been played by Tim Rylands, David Smith and John Flanagan. Our current Lord Nelson is Lewis Hanson.
The Valiant Soldier
The Valiant Soldier appears in many mummers plays, and is often given a name such as ‘Slasher’ or ‘Bold Slasher’. He often quotes the lines about having ‘arms and legs of beaten brass and a body made of steel’ or some such boast. In our play these lines have been given to Merman (q.v.) Like Will Watts he is more often found with the musicians rather than taking part in the play.
The original Billy Buttons was Philip Astley (1742 - 1814), often called ‘The Father of the Modern Circus’. He founded his first travelling show in 1768, in which he featured in a sketch entitled ‘Billy Buttons, or the Ride to Brentford.’ Astley portrayed a bumbling and inept horseman attempting to mount and ride an uncooperative steed. Many aspects of his performance still survive in clown routines to the present day. There is in Kent an ancient tradition called ‘hoodening’ in which a group of men attempt to mount and ride the ‘Hooden Horse’, which is constructed from a wooden horses head mounted on a pole and carried by a performer under a sacking body. The horses attendants who portray such characters as a Waggoner, a Farmer’s Boy, and Old Man, etc all take turns to try and tame and ride this beast, accompanied by much buffoonery and falling about. It is intersting to speculate whether this ancient ceremony could also owe its origins to Philip Astley. The term ‘Billy Buttons’ is still used in parts of Dorset to mean a foolish or clumsy person. Our Billy Buttons at present does not take part in the action of the play but is usually one of the musicians accompanying the mummers and helps with the collection at the end. Adam Piper has played Billy Buttons, as well as being the team’s photographer.
Prince George is in fact Saint George. The two titles are used interchangeably in mumming plays and in his recitation of the play, Arthur Baker used both. Saint George historically had no connection with England so how he came to be our Patron Saint is something of a mystery. What little is known about him puts his origins in the Middle East, possibly in Iraq or Turkey (which ironically would also make HIM a Turkish Knight!). In our play as in all mumming plays he represents all that is ultimately good and a symbol of English defiance. Keith Hudson played George for many years from the earliest days of our revival. The part is now played by Marc Colson.
To the English commoner of a few hunderd years ago ‘Turkey-land’ was anywhere East of Western Europe, and ‘The Turkish Knight’ represents the common man’s view of a typical foreigner, particularly if he was of a swarthy or dark-skinned appearance. In the dark days when all foreigners were veiwed with suspicion and when the expeditions of the Knights Templars were still in the national memory, the Turkish Knight just represented The Enemy and a suitable foe for St George. Chris Highet played the Turkish Knight from our formation in 1979 right through until Christmas 2006, when he finally hung up his scimitar and beard. His place under the turban has been taken by Barry Morton, a local firefighter.
Admiral Lord Richard Howe(1726 - 1799). Richard Howe was a distant relative of King George I, which may partly help to explain his rapid rise to the ranks of both Lord and Admiral, although he was by all accounts an excellent naval tactician and leader. He commanded the British naval forces during the American War of Independence and eventually become First Sea Lord under Pitt’s first government. He was affectionately known to his men as ‘Black Dick’ on account of his swarthy appearance.
Duke of Wellington
Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, (1769-1852)was an Anglo-Irish British Army soldier and statesman. He is widely considered to be one of the leading military and political figures of the first half of the nineteenth century. He came to prominence in the Napoleonic Wars. Following a successful military career he moved into politics, twice becoming Tory Prime Minister. The Duke Of Wellington has been recently re-introduced and is played by Pete Wilson. He was also played at our Christmas performances 2008 by our newest member, Ashley Leeds whilst Pete has a much-earned holiday.
The context of the play makes it obvious that Merman is not intended to be the male equivalent of a mermaid! He is in fact Auguste Marmont, one of Napoleon's generals who fought against the British under Wellington. Auguste Marmont, it has to be said was not one of France's greatest heroes. He initially had some success fighting in the Balkans, and was rewarded with a governorship in that region, his career took a dive however when he surrendered Paris to the British and their Allies without permission and he ended his days in obscurity working as a Schoolteacher to Napoleon the Third's Children in a small town in what is now Austria. Merman is currently played by Adrian Clode in his best ‘Allo Allo’ accent.
Tippoo, is Sultan Fateh Ali Tippu, (1750 - 1799) the ruler of Mysore, commonly known as ‘the Tiger of Mysore’. Throughout most of his earlier life he fought fiercely against the British who were attempting to annexe his kingdom to add to their growing empire in India. He in fact acheived several notable victories against vastly superior British forces. Later however he came to an arrangement with the British which allowed them into Mysore to effectively take over control of the country. He was killed defending his capital city, Srirangapatnam, against the depradations of a neighbouring state. According to reports he fought bravely to defend his people, killing many of his opponents single-handedly and was amongst the last few of his army to survive. In the ‘old’ mummers troupe, Tippoo was played at varying times by both William and Michael Bovett. Our first ‘revival’ Tippoo was Tom Shuff, who played the part for ten years or so without ever learning a single line of his dialogue! He had bits of his script glued inside his shield, on his sword, up his arms and even under his turban. This effect was so hilarious that we told him to keep it that way and not bother to learn anything! Later on, Pete Wilson took on the part (and learned the script) but in the last few years he has given up the part because he got tired of lying on the floor and being subjected to the ‘tender’ medical administrations of Doctor Ben (q.v.) Tippoo has also been played by ‘Farmer Mike’ Coles, who occasionally ‘did a shuffie’ and forgot a few lines – particularly after a few glasses of cider! Ashley Leeds is the current Tippoo.
At face value, Doctor Ben is simply a quack doctor who grossly exaggerates his medical prowess and then overcharges for his services. On a deeper level, however if Old Father Christmas is the spirit of Midwinter, then Doctor Ben is the shaman or magician who makes the magic work on his behalf. Doctor Ben has always been played by the gloriously eccentric Russell Smith in a variety of costumes, varying from Groucho Marx to a leopard-skin leotard worn with a matching bow tie, a pith helmet and army boots. But despite his bizarre costumes and terrifying array of medical equipment, he has never yet failed to ‘raise the dead!’
Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood was Nelson’s Second-in-Command at Trafalgar and was always somewhat in the Great Man’s shadow. After Nelson’s death at Trafalgar he became Commander of the Fleet and since the combined French and Spanish fleet surrendered to him, the victory was technically his, but of course history always gives the kudos to Nelson as a much more famous figure.
We can find no historical records of any famous person called Norwell. In the text of the play he appears to be the son of the Commander of a Scottish raiding party in some ancient skirmish, but his exploits seem to be lost forever. The only trace of Norwell we can find is a town in the English Midlands and a surname popular in the highlands of Scotland.
Little Johnny Jack
Our ‘borrowed’ character from West Malling in Kent – see notes above. He has been played by John Kernow, Pete Taylor, ‘big’ Jim Pyne and on one occasion during the Sidmouth Folk Festival by Alan Austen of West Malling Mummers in a special ‘guest’ appearance. He has also been played by Marc Colson and is currently played by Tim Alsford.
We have no evidence that music played a part in the 1905 troupe, although we know that several of the cast were noted singers in the area and the play did include songs. We however are accompanied by a group of musicians whom we collectively call Mr Baker’s Orchestra. They usually consist of Rosie Piper with her concertina, Rob Piper with the ‘official’ drum (for the relevance of this drum see ‘The Last Page’) along with several members of the cast including Henry Piper and John Flanagan with their melodeons. In the early days of our revival we were accompanied by a Scottish piper named Fergus, otherwise known as ‘Barry the Bag’. Nowadays we often invite friends of ours who are musicians to come out with us