Thursday, 29 April 2010

Ring out the bells

I have a confession to make: I love Morris dancing. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can focus on Morris: a Life with Bells On, a wonderful mockumentary that affectionately examines the ‘seemingly innocent pub pastime for bearded men with hankies.’ It is filmed through a series of interviews set up in such crisp conditions they appear like portraits done by old masters, where every item in the picture is significant.

This film had a very low budget (the American scenes are clearly not overseas, and the flight there is obviously a model aeroplane) but the production values are still very high and the cinematography is excellent. The changes in depth of focus and sharp close-ups are a welcome relief from the shaky blurred vision that plagues most documentaries. And green and pleasant lands and the Compasses Inn in Wiltshire, where most of the filming was done, make a fine backdrop to the action.

The story follows Derecq Maximillian Twist and his troupe of Morris men, the Millsham Morris. At 32, Derecq is at the peak of his dancing life. He may seem like a mild-mannered tractor mechanic from West Dorset but he is consumed by his passion for ‘the Morris’. Apparently, the term ‘Morris’ covers a multitude of sins and there are a variety of styles, including Borders, Rapper and Clog Dancing, but the Cotswold style is “the distillation of masculinity – it epitomises and embodies the essence and magic that is the essence of Morris.” So says Professor Compton Chamberlayne (Harriet Walter), Emeritus Professor of International Folk Dance at Cambridge. She exudes academic authenticity and is so convincing that you are left doubting what is real and what is absolutely made up?

Derecq introduces his team to the documentary maker, Jeremy (Aidan Mcardle) in a line-up like a proud sergeant showing off his troops to the Queen. They number Will Frosser (Jasper Britton), the foreman; Muff Barcock (Clive Mantel), Point Man 1, who has been “dancing for 40 years and still dances like a gazelle”; Plush Gurney (Richard Lumsden), Point Man 2, who came from ballroom dancing and struggles with his fitness; Boothby Pagnell (Adam Ewan), Point Man 3, who “came from ballet dancing but we won’t hold that against him – everyone has to dabble in the dark side” – besides, he has the top-five hanky work in the country; and Lydiard Spurling (Andy Black), Point Man 4, who is on a cultural transfer from Newcastle and no one understands a word he says.

You have to be asked to join, by showing sufficient calibre and letting your interest be known. Jean Baptiste (Dominique Pinon), substitute Point Man, “dances like a demon, especially after a couple of pints of cider” (i.e. Onan’s Revenge or Wookie’s Hole). A fabulous reconstruction reveals the tempest in which he was caught when he was a fisherman – he washed up on Dorset shore and decided to stay, and married the landlady of The Travellers’ Inn. With its well-drained, level ground, this is the perfect place to dance.

Between them Derecq Twist and Professor Chamberlayne explain that “Morris asks many questions of a man – mentally and physically.” It is apparently a dangerous, contact sport, not just about keeping fit; you need to have “nerves of steel and reactions like lightning’ and a dubious taste in jumpers. The Millsham Morris troupe has a nutritionist and is aware of potential injuries, such as splinters, chipped teeth and cracked knuckles. It is essential to warm up properly and get the blood flowing – they share a hilarious joint training session with the local basketball team – and they take it very seriously indeed; “It takes the three ‘p’s – ‘Passion, practice and a desire to be the best’.”

The dances themselves have evocative names such as Leeks on Fire; If You Please; Tubs of Lard for My Old Lady; A Farthing for the Frenchman to Pass By and Peaches on the Parson’s Nose. They are all demanding and it is recommended that you consult your physician before beginning a dance programme. But the most challenging of them all is the Threeple Hammer Damson in which there are 427 separate moves from all the Morris Dancing disciplines combined. It is too daunting for most – “It is not, nor should it be, easy to achieve” – but to dance it is Derecq’s greatest ambition.

Derecq is also interested in the world of dance outside Morris and attempts to combine other elements (such as Brazilian Maurizio). “Much is within; much without – it will take from anywhere.” He finds inspiration for his free form ‘New Morris’ from other cultures, people and cider, which is very important to interpretation. “The use of any drug is dangerous; organic cider particularly so.” There is a hint of Gareth from The Office as he introduces innovative styles and balletic jumps into his new code. “Someone will end up in hospital – guaranteed.”

With his pursuance of originality, however, he has “ruffled a few highly-placed feathers in the Morris world” and finds himself monitored for deviation. Quentin Neely (a delightfully pompous Derek Jacobi), in his city office overlooking the gherkin on the Thames, maintains that Derecq is bringing Morris into disrepute. Neely denies that Morris should be allowed to change and develop like any other dance; change is only a good thing if it is managed properly. His main objection is that the foreign influence is unwelcome. “Morris is, to its core, English, English, English!”

And so Derecq is rusticated – removed from Her Majesty’s Morris Circle – and forbidden to dance. The laws are reluctantly enforced by Endeavour Hungerfjord Welsh (Ian Hart) the squire of The Moss Side Morris. In DMs and braces they look as though they have stepped out of A Clockwork Orange but they show great sensitivity as they withdraw the staves and confiscate the hankies and ruggles. Seeing Derecq so dispirited is too much for Jeremy who breaks the cardinal rule of documentary making – “I intervened”.

Jeremy arranges for Derecq to fly to California and work with the outrageously camp Orange County Morris (OCM). Of course, he never actually leaves the studio and the backdrop is studiously fake as Derecq deadpans, “Beverly Hills is a bit like Torquay with traffic and palm trees – but a bit sunnier.” He finds the climate a bit of a shock – “I’m used to dancing in all weathers in Dorset, except sunshine.” Unfettered by tradition and with a rich benefactor, Miloslav Villandry (Greg Wise in a remarkable velour pants-suit), the OCM flout convention with their screamingly funny outfits and light-weight carbon-fibre staves.

With the help of their publicist, Sonja (Naomie Harris) with whom Derecq begins a relationship, they decide to incorporate Derecq’s skills into their act and perform to wild acclaim at the Sonomoa County Folk Festival. The practice scenes are like Dirty Dancing meets The Full Monty and the dancers explain that the UK and USA are ‘Two cultures divided by language but united through dance.’ Their routine is full of blinding lights, pelvic thrusts and gyrating rhythms calling upon Boyzone and Michael Flatley. Commercialised with trainers rather than clogs, the union flag intertwines with the stars and stripes, and the punters have never seen anything like it.
Spurred onto greater successes, the OCM turn professional, but Sonja accepts a job as a political press secretary and moves to Iowa. Derecq follows her there and the film drags in this section – at least one scene in a bowling alley could have been cut. There is no appetite for Morris in the mid-West and though he may teach it at weekends, he has sacrificed it to love. Jeremy wonders if his interference was a bad thing as it is terrible to see a formerly mighty Morris man reduced to the devil’s dance – line-dancing in Iowa. Derecq is just a West Country boy at heart – “I love to do a dance with the boys, and have a pint of cider and a game of cribbage afterwards.”

So does Dorset hold more sway over him than his new love? For some inexplicable reason, I actually found that I really cared! It’s not just the romanticised music (original score by Richard Lumsden), reminding me of Brassed Off, which is superb, right down to the rap version of a Morris tune over the final credits. It’s not just the sheer quality of the acting, the sublime scenery or the intelligent direction, although all of the above are outstanding.

Above all, the film weaves an excellent story around a much-maligned art-form. Celebrating the earth, the harvest and general fertility, Morris dancers who performed outside pubs in England were guaranteed a free beer – and who can argue with that? It is heartening to see many closet Morris fans shaking their bells in celebration, and it leads me to question why the public ridicule the Morris and revere the haka? Despite the popular perception, I’d rather take a fun fertility ritual than a threatening war dance any day.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Bye Bye Burnley

Of course it's always good to see Liverpool win, and it's great to see Stevie score a goal - the one he unleashed at Turf Moor today was so exceptional that even the Burnley fans stood and applauded. It was Liverpool's first Premier League away win in 2010. That previous poor away form has not helped them in their quest for Champions League football. There is now a slim chance that they might make the coveted fourth spot, although I don't hold out a lot of hope.

The 4-0 victory, however, is tempered with a touch of sadness as it finally consigned Burnley to relegation - they'll be back in the Championship next season. Him Outdoors is fatalistic - he's seen it all (and far worse) before and is just happy that his boys got the chance to play against the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and the Red Shite (whom they beat - hurrah!). Also, they don't have the financial woes of Hull or Portsmouth and with some shrewd spending they could well be back up again very soon. I hope so.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Come back; return home

For all members of the armed forces serving their country on foreign soil, I found this photo I took three years ago at the National War Memorial in Wellington. As long as there is war, it is ever-poignant.