During our first couple of years we used a Moskvitch with a leaky fuel tank and then a battered Morris Traveller as support vehicles for the horse-drawn tours. In 1980 we bought a Sherpa crew-bus so that we could do this whilst looking smarter. It also had the advantage of enabling us to extend our touring season without horses. Horse-drawn tours usually finished in September, once the weather got too cold for comfortable camping.

We developed a new story for a Sherpa tour using a relatively small cast of 6. It combined elements of traditional mumming plays combined with the Christmas story. From December 1980 until March 1981 we toured this show, which was simply called Winter. We called the troupe the Angel Mummers, and we took it to Derbyshire, Leicester and Cheshire, as well as locally.

Morton Hall

The show was particularly finely made, with a beautiful hand-printed cloth set decorated with woodcuts. I made the prints and the masks, and the costumes were lovingly created and sewn by Jane Matthews and Viv Howard, from Manchester Polytechnic. Kay Kennedy played the central character, Old Mary, and Gill Pearson joined us as musician and administrator.

The show was first used at Morton Hall Refugee Camp, near Swinderby in Lincolnshire, in December 1980. It was an old RAF station where the ‘bouncing bomb’ had been developed. It was sitting waiting for the government to resurrect it come an emergency. Nowadays it’s an Immigration Removal Centre, notorious for a number of unexplained deaths amongst its inmates. An old acquaintance of mine, Alan Daniels, was then the Secondary Education Officer with the County Council. Alan had the job of managing just such an emergency in 1980 – the sudden influx into the UK of Vietnamese ethnic Chinese refugees. It was all under the radar as Mrs Thatchers government didn’t want to advertise the fact of its existence. This was because official policy was against enabling any immigration at all.

Alan’s idea was that Horse + Bamboo could move into the camp for the Christmas period. This would allow some of the staff a much-needed Christmas break whilst providing the refugees with seasonal entertainment. I gathered a team who could spare a couple of weeks over Christmas – myself, Kay, Gwyneth Lamb our musician, Peter Lindhout, Jane Matthews. Between us we concocted a series of events for the period. Performances of Winter; parades with our Dragon; fire and fireworks. It was all gloriously strange and rather odd. For the Vietnamese refugees I’m not sure how it must have appeared, as our mumming/Christian colour symbolism was topsy-turvy for them. For example, the villain in our show, the Red Dragon, suggested instead a hero. Our friendly white angels they associated with death…and so on. Still, it livened up the otherwise monotonous life of a rather grim camp.

Westminster Abbey

Then after Christmas Sue Auty and Edward Taylor joined us for a tour. Gill Pearson took over the music from Gwyneth. On a few occasions we performed the full theatre show. But Angel Mummers appeared as often as not as a pub mumming show with live music, or even as a street event. Edward made an effective MC, along with the cast of Old Mary, a Salesman, a Dragon, a unicorn and two noisy soldiers armed with fireworks. Winter was uncharacteristic of the company’s work, probably because the story was very close to being a traditional mumming play. Despite this when we were asked by Westminster Abbey to end the first of the Westminster Easter Parades with a short performance in the Abbey, we again turned to the show and successfully revived it. We used the altar and the medieval rood screen as part of our set. Not surprisingly it never looked better.

Rakuworks

Another development during this period was when two of the company’s artists, Sue Goodwin and Laura Barnes, formed their own company. Both ceramicists it enabled them to concentrate on community ceramics and raku firings. They called their company Rakuworks. During this period they worked alongside us as a sister organisation (they eventually left to become fully independent). It meant that over the winter of 1981 our Angel Mummer community events often benefitted by having accompanying ceramics sessions and kiln firings overseen by Sue and Laura.

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Bob Frith founded Horse + Bamboo Theatre in 1978. He now manages the Dave Pearson Studio and is active in support of Apna Rossendale.

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