Banners at Westminster Easter Procession. Bob Frith. Horse + Bamboo.

An invitation

I received a letter from a Dr. Anthony Harvey, Canon of Westminster Abbey. He had been at a dinner-party in Kent, with a friend, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the guests heard that a horse-drawn theatre company was performing in the local village hall. With an evening to spare, some of the guests decided to catch the show. It was A Strange (& Unexpected) Event!I wasn’t there, but I’m told that the company were invited back afterwards for showers and sherry.

It turned out that one of Canon Harvey’s many responsibilities was coordinating the Westminster Good Friday events; in other words the celebration of the Passion of Christ within the parish of Westminster – which happens to include Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, Methodist Central Hall, and New Scotland Yard. He said that he was disappointed in the way the events had been staged recently and, after seeing our show, he wondered if I could do something better.

Easter Procession, Westminster Cathedral. Bob Frith.

Planning the Easter Procession

From this came a relationship with Westminster Abbey that lasted several years. On occasion I also met with representatives from Westminster Cathedral and Central Hall. Things always had to be agreed between the Anglicans, Catholics and Methodists, and it wasn’t always easy. One of the main concerns was the use of large puppets to represent Christ. In the Spanish Semana Santa parades (which I loved) floats or tronos usually carry a representation of the Virgin or Christ and I suggested something similar. A large puppet of Christ would require three people to carry and manipulate it, as my plan was to stop at various points on route and quickly set up ‘icons’ based on the Stations of the Cross. In other words, we would tell the Easter story simply and visually.

Problems arose around using a puppet to represent Christ, even if it was a ten foot high puppet, with each of the Christian denominations having a slightly different take on it. The Anglicans were generally relaxed about the idea; the Catholics were adamant that no female puppeteers should be used in this process; and it seemed to me that the Methodists weren’t entirely happy about the use of visual imagery at all. I had to argue the case on several occasions, but finally it was agreed that we could go ahead. So long as it wasn’t a woman puppeteer inside the body of the puppet Christ.

Otherwise things went smoothly. We hired the old hospital at Calderstones, near Whalley, to build the puppets, and Dr. Harvey travelled up to view our progress. On Good Friday the procession was led by the Dean and Canons of the Abbey, Cardinal Hume, and the Methodist Minister from Central Hall; it involved hundreds of people carrying printed woodcut banners, each with a single word that evoked the Easter story. In a surreal touch, we stopped outside New Scotland Yard to receive a blessing from the Chief Constable, and then a huge number of motorcycle police outriders accompanied us past the Houses of Parliament.

Once back inside the Abbey Horse + Bamboo performed an updated version of Angel Mummers, our old show from 1980. Having the keys to the Abbey overnight in order to rehearse the piece was quite an experience. It meant having the run of the place, wandering around tombs of kings and queens while the technical crew gaffa-taped cables to the historic memorial stones.

Returning

These Easter events were a success, and photographs of our Christ puppet made the front pages of the next days’ papers. We were invited back in 1996 to repeat the trick. This time we brought the horses and built small versions of Spanish tronos on our carts. The horses had the honour of being stabled overnight in Westminster Abbey. I saw the Dean out early in the morning, shovelling up the horses droppings, “Good for the roses”, he told me with a smile. We also brought a large group of musicians and a choir to accompany the parade and perform outside the Abbey.

Inside the Abbey we performed an adapted version of A Strange (& Unexpected) Event! . This also caused a commotion, with several newspapers suggesting that it was ‘inappropriate’ as it celebrated the resurrection of a Left-wing artist (Posada). The issue was labelled ‘a political storm’ in the press and even featured in the BBCs News Quiz. The Daily Telegraph ran an item headed ‘Abbey goes Left-wing for Easter’. The Ven. George Austin, Archdeacon of York, was reported as saying “Nothing surprises me about the Church of England these days.”

In 1997, partly as a thank you for overseeing the two Easter parades, we were asked to perform Visions of Hildegard as the Abbey’s regular Sunday Service. 700 people were in the congregation, and the company were introduced from the pulpit by Anthony Harvey. At the end of a very memorable show, I was surprised and delighted to see the congregation stand and applaud.

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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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