Radio 2's Dance Season: It's Got Bells On
Ed's note: Comedian Stewart Lee presents It's Got Bells On, a new documentary, part of the Dance Season on BBC Radio 2. Here he writes about his love of Morris dancing. Really - PM
I don't remember when I saw my first Morris dance.
I think it was sometime in the early seventies. My mum was working, I wasn't yet at school, and I spent a lot of time with my grand-dad. He'd been, or maybe was still, a rep for Colman's, the Norfolk based mustard company, who had diversified into providing wine and spirits. I have memories, though they may have become semi-fictionalised, of accompanying him to rural events - hunts, fetes and festivals - in forgotten places between Birmingham and Norwich, when he was invited by virtue of some commercial connection with the booze supply.
I remember a fuzzy photograph of a brown corduroy, pre-school me with him, watching men in white on a patch of grass, leaping and dancing. I've looked for it but I can't find it. Maybe it never happened. But for me that was where the Morris was filed, for most of my life, in the seventies memories stash, in the past, something mysterious and beautiful and pastoral, and probably on the way out now, along with butterflies and wild flowers and birds that nest in hedgerows.
But, like some threatened species making a comeback, over the last decade I've noticed the Morris, and various mutated species of traditional English dance, staging a slight return.
At the folk-singer Martin Carthy's 60th birthday show in Oxford, ten years ago, a Morris troupe took the stage before a crowd of thousands, and again, when I saw the Carthy clan gathered at the Royal Albert Hall five year back.
A live art promoter in the village of Hovingham, on the Yorkshire moors, unexpectedly got Damian Barber's traditional dancers the Black Swan Rappers to open before one of my stand-up comedy shows in the mid-noughties, stunning an initially skeptical crowd with their violent and virile performance. This year I invited the folk rock band Trembling Bells to appear in a season of music and comedy I was curating at the South Bank center, and they brought with them the Belles Of London City, a new all-female Morris trio.
But my fondness for The Morris was sealed six years ago.
My wife and I were married in the Forest of Dean, in her native Gloucestershire. Searching for something significant and local, she had booked the Forest Of Dean Morris Men for the reception, attended by fifty or so people, in a musky woodland cellar. We'd been married in a church that morning.
My wife's a Catholic, and I am an atheist, but nonetheless I'll happily admit that the priest gave a great service, and the ritual elements added a real significance to the ceremony. That said, the service did represent for me a compromise I suppose, of the sort one must make in a marriage. I hadn't expected it, but the appearance of the Morris men that evening somehow squared the circle, and left me feeling that the old gods, too, had been paid their due.
The Forest Of Dean Morris Men came out of the black November night, all in white. They were accompanied by a "beast", in their particular case a man in the costume of a bright red stag, who excited all the young ladies, and intimidated the men.
I normally hate dancing, or being the centre of attention in any way, but I felt no shame as my new wife and I were made to skip in circles round the stone walled cellar, and between and beneath sudden arches made of the Morris men's human hands, while the beast looked on approvingly and clacked its wooden hooves, draped in adoring women, scowled at by their temporarily cuckolded partners.
It's no exaggeration to say that The Morris made our day, and in the dark times of exhaustion and 3am feeds, when the romance of your first meeting seems so far away, we reach back to the symbols we laid in store to give us strength at later dates, and I see the Morris once more.
That's why, when Radio 2 asked me to narrate It's Got Bells On, I couldn't say no. I am forever in the dance's debt.
Stewart Lee is a comedian
- It's Got Bells On airs on BBC Radio 2 at 10pm on Monday December 12th as part of the Dance Season
- Stewart Lee's current live show is Carpet Remnant World
- Stewart is also one of the guest editors this year for Radio 4's Today, and his programme will be on air on Saturday 31st December