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Somerset Carnivals - a bright future?
A looming recession, red tape and theft have all put pressure on carnival clubs' budgets. Can they survive? Cary Comedians Carnival Club's founder member Sue Stockman and chairman Gordon Stockman discuss the difficulties clubs face.
The heritage of illuminated winter carnivals in Somerset is so very special and on Friday 7th November, Bridgwater (the home of carnival) produces its 403rd Carnival Procession.
Our carnival club, Cary Comedians, was founded in 1976 and is based near Castle Cary. Cary Comedians is a small Comic Feature Club and for well over the past decade we have been at the top of the competitions in both the Somerset Guy Fawkes Carnival circuit and the Wessex Grand Prix circuit.
We normally build a 100-foot float but this year our dressed tractor will not be ready in time for the County circuit due to a robbery at our base where steel and electrics were stolen.
Health and Safety rules, red tape and bureaucracy imposed by various authorities on carnival clubs make it more difficult and expensive to build and enter carnivals each year.
Five years ago, annual expenditure to produce a comic float such as ours was £5,000. The cost today is £10,000. Insurance, fuel, various licences, hiring of tractors, costume making and makeup costs, not to mention building materials and fibreglass all contribute to a large sum of money needed to put on a float these days. Of course, costs for the big Feature and Tableau floats are triple this sum and more.
This means that all year round, commitment to relentless fundraising is required from all club members as well as the hundreds of hours needed for actually building the floats.
In the 1990’s, there were almost 90 carnival clubs. This year only 50 clubs are entered in the Bridgwater carnival. In this time 40 clubs have folded.
There are a variety of economic, social and cultural impacts on localities in which carnivals are held on an annual basis. It is estimated that well over 10,000 people are actively involved in carnival in Somerset, either in clubs or organising committees and their helpers. The local economy benefits by a sum in excess of £38m. In addition, over £120,000 is raised for local charities.
Over £120k is raised for charities
Carnival is a tradition, which glues communities together, and when tourism is considered, Somerset carnivals attract over half a million visitors each autumn.
Clubs such as ours must have a minimum of eight performers on their floats and at least eight road crew members, to take part in the carnivals on the circuits. The club also needs costume makers, make-up artists, float constructors, electricians, mechanics, two or three tractor drivers, artists and painters, sound engineers etc.
In fact many young people joining a club are learning good practical skills as well as developing teamwork and social skills. Our club has members aged from eight years to 76 years, actively involved.
Our Octogenarian President Ray Boyer has a history in carnival stretching back for 60 years. He first became involved by driving Somerset Young Farmers floats for many years and he became involved with our club when he kindly allowed us to build on his land. He and his wife performed on our float for many years.
Bedazzled by illuminations
Comedy is a difficult medium to depict on a float, it is very subjective and we have to consider that the comedy must be for family viewing appropriate to TV’s "before the 9 pm watershed".
We try each year to break new ground with humorous ideas and this year our “Disco Babies” theme is no exception.
The carnival is in its 403rd year
Our aim each year is to make carnival FUN, although behind the scenes a great deal of hard work and innovative ideas by members are created to produce an award winning float.
Spectators are often bedazzled by our illuminated processions with its different classes of floats ( Feature, Tableau, Comic Feature and Juvenile).
In addition there are walkers and masqueraders with props. Each club competes in their class for the top awards and prizes.
But with costs escalating, and the recession now looming, how much longer can we enjoy this annual spectacle, when clubs do not get any public funding or adequate sponsorship?
Soon there will be a great need for Lottery, Tourism or Arts Council funding, such as the carnivals in Bristol and Notting Hill attract, to ensure that the 40 or 50 existing clubs survive. How can this be achieved?
More media and TV coverage would doubtless assist, giving exposure and prominence to this very special cultural heritage in Somerset celebrated for over 4 centuries.
last updated: 06/11/2008 at 15:46
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