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Here's a Health to the Barley Mow (DVD)

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Genre: Documentary

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      03.11.2011 09:33
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      An amazing compilation of old folk rituals

      This BFI double DVD is about £15 on amazon.

      This is an amazing collection of pieces of footage of 'folk customs and ancient rural games' from around Britain. Mostly these are very rough and ready - someone has just plonked a camera down in front of a bunch of Morris dancers and let them get on with it. Other films are a bit more crafted, with editing and camera angles and all sorts, but at its best this just lets us watch utterly incomprehensible rituals being enacted, often decades in the past.

      The two disks contain an astonishing six hours of this stuff, so I'm not going to try to review it all comprehensively. Much of it is very samey anyway. There are four sections.

      Dance and Song

      This is perhaps the best. Obviously watching Morris dancers in real life is a faintly embarrassing, awkward experience. But on old film stock, it somehow becomes utterly compelling. Most of these films are silent, and some are very old and quite badly damaged. Anyone who's seen a lot of early cinema will know only too well how it looks. You're never more aware that film is a process of capturing light in chemicals as when you watch the earliest moving pictures. Some of them are so heavily textured they look almost like figures dancing on cardboard.

      Another notable thing about the earliest films is how unselfconscious everyone is. No one seems aware of the cameras (and none of these films are all *that* early, 1912 is as far back as they go). It's not just the performers, who are presumably busy concentrating on getting their performance exactly right, lest the crops should fail; it's the spectators as well.

      I read something recently(ish), although I can't remember where, that suggested that cinema has taught us how to behave - that awareness of how people look on film has added a layer of self-awareness to all our actions; that even when alone, we are still on some level acting as if we're ready for our close-up. It's a nice idea, but feels a bit like the kind of thing academics say to show how clever they are. But watching these little films, I can't help but wonder if it's right after all. Later films in the collection show different crowd behaviours, with people acknowledging the cameras even when they don't mean to. I don't mean they look at the cameras and wave, although that happens a few times; they have a different way of behaving that is aware of the possibility of being watched.

      Anyway, the films themselves show Morris dancing and sword dances and such like. There's violin music playing on the soundtrack, but the films are mostly silent. It's curiously hypnotic. One dance is watched impassively by an impossibly old man wearing a smock. I suspect he's part of the act, somehow, but he looks like a relic from a Thomas Hardy novel accidentally caught on film. Another features an elaborate display of Morris dancing at some big posh house (you can almost imagine the patronising tone of voice the lady of the house uses when she talks to the entertainers). That has a large crowd of people to watch, and there's nothing more interesting than watching the faces of people in the olden days watching Morris dancing. Especially when some of them are wearing caps about eight times the size of their heads.

      That's the chief joy of this - the random details. The guy who looks like James Joyce, dancing. The way that one of the girls doing a sword dance in 1955 has shaved her armpits but none of the others have. After a while, it starts to occur to you that this is probably why fascism never caught on in this country. Seeing Germans dancing around with swords in the 1930s would be scary - we all know where that's going to end. Seeing Brits do it is strangely comforting.

      There's also a fairly long film about people singing beer related pub songs, from which this entire collection takes its name. It evokes a simpler time where pubs meant community cohesion and people had to make their own entertainment. There's not a jukebox or fruit machine in sight. It does look excruciatingly dull if you're not into singing about beer, though.

      Extreme Sports

      These are largely incomprehensible ancient games of football, which generally involve a lot of men shoving each other around on streets. It's quite charming to watch when it's old and they're all still wearing hats, but the more modern footage seems less endearing. To be honest, a gang of layabouts squabbling over a ball you don't even get to see is a less than riveting spectator sport. There's also some nonsense from the 1960s called 'dwile flonking', which is obviously some made up Goon Show rubbish, and the guy who's explaining it to his regional TV news crew is among the most irritating people I've ever seen on screen.

      The extreme sports section only really redeems itself when fire is involved. The tar barrel rolling at Ottery St Mary I knew about, but the festival where enormous men in kilts swing huge balls of fire on chains around, coming dangerously close to hitting passers-by, was new to me. That is superb stuff!

      Mummers and Hobbyhorses

      Onto Disk 2. Mummers perform plays in which (as far as I could make out) St George kills a number of people in battle, who are then revived by a doctor. I think that's pretty much it. Oh, and Father Christmas is involved, sometimes as a victim of St George, sometimes just as a concerned observer. There are a few mummer performances, my favourite being the silent, black and white one in which you have no idea what's going on. There's also a colour version from 1952, in which the 'pony' looks like an emaciated Afghan hound. The most complete version is performed by children in the 1970s, but by then it's being performed as part of a rather desperate attempt at keeping a tradition alive for the sake of it. The earlier footage feels like something that was still being done because people wanted to do it.

      Hobby horses are a bit creepier, with a distinct Wicker Man vibe to them, and May Queen rituals are impossible to see without thinking of Christopher Lee in a dress. Derby Tup is a fascinating tradition whereby teenage boys would black up, go around pubs, sing a song about ritualistically slaughtering a ram, and re-enact it for an audience of probably baffled drinkers. It has a patronising voice over which tries to add a bit of anthropological gravitas, but it's one of my favourite films on here. The tup itself looks nightmarish, like a cuddly toy designed by Francis Bacon.

      All Manner of Customs

      This last section rounds things off nicely enough. There are lots of odd customs like 'the boy bishop of Berden' (which would be a great name for a prog album). There are little anthology films, showing various local customs, which include yet more mummers and morris dancers. 'One Potato, Two Potato' films children at play in London in 1956. It's both endearing (especially seeing children wandering around deserted streets without anxious adults interfering); and faintly sinister, the film feeling like it's intruding on rituals that don't really need to be filmed. The artistic pretensions of the film-makers collide with the private universe of the kids' games, and the result is eerily compelling.

      'Children of the Moor' is also quite good. A 1970s film, it shows a teacher (or community leader, or somesuch) trying to get the children of villages near Dartmoor to perpetuate old rituals like mummers plays and folk dancing. It's got that great washed-out 70s colour familiar from old Children's Film Foundation movies, and is quite nicely filmed, seeming perhaps more depressing than it was intended to be. It seems most unlikely that any of these kids give a hoot about the rituals they're participating in - the bored looking kids lolling around watching a demonstration of dancing say it all.

      There are also rituals whereby a guy on horseback covered in flowers is ritualistically hanged from a church tower. This is terrific. Apart from the silly/sinister central ritual, the guy covered in flowers looks like he should be a monster in Jon Pertwee-era Dr Who. As does the Burry Man, the most recently filmed of the pieces, in which a Scotsman covered in prickly burrs is led around his town being forced to drink whisky for about 12 hours. It's superb; creepy on all kinds of levels, and yet somehow charming too.

      Which just about sums up this release. I think it's essential viewing, although I'd do it in at least three sessions, if not four. While it was disappointing not to see anyone burned alive in a wicker man, hacked to death with billhooks, or hunted for sport, there's enough material here for at least five folk-themed horror movies. Enjoy!

      As with other BFI releases, this has a booklet giving some context about the films.

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    • Product Details

      Product Description HERE S A HEALTH TO THE BARLEY MOW A Century of Folk Customs and Ancient Rural Games From Cornwall s 'sexy, savage springtime May day rites to the dangerous rolling of burning barrels of tar in Ottery St Mary, this rich and wide ranging collection of films documents and celebrates the folk customs, songs and dances of Great Britain. Amongst the highlights included here are Alan Lomax s glorious Padstow May Day film Oss Oss Wee Oss (1954); a series of 1912 Kinora spools featuring traditional dances by pioneering folklorists Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth; 1920s newsreels charting Shrove Tuesday football contests; and recent footage shot by filmmakers Doc Rowe and Jeremy Deller showing the exhilarating contemporary performance of folk customs and rituals. This sumptuous package draws on films collected over many years by the Britain's national and regional film archives and is presented by the BFI in collaboration with the English Folk Dance and Song Society.