No other country has such disdain for its folk dancing traditions as England. In The Way of the Morris film-maker Tim Plester tries to find out what exactly Morris dancing is all about, both for the English and himself, and why it’s such a neglected art.
On St Patrick’s and on St Andrew’s days respectively, town halls across England hold Céilidh of Irish and Scottish dance, while on St George’s day… well, we probably all go shopping. It’s not just the Scots and Irish, rural Americans are quite partial to square dances and the polka is considered quite cool by some Swedes. But the English keep their indigenous dance very much under their flower decorated hats.
Actor, playwright and film-maker, Plester, is a man who stands a good chance than most of getting to the bottom of this conundrum. He hails from Addebury in North Oxfordshire, a village with two ‘sides’ (as a group is known) of Morris men. This short film (it’s only an hour long) uses the village to investigate the meaning of Morris.
Plester talks to members of the two Addebury Morris sides, who, it turns out, represent the cross-roads of the personal and historical. Addebury was one of the first villages in England to revive its side back in the Seventies. And although, dressed in his funky 70s leather jacket and Hawaiian shirt, Plester is now more urbanite than villager, but his father and uncle were part of that pioneering movement.
The 70s revival was something of a search for roots, an impulse that quickens the whole film. Plester hasn’t joined in the family tradition, but is revealing on the motivations of those who wanted to resurrect it, while flirting with The Morris himself. Most of the original Addebury side was slaughtered in the First World War (only one member returned), and Plester movingly remembers those unfortunate men.
The film’s stately pace is leavened with some lovely shots of the English countryside and Plester’s lyrical meditations on England and Englishness. To find out more about the history of Morris, he interviews a number of folkies. Billy Bragg, Chris Leslie (of folk rock legends The Fairport Convention), and the folks at Cecil Sharp House (the home of the English Folkdance and Song Society), who all give interesting insights into the origins and meaning of the dance.
The Way of the Morris is a worthy, and long-overdue testament to a mysterious remnant of English rural life. By the end of it, you might have renewed respect for Morris dancing and dancers. Come to think of it, wearing flowers in your hat, drinking gallons of ale and leaping about with a pagan glint in your eye sounds like rather a good idea.