Here's a Health to the Barley Mow Review
It’s hard to know where to begin with Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow. As the cover blurb has it, this is “a century of folk customs and ancient rural games” as represented by over six hours’ worth of material. The earliest dates back to 1912 whilst the most recent was recorded in 2005. We find early cinema, amateur footage, news items (both television and newsreel), experimental shorts and more conventional fare in the manner of documentary portraits and a not-quite-Technicolor travelogue; there’s even an excerpt from a Mining Review. As far as subject matter goes, there are four distinct ‘chapters’ (Dance and Song, Extreme Sports, Mummers and Hobbyhorses, All Manner of Customs), but each has plenty of room for manoeuvre, and in terms of geography we travel from the Orkneys to Cornwall, from Conwy to Norfolk. Furthermore, we are very much dealing with niche cultures. Morris dancing and children’s rhymes may fall into the category of easy recognition, but what about dwile flonking and tar barrel rolling? Or the Burry Man? Or Haxey Hood?
Such names - so enticingly bizarre - are perhaps the key to Here’s a Health’s entry point, namely that the films and footage collected are inherently fascinating. Much like cinema’s earliest fragments, whether it be a few fragile seconds of an all-but-forgotten performer or a phantom ride through a city now barely recognisable, much of what is contained on these discs feels like a glimpse into a past that no longer exists and can never be retrieved. The oldest footage even comes in the form paper cards that were animated through the use of a wheel; effectively a ‘pre-cinema’ device that only adds to this sense of a bygone age. Yet whilst these silent flickering images of sword dancers or a procession outside of a Gloucestershire church may date from almost a century ago, there is also plenty of material taking us through the decades and through film’s developments: synch sound, colour, digital technologies and so on. Nevertheless this overriding fascination remains, even in the most recent examples. Footage from 2003, shot in a seemingly standard working men’s club and populated by figures in familiar clothes, still rings as strange as that captured almost a hundred years earlier in the grounds of a stately home. The outfits and locations may change, but the rituals and the activities remain the same, never once losing their intrinsically curious flavour.
It should be stated early on that I came to Here’s a Health with very little foreknowledge of the various events and performances contained within. I’m an outsider, in other words, and with that I’m perhaps more susceptible to being beguiled by this material. Only those who indulge in dwile flonking or broom dancing would arguably find them ordinary, so far removed are they from the mainstream. For the rest of us such activities cannot help but seem obscure and full of mysteries. Indeed, in some cases these mysteries come without answer, a side effect of traditions and customs having been passed from generation to generation and slowly obscured, altered or diluted along the way. The histories of many remain unknown or of hazy origin; all we know is that they have been maintained for centuries. Of course there are extensive booklet notes to ensure that we are never entirely out in the cold, but even so the underlying strangeness remains. How could it not be when faced with images of children carrying burning barrels on their backs or a group of men in their Sunday best indulging in an entirely unselfconscious jig?
Perhaps the best recommendation for the newcomer is to simply go along with it all and allow yourself to become slowly beguiled by the bizarre rituals unfolding onscreen. See a choirboy become a bishop for the day. See masses of men scramble over snow and in rivers in order to possess a cork-filled leather skin. See children enact a violent play of death, resurrection and Father Christmas. See the Burry Man in his suit of burrs as he goes door-to-door through South Queensferry. But don’t mistake Here’s a Health for something it is not. This is not an example of compilation as freakshow, one that’s seeking a cult-ish audience to revel in and laugh at its various odd or outlandish behaviours. This is a serious document and a compassionate one at that. There are no signs of ironic winks or sneers and certainly no invitations to point and stare. Indeed, whilst we the audience may be made up primarily of outsiders, the vast majority of the filmmakers behind the material on these discs are undoubtedly insiders - amateurs, enthusiasts, archivists. Their take on these performances and events is oftentimes a simple one: to point and record without interference or interruption; to document these traditions for posterity without artistic impulses intervening.
There’s a wonderful moment during a 1920s recording of some horn dancers from Abbots Bromley where the camera momentarily captures the skies instead the action it should be filming. It’s a classic ‘home movie’ mistake and demonstrates how even footage as old as this can reveal its amateur origins. Consulting the booklet we discover that any production credits are “not known” and even the exact year of its making has been hard to pin down. Such a lack of concrete information extends to a number of Here’s a Health’s earliest inclusions suggesting it would be safe to attribute at least some to non-professional filmmakers. It backs up this idea of ‘insider’ productions, tiny pieces of celluloid unburdened from commercial concerns and with a likely audience stretching little further than those caught within its frames. And because they were intended to stay within these inner circles they also have no recourse to explain themselves. Intertitles are minimal or non-existent meaning we simply have the images themselves to do the talking. Fighting through the grain and the damage these films have accumulated over the images, not to mention the occasional poor light or poor focus, we have rudimentary set-ups and single takes recording a particular dance or similar from beginning to end and nothing more. No background, no context, no helping hand for non-initiate - just cinema at its most basic, but strangely enchanting cinema at that.
Indeed, if we compare these earliest examples to the most recent found on Here’s a Health it’s easy to notice how similar their approaches are. Certainly we see an upgrade from black and white to colour and from cumbersome celluloid to lightweight digital, but the methodology is much the same. The modern day archivists included on the set are Doc Rowe and Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller, each serving as their own cinematographer and sound man. They place themselves up close to the action, but importantly never intervene. Oftentimes what we have are single takes in that basic point-and-record manner, whether it be the complex movements of rapper dancers performing at the National Folk Festival or bottle kicking in Hallaton, Leicestershire. Furthermore there are no explanations beyond what can be seen or heard onscreen; a title screen is the most information you are likely to get. As with the earliest films on Here’s a Health there’s a faith in the material that bypasses any need to provide a little background or context. Essentially they seem to be saying that mere sight of the rapper dancers doing their thing, for example, is more than enough.
Offsetting such insider viewpoints is the heavy presence of news items and footage from over the years. The Topical Budget newsreels (which ran from 1911 to 1931) contribute an impressive thirteen items to Here’s a Health, all dating from the twenties. Meanwhile a comparatively more up-to-date perspective is provided by a host of 1960s regional news reports from the likes of Anglia Television and Tyne Tees Television. It’s important to note the regional aspect as these were undoubtedly viewed as ‘local interest’ stories and treated accordingly in a somewhat benign or banal fashion. Unlike the archivists and the enthusiasts behind the bulk of Here’s a Health you sense that the reporters for Anglia and Tyne Tees saw their subjects as merely a bit of fun. These items - particularly the one devoted to gurning - are oftentimes throwaway pieces and yet they nonetheless possess a strong historical value. Once again the point-and-record method comes into play; were we to do away with the to-camera pieces (and their attendant raised eyebrow) we would be left with simple, uncomplicated reportage. Indeed, in a couple of instances we have either poor sound or no sound at all, essentially making coverage of a Shrove Tuesday football match no different from the equivalent amateur material. The connection between the latter and the Topical Budgets is also really quite pronounced: an opening intertitle or two and then straight onto the footage of May Day parades and other processions. As before it’s the image that is key, not the commentary.
I should hasten to add that there is a third, ultimately more significant component to Here’s a Health and that’s the longer form documentary inclusions made predominantly by folk historians. Douglas Kennedy, director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, produced Wake Up and Dance, a wonderful travelogue-like glimpse at British folk colour shot in full colour and complete with fantasy dream sequence. His son Peter, a famed recordist of folk songs, served as co-writer and his presence can be felt throughout Here’s a Health. He introduces Children of the Moor, a 1975 television documentary about the traditions of Dartmoor, and provides its commentary. He produces Wake Up in St. George and Oss Oss Wee Oss, the latter scripted and directed by the most famous folklorist of them all, Alan Lomax. And he serves as director of photography on Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow and One Potato, Two Potato. These last two both revolve around song, one taking place in a public house, the other as children go about their play. One Potato, Two Potato was the only film to be made by Leslie Daiken, an Irish author who had published a number of volumes on children’s games and customs. Other names putting in an appearance or two are Barry Callaghan and Ian Russell, who together set up Garland Films with the aid of the EFDSS; a number of their productions find a place on Here’s a Health.
With their longer durations these films understandably have a greater opportunity to lure the viewer in than the various minutes-long news and amateur items. In some cases they feel like mere extensions: Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow, from 1952, is effectively a collection of songs and therefore akin to a series of these items having been stitched together, for example. There is no commentary, just rendition after wonderful rendition - indeed, it recognises that the performances are strong enough and that any other requirements are entirely unnecessary. One Potato, Two Potato (seen here in a previously unseen extended version; the shorter cut can be found on the BFI’s Free Cinema compilation) does much the same thing by simply revelling in its children’s songs and play and asking us to do likewise. The Face of a County, meanwhile, which was commissioned by South Yorkshire County Council, acts as a wordless travelogue for the area, its soundtrack made up of regional choirs and choral societies as the images capture pastoral scenes, local traditions and more conventional fare (fishing, Sunday football, etc.). Although we may have expected otherwise, this particular film is perhaps the only inclusion on Here’s a Health to have any ‘stoner appeal’ thanks to its lush sunsets and steady pace. (The ‘electric folk’ scene as typified by the late sixties/early seventies success of Fairport Convention and its offshoots isn’t represented other than through noticing how their fame prompted a rekindled interest in old customs and the like.)
More conventional documentary approaches are favoured by All Manner of Customs, a 25-minute piece made for Westward Television in 1965, and the Peter Kennedy-hosted Children of the Moor. Here the desire is very much to educate the viewer and as such they make for welcome inclusions amongst Here’s a Health’s many films and excerpts. We’ve been beguiled and tantalised by much of what we’ve seen, yet here is a chance to understand a little more fully those scenes and traditions which have played out so far. (One of the standout aspects of this compilation is the manner in which it balances the different types of coverage and approaches to its subject matter so that a much fuller portrait may slowly emerge.) The mummers play which its swordfights and resurrections, for example, gets a far greater explanation than we find in a 1919 recording with its paper titles pinned to a wall and brief description as “a tragedy entitled King George and Turkish Ships”. Now we are afforded an understanding of why so many characters die (and die again) or the presence of a bent-over Father Christmas in all this. The same is also true of other rituals and traditions, whether it be tar barrelling or something less immediately obscure. Also worth mentioning is the fact that All Manner of Customs comes with a score, a rare instance of the musical accompaniment not being diegetic song or melodeon and fiddle. It’s intriguing to see how such an addition can add its own colour and character to proceedings. But then it’s just as intriguing to realise that it hasn’t been missed elsewhere.
Indeed, the two truly outstanding works to find a place on Here’s a Health both maintain a basic faith in material. They may have colour film stock at their disposal and an undoubted professional veneer, but still they allow their subject to speak for itself. The first, Wake Up and Dance, is positioned as a travelogue, taking us through the more touristic aspects of Stratford-on-Avon and indulging in a slightly fictional day-in-the-life framework. The culmination is the district’s summer festivities, but prior to that we are treated to little scenes of local colour (quite literally) and, of course, various customs, dances and the rest. The soundtrack only has room for music and laughter; there is no introduction or voice-over, though we nonetheless watch such scenes unfold with a full understanding. Indeed, the arrival of its dream sequence comes with little complication such is the simplicity of both the overall structure and the filmmaking in general. Incidentally, the dream sequence involves a transition into the past, an explicit reference that permeates all of Here’s a Health and its notions of age-old traditions existing through to the present day.
The other is Oss Oss Wee Oss, one of British cinema’s most extraordinary documents, let alone folk cinema. (The programmers of Here’s a Health, William Fowler and Vic Pratt, both included the film in their contributions to Time Out’s recent 100 Best British Films poll.) As with Wake Up and Dance there’s an appealing simplicity to proceedings, yet whilst the earlier film has a definite charm reminiscent of a British Transport Film travelogue, say, Oss Oss Wee Oss taps into something stronger and stranger. Its sixteen-and-a-half minutes may contain plenty of rough edges and switch from colour to black and white film stock, but in the face of a low-budget in nevertheless manages to be an incredibly evocative piece of work. The focus is the May Day celebrations of Padstow in Cornwall, recording its “sexy, savage springtime rite”. Our guide is a first-person voice-over, an unseen out-of-towner who talks in rhyme and possesses a wonderful turn of phrase (“I twigged this sailor…”). He interviews locals with an equally wonderful way with words but also knows when to be quiet and let the images do the talking: the night before May Day where two greasy-haired youths with pokey faces dance a strange, almost homoerotic dance at the local pub; the day itself and the colourful celebrations involving the titular hobby horse (“oss”) and Padstonians dressed like Spanish pirates.
The distinctive dialects that populate Oss Oss Wee Oss are an interesting presence. The various locals and our host voice-over are far removed from the conventional documentary narration of the time (the film having been completed in 1953) and they help to keep proceedings insular. As with the Padstow traditions themselves here we find a work that seems to exist within its own bubble. It reveals some information about its central rite and the townsfolk who enact it, but also keeps its secrets. As with so many films on Here’s a Health certain mysteries are allowed to remain in place, a situation that only helps to further its evocative nature. We see enough to detect the impulses behind it and the overwhelming good-natured spirit of it all, but never so much that it would diminish the magic.
Not that any of this spirit is solely restricted to Oss Oss Wee Oss. Indeed, the entirety of Here’s a Health is typified by such a warmth of feeling. The images contained may occasionally be subject to less than innocent readings and perhaps even veer horror territory (of the former there is a 1920s newsreel revealing a pair of very young children dressed in wedding garb that, for example, seems a sight we would no longer see; the latter may simply be a side-effect of The Wicker Man). But the overriding mood is one of infectious enthusiasm. During Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow - the short film from 1952 not the compilation - there’s a terrific moment when a single voice is joined in song by those who surround him. It’s impossible not to feel the sense of community during such moments or indeed to resist a smile. It’s at times such as these that you realise these films are celebrating their subjects more than anything and that this is perhaps their main (even sole) reason for being. By extension Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow the compilation is therefore that celebration writ large: two discs, six hours and a total of 44 films and excerpts. It really is a fitting testament.
Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow has been released by the BFI as a two-disc set free of region coding. Each disc houses approximately three hours worth of material with the films broken down into four chapters, two per DVD (see contents list below). As you would expect given the overall length of this compilation, the individual chapters each come in at a more immediately digestible duration and invite their own single-sitting viewings. The fact that each chapter follows its own chronological order would further back up such a suggestion.
The BFI worked in conjunction with various regional and folk archives as well as their own National Archive in order to piece Here’s a Health together. The most recent films, for example, came from the Doc Rowe Archive and the Jeremy Deller/Alan Kane Folk Archive, whilst the various television news items and documentaries are unsurprisingly held locally. (The English Folk Dance and Song Society donated their entire collection to the BFI National Archive for permanent preservation.) Given these various sources and the fact that we are dealing with a wide range of cinematic styles and production methods (everything from near-century old amateur footage to modern day digital), it is inevitable that the presentation quality wavers somewhat from film to film. In some instances we have a wonderfully pristine image - as in the Mining Review excerpt, for example - in others we must take into the films’ budget and choice of film stock. Oss Oss Wee Oss, say, was shot in the early fifties on mostly colour 16mm stock and with that comes limitations alongside its own particular qualities. Much the same is true of the soundtracks with some demonstrating excellent clarity and others revealing their age and/or amateur origins. Nevertheless, the BFI inform us that all of the films have been sourced from the best materials available and there is no reason to doubt such a statement. Original aspect ratios are maintained (almost entirely Academy save for two of Doc Rowe’s films, both of which come framed at 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced) as are mono soundtracks. All of the silent films also come with new accompaniment in the form of semi-improvised pieces on fiddle and melodeon as performed by Pete Cooper, Dan Quinn and Laurel Swift. In these instances the sound quality is expectedly flawless. (Note that optional subtitles, English or otherwise, are not available.)
Given the huge range of material, and indeed its massive length, it should come as no surprise that on-disc extras are non-existent. What we do get, however, is a 56-page booklet chock full of information. Notes on each of the films included (and the archives which supplied them) make up the bulk of page count alongside black and white illustrations and a number of contextualising essays. We also find a map to allow for easy referencing with regards to which regions are captured in which films. In other words there’s a wealth of detail contained, although given the range of subjects covered by Here’s a Health it may still leave you with a few questions. But then maybe that’s just something we need to factor in when considering these folk customs and traditions. Even after 56-pages, and indeed over six hours’ worth of material, they still contain their mysteries.
DANCE AND SONG
Films Taken from Kinora Spools Made in 1912 (1912/1982)
Bampton Broom and Morris Dances (1928)
Sword Dances in North Skelton, Handsworth, Sleights, Westerhope and Grenoside (c. 1927)
Dances by Ilmington Teams in the Grounds of Peter De Montfort's House 1220 AD. Fiddler Sam Bennett (1926)
Abbots Bromley, Painswick and Bampton (c. 1928–36)
High Spen Sword Dancers (c. 1928)
Bacup Coconut Dancers (1930)
Grenoside Long Sword Dancers (1938)
Wake Up and Dance (1950)
Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow (1952)
Winlaton Sword Dance (1955, from Mining Review 8th Year No 5)
Dick Hewitt 'The Norfolk Step Dancer' with Percy Brown – melodeon (1979)
The Flora Faddy Furry Dance Day (1989)
Rapper Dancers at ‘The National’ (2003)
Ye Olde Game of Football (1921)
Shrove Tuesday Football (1924)
Uppies and Downies (1926)
Not For ‘The Cup’ (1929)
600-Year-Old Custom! (1927)
The Game of Haxey Hood (1929)
Handba’ at Kirkwall, Orkney (1939)
New Year Fireball Festival, Stonehaven (1965)
Shrove Tuesday Football at Sedgefield and Alnwick (1965)
Sedgefield Shrove Tuesday Football Match Plans (1966)
Ancient and Traditional Sport of Dwile Flonking (1966)
Dwile Flonking from Harleston (1967)
Tar Barrel Rolling, Ottery St Mary (2000)
Shrovetide Football, Ashbourne (2000)
Hare Pie and Bottle Kicking, Hallatan (2005)
MUMMERS AND HOBBYHORSES
The Tichbourne Mummers’ Play (1919)
Walk in St George (1952)
Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953)
Derby Tup (1974)
ALL MANNER OF CUSTOMS
For I’m to be Queen of the May, Mother (1927)
Prettiest May Queen (1926)
London’s May Queen (1927)
Call Me Early, Mother Dear (1930)
Llandudno – May Day Festival (1927)
Llandudno’s Chosen (1929)
Boy Bishop of Berden (1927)
Merrie England (1928)
One Potato, Two Potato (1957)
Castleton Garland Day (1957)
Election of New Mayor of Harwich and the Traditional Ceremony of Throwing Kitchels (1962)
All Manner of Customs (1965)
Informal Gurning Contest at Whitley Bay (1963)
Girl Wearing Earring at School Dispute (1966)
Children of the Moor (1975)
The Face of a County (1976)
Castleton’s Traditional Garland Day (2000)
The Burry Man of South Queensferry (2000-02)