Tuesday 6 September 2011

With bells on: "Way of the Morris"

Last year, the self-financed Britcom Morris: A Life with Bells On eschewed the usual distribution and exhibition routes to become something of a genuine indie hit. Together with the recent revival of interest in folk music and folk festivals, it would suggest there's a whole new audience out there keen to celebrate the place of a specifically English culture within the framework of our multicultural society. As several interviewees in the brisk and engaging documentary Way of the Morris find, you have to be careful indeed choosing the words you use to discuss this phenomenon, lest you come across like a fully paid-up member of the English Defence League - though the biggest problem most people have around Morris dancing, as Barking's very own Billy Bragg puts it, is the embarrassment factor that invariably follows from the sight of Englishmen dancing. (An embarrassment only compounded, in this instance, by the fact the Englishmen in question are dancing around waving bells and hankies.)

Rob Curry's film - conceived as a personal journey for the semi-familiar actor Tim Plester, son of a Morris man, who returns to his native Adderbury in north Oxfordshire to explore a tradition that was cruelly interrupted there by the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 - has the aim of getting us over and past this residual naffness and allowing us to think of Morris in new ways, whether by explaining why something so out there ended up with such a commonplace name, or by laying the sound of the Maori haka over images of Morris men making merry, drawing a resonant parallel between one indigenous ritual and another. (No-one would surely dream of walking up to Jonah Lomu and accusing him of looking a bit effete.) The film has an eye for idiosyncracy and outright eccentricity: in one nice visual gag, Curry dresses up an Action Man doll in full Morris gear.

Most fascinating, to someone (like myself) more interested in music than in dancing to it, is how the Morris's specific idea of Englishness has been reflected in other musical forms through the ages: Plester's progress will take in the Vaughn Williams Library and the electric-folk revival cued by Fairport Convention in the 1960s, and will necessitate the paying of lip service to such iconic figures as Nick Drake, Johnny Rotten and - yes - Morris-sey, whose gladioli dance suddenly starts to seem very familiar. What's clear is the extent to which Morris dancing is seen as political and oppositional, more so than ever at a time when notions of community are under threat: as conservative as the tradition may be, the actual Morris dancing we witness begins to look like a defiant celebration of communality, an explosion of local and national pride, not to mention a prime opportunity for young and old to gather together on the village green with a few bottles of some description. (Which may help getting past the embarrassment.)

Though the documentary's construction - building towards Plester's debut performance in his father's shoes - points towards television, Morris does undeniably emerge from it as far less twee than one might have assumed going in. As Adderbury's resident Fool points out, such very English idiosyncracies prevent rural communities from sliding into commuter-village blandness; that it comes down to an expression of who you are and where you come from - an assertion of identity, on some level. This doesn't quite explain why someone dressed as Darth Vader should be observed in a town square smacking people around the head with a pig's bladder - but maybe it's best Way of the Morris leaves certain aspects unexplained, the better to allow the strangeness and uniqueness of this particular form to flourish.

Way of the Morris opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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