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Thursday, 16 August 2012

Morris dancing into Olympic history

"Morris dancing for the Olympics opening ceremony!" was the rallying cry. There was some wishful thinking, some campaigning - notably by Sir Bob Russell MP, of Colchester - and then some resignation. As with so much of British public life, and our sporting life in particular, it seemed that we were doomed to disappointment.

But then a miracle happened. Looking back on it now, I'm delighted to say that it seems entirely in keeping with the rest of Britain's Olympic fortnight, our amazing haul of medals and the unfamiliar sensation that this country had finally pulled something out of the bag at the moment when it was actually needed.

For on Sunday evening, while the nation watched the Olympics closing ceremony, some morris dancers appeared behind Eric Idle.

My eyes widened. I leapt up from the sofa where I was arrayed, slopping my glass of wine dangerously close to a blameless child who was loitering nearby, pointed at the screen and yelled "morris dancers!" Everyone else in the room thought I was being eccentric. I was.

But I've followed this story for several years and the unheralded appearance of Bristol University's Rag Morris and the Blackheath Morris Men was the denouement to a long running saga. I'd hoped to see something unlikely happen - the definition of a good story - for morris dancing to appear centre stage for a change. And, blow me down, it actually did.

It was the best possible end to an amazing Olympic fortnight (though for the record, I also liked Annie Lennox's bit and thought Gary Barlow was very brave to be there, considering everything that was happening in his personal life. And Bradley Wiggins. And Andy Murray. And... and I could go on all day.)

"It was pretty stunning really," said Joss Smithson, bagman of the Bristol University Rag Morris side, on Tuesday when he'd started to come down from the experience. "We were first approached about it in February and we weren't allowed to tell anybody. A number of morris sides were approached - four or five, I think - and we went down for an audition at 3 Mills Studio somewhere in East London. They got back to us about a week later to say that they'd chosen us.

"There were 24 of us for the ceremony: four sides of six. We're associated with Bristol University, in that we're a society there. But the members are students, ex-students and some people who work at the university. There were a few who couldn't take part because of work commitments but we still had enough people and we all had to sign a confidentiality agreement.

"It was a once in a lifetime gig and we wanted to be a part of it. And although it was all done on a voluntary basis the Olympics provided some nice things for us: we got free Oyster cards to get about London and they made us all new hankies especially for the ceremony." Bonzer.

"We also had to make new coats for 24 people, which was something that turned out to be really good fun. We spent the days hanging out together, making new rags and bells. This was because the kit that we had at the beginning was a different colour for everyone. For instance, mine is bright yellow and orange. But they wanted us to look a bit more uniform and at one of the meetings early on they pointed at one person in our side and said 'We'd like you all to look like him'.

"Our main performance was during Eric Idle's piece Always Look on the Bright Side, along with Blackheath Morris, rollerskating nuns, bangra dancers, a cross-dressing Welsh choir and some Roman centurians."

He paused for a moment, apparently to consider the lunacy of that sentence, then laughed.

"Then, when The Who were playing, they got all the volunteers to stream across the centre of the stage, where we had a bit of a party and jumped up and down waving our hankies.

"Overall I'd say we had about ten rehearsals but Eric was only there for a couple of them towards the end. And though we didn't really get to meet him personally, there was a bit of banter over the walkie talkies with him saying 'Well done, guys. That was a good one.'

"The whole experience was kind of crazy. Apparently for that section of the ceremony they were taking inspiration from a concept Eric Idle had used in the past for a one-off stage show years ago, and they showed us a video of him on stage with a ballet dancer dressed as as swan and some Roman soldiers.

"I was so focused on doing the dancing and getting it right on the day that I can't really remember much about seeing the athletes. I do remember some people in Irish team kit, though, and at the entrance to the stadium we saw the Kazakh team go past.

"But what I'll take away is the surreal-ness of the whole thing. During the rehearsals, which were out at the old Ford factory in Dagenham, bizarre things kept happening. We'd be waiting for our bit and there would be a skeletal ship coming around the corner and then an exploding octopus. The anticipation was building but we kept being momentarily distracted by all the bizarre stuff.

"I think the reason we were asked was that there were a couple of people within the Olympic organisation who had worked with John Clifford and Kim Woodward on The Great Caper project and Dinosaurs Not Allowed. They'd been teaching morris dancing to kids as part of the cultural Olympiad. So they were contacted by someone and asked to put forward some names of sides to approach.

"I was kind of aware of a few people being upset because it looked as if there would be no morris in the ceremonies and there was a real temptation to say 'Guys, if you wait you might just get what you want'. But with the confidentiality agreement...

"We had to sort out our own accommodation in London. But luckily one of our members, Jenny, her parents live in London - Nodge and Dorothy Norris - and Nodge is involved with Blackheath Morris. So although he wasn't in the opening ceremony himself, they already knew what was happening. They hosted us for the week running up to the ceremony and there was one night when they had 22 extra people in their house! We're very, very grateful to them.

"That was a bit random as well. We had no idea Blackheath were involved until after the audition when we ran into each other outside the building.

"It was a once in a lifetime occurrence. I mean, the likelihood that the Olympics will return to the UK in my lifetime is slim. And then the odds that, even if they did, they'd want morris dancers or me in particular are completely infinitessimal.

"It was," sighed Joss, "a lot of fun and very exciting."

Other morris related posts on this blog include

Weird morris dancing picture from Limehouse

Naturist morris dancers on bicycles?

Way of the Morris: morris on, big time

Earlsdon morris really enjoy wearing their hats

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  1. Just so you know, hours later in the U.S., I also cried out, "Morris dancers!," when they popped onto the screen. There was a troop in Wisconsin when I worked there and whenever I hear bells, it's the first thing I think!

  2. Hey Ann. How's it going? I'm at Shrewsbury, which is just swinging into action. Have you seen the blog with the link to the webcast above?


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