Sidmouth Folk Festival: Embracing the event's evolution

Matthew Crampton (left), accompanied by concertina virtuoso Michael Hebbert, presented a new music hall show,.

Matthew Crampton (left), accompanied by concertina virtuoso Michael Hebbert, presented a new music hall show, “Never Mind the Frolics”. - Credit: Paul Strange

Visit the Sidmouth Folk Festival and you’ll see that the British folk tradition is vibrantly alive and (in some cases literally) kicking. The secret? It’s continually innovating and evolving, fostering new talents and embracing new genres. On Wednesday (3 August) we decided to explore some of those new genres, starting at the Manor Pavilion with Matthew Crampton’s latest show, Never Mind the Frolics.

Crampton’s best known for his serious works (such as “Human Cargo and The Transports”, which dealt with slavery and forced migration), and while the show did have its serious side, the focus was on the colourful songs and bawdy jokes of the music halls.

At its peak during the 19th century, music hall had its roots in the Industrial Revolution, when folk songs and dances were brought into towns by agricultural workers forced to seek work in the factories. Crampton, accompanied by concertina virtuoso Michael Hebbert, soon had the audience in fine voice with a medley of familiar chorus songs that included “Daisy, Daisy”, “Don’t Have Any More, Mrs Moore” and “If You Were The Only Girl In The World”.

A volley of silly jokes was followed by an embellished version of “The Hole In The Elephant’s Bottom” (with added innuendo) then, with a jarring shift of mood, by “She Was Poor But She Was Honest” and the bitter humour of the First World War’s “Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire”. Crampton continued with some sentimental songs, smutty jokes and a rousing version of “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm”.

Then, in the tradition of parody, we were treated to some spoof songs, including a ukulele version of “Anarchy In The UK”, a recitation of the colonial-era “The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God”, more jokes (‘I’m on the Adam Ant diet... don’t chew ever!’) and more songs – including the immortal “Your Baby Has Gone Down The Plughole” – leaving the happy audience exhausted from laughing.

A stroll away at the Blackmore Gardens, we were just in time to see Arthur wed Guinevere in Sid Vale Community Productions’ performance of King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table. The same group behind the Sidmouth Mummers’ Play and the Sidmouth Giants had drawn an appreciative audience to the Craft Stage to witness their hilarious retelling of the familiar tale, complete with colourful costumes, homemade props and some startling sound effects!

Sid Vale Community Productions’ performance of “King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table”.

The bishop prepares to marry Arthur and Guinevere in Sid Vale Community Productions’ performance of “King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table”. - Credit: Paul Strange

Arthur and Guinevere in Sid Vale Community Productions’ performance of “King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table”.

Arthur and Guinevere in Sid Vale Community Productions’ performance of “King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table”. - Credit: Paul Strange

Finally, it was on to All Saints’ Church for the Circus Bezercus Family Show. Part of the festival’s childrens’ programme, the daily family shows are popular, and there were already long queues when we arrived to see Devon-based duo Ben Cornish and Steve Eldridge as the hapless Gerald the Juggler and his incompetent assistant Wallace the Magician. The roots of circus are even older than those of music hall, dating back at least as far as ancient Egypt, when acrobats and jugglers were depicted in tombs.

Hapless Gerald the Juggler (left) meets incompetent Wallace the Magician in the Circus Bezercus Family Show

Hapless Gerald the Juggler (left) meets incompetent Wallace the Magician in the Circus Bezercus Family Show - Credit: Paul Strange

Incompetent Wallace the Magician (left) gets in a tangle with hapless Gerald the Juggler in the Circus Bezercus Family Show

Incompetent Wallace the Magician (left) gets in a tangle with hapless Gerald the Juggler in the Circus Bezercus Family Show - Credit: Paul Strange

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But good old-fashioned clowning never goes out of fashion, and in no time at all, the packed church was ringing with laughter and squeals of delight, as children clambered onto chairs to get a better view of Gerald’s impressive balancing tricks. Cue the entrance of Wallace, wreaking havoc first with his unrideable bike and then with some hands-free pogo stick riding, before proving a dab hand at balloon modelling. But how good was his magic? “Have you ever done a risk assessment?” he asked a young volunteer, adding nervously, “You’re scared? Me too! Have you had a good life?”

Adults, of course, loved the silly dialogue, and soon dads were being dragged onstage to participate in the impressive juggling finale, providing the best memory of the evening – a grown man wearing a schoolgirl hat (complete with pigtails) honking car horns and blowing a whistle while dodging flying clubs. Magic!

This year’s folk festival may nearly be over, but there are still many joys to come…

Circus Bezercus performing their juggling act

Circus Bezercus performing their juggling act - Credit: Paul Strange