By next Christmas, carol singers will be criminals

By Billy Bragg
(Filed: 30/12/2002)

A sense of wonder and excitement fills the air as the earnest participants shuffle into view, their movements constricted by their elaborate animalistic face masks. Here, among the tombs of the ancestors, beneath the honoured names of ancient warriors, they solemnly assemble before the elders.

The whole community has gathered in this place of spirits for the annual telling of their most sacred story. The village headman steps forwards to address the enthralled audience.

"Welcome to St Mary's Church and this year's Nativity play," says Mr Powell, headmaster of our local school. "As some of you parents will know, we alternate between a pantomime in the school hall next door and a Nativity here in the church. Last year, we had a panto with the older children, so this year we have the Year Ones and Twos giving us their Nativity play."

The headmaster picks up his guitar and the children begin to sing Away in a Manger, each child dressed as one of the barnyard animals that attended Christ's birth. Every parent present gets a lump in the throat.

Here in west Dorset, the festive season is the busiest time for community traditions. The village players have rehearsed their pantomime, the choir its carol concerts and the mummers have dusted down their costumes and recalled their lines. Dorset has a strong mumming tradition and the village of Symondsbury near Bridport is felt by many to be the best example that has survived. I recently travelled up the valley to Litton Cheney to witness a performance.

Thorner's School was founded in 1690 and, as schoolchildren and parents huddled in on a dark winter's afternoon, it seemed a fitting place to see the Symondsbury Mumming Play. In common with all mumming plays, it features St George, who fights and slays his enemies, only to ask the Doctor to bring them back to life.

More characters appear, are killed and revived, and the play concludes with the singing of the Travels. A holly bough is brought in and the lady of the house - in this case, the Thorner's headmistress - is asked to tie a ribbon to it. The whole thing lasts about 45 minutes and is conducted in a knockabout style, with many asides to the audience.

The true meaning of the play is lost, even to those who perform it. The death and resurrection theme may allude to midwinter solstice celebrations, in which the sun is symbolically "reborn" as days begin to get longer. Whatever its original function, the Mummers Play nowadays serves to remind us of the pagan elements that linger just beneath the shiny surface of the modern Christmas.

The understanding of the play is much less important than the performing of it. Like all community traditions, mumming relies on continuity in order to survive and flourish. These yearly keeps may seem risible to some, but they are a means of bringing people together in an increasingly disjointed society.

The mummers, the Nativity play, the panto, the carol concert all provide opportunities for newcomers to meet their fellow villagers and appreciate the age-old values of the local community.

Yet all these activities are under threat from the licensing Bill that is currently passing through Parliament. While dealing chiefly with the sale of alcohol, the Bill seeks to amend the regulations regarding the provision of entertainment. Almost all public music-making, singing, dancing and acting becomes a criminal offence unless first licensed by the local authority. Even private performance is caught, if it is to raise money for charity, or the performers are paid, or a charge is made for admission.

The maximum penalty for hosting an unlicensed performance is a #20,000 fine and six months in prison.

The catch-all wording of the Bill seeks to criminalise all manner of hitherto legitimate activities. It defines "premises" as "any place". Thus, public demonstrations of musical instruments in a shop require a licence, as would a rendition of Happy Birthday in a restaurant. Making merry will be licensable not just in pubs and clubs, but also in private homes and gardens, in churches, schools and community halls.

If enacted without amendment, the Bill would have a devastating effect on our community traditions here in west Dorset. Churches are exempt only if the music is incidental to a religious service. For the purposes of the Act, our school Nativity was a play and therefore requires a licence.

If any members of the school band wish to form a group, their rehearsal space will have to be licensed, too. The WI will be faced with a huge increase in costs if it hopes to stage the village pantomime next year. The carollers will be confined to licensed premises. Even carol singing in shopping centres or railway stations would be illegal without a licence.

The mummers are also under threat from the scope of this legislation. Their brief season traditionally ends on New Year's Day with a performance at the Ilchester Arms in their home village of Symondsbury. Soon the landlord could be risking imprisonment unless he can afford a licence for such entertainment.

Most galling of all is the fact that this law will not apply in Scotland, despite the fact that other noise and safety legislation is UK-wide. Provided music is secondary to the main business, it is not licensable north of the Border. Scottish musicians will remain free to gather together in bars and clubs and hold impromptu "sessions". Although the Welsh will be subject to the Act, they have their own national assembly to protect their community traditions.

Here in England, however, we have no one to speak up for the Symondsbury Mummers and the countless other amateur players whose annual observances have ensured the continuity of our English traditions. For all of their dedication and commitment, they may soon find themselves squeezed out of existence by over-zealous bureaucracy. It seems that St George, for so long the victorious hero of the Mumming Play, is about to be defeated.