I’ve finally had a chance to see Tim Plester’s excellent documentary The Way of the Morris on DVD having missed it when it was briefly on general release.
The morris is one of England’s traditional dance traditions. It is also one that is very easy to mock – it is hard to take too seriously men garlanded in flowers and bells frolicking in country lanes. Indeed, morris dancing’s last significant cinematic outing Morris: A Life With Bells On went down the tongue-in-cheek road. However, this new film takes a far more thoughtful look at the dance. It is not a straight historical overview of the dance or a search for its origins. Instead, at its heart is the director’s changing personal relationship with the tradition in his home village. A native of Adderbury in North Oxfordshire, his father and uncle were closely involved in the revival of the dance in the village in the 1970s. Despite this, he himself had never been taken part and had seen his connection with Morris as a skeleton in his closet. Over the course of this film, he speaks to those involved in the resurrection of the dance during the folk rock revival of the early 70s (Fairport Convention; Morris On). He follows the village side to the war graves and cemeteries of the Eastern France, where all but one of those who danced before WWI were killed. Only one, Charlie Coleman, returned, and he could not face dancing again. Touchingly, he was still alive in the village when the dance was revived and able to see the new side dance outside his cottage. It is perhaps inevitable that Plester ends up taking his father’s bells, hanky and baldric and taking his place in the morris team.
It is easy to describe films such as this as ‘elegaic’, and it certainly does look back to the end of the old agrarian way of life finished off by the Great War. However, it is also optimistic and forward looking underlining the continued enthusiasm for the morris in the village reflecting a wider national renewed engagement with local dance traditions. One of the strongest aspects of the film is that it explores the over-simplistic distinction between the old unbroken traditions and the 20th century revivals – initially promoted by Sharpe, Neal, Karpeles, Butterworth et al in the Edwardian period but with later upsurges in popularity. In many cases, such as at Adderbury, where although the tradition was broken, the new revivals looked backwards to these sides building on personal, often familial connections and making use of the records and transcriptions made by Sharpe and in this case of Adderbury in particular, Janet Heatley Blunt [http://library.efdss.org/archives/aboutblunt.html]
Apart from a slightly mystical introductory sequence that sits a little ill at ease with the rest of the film, this film manages to tread the tricky balance of treating morris dancing seriously without being po-faced about it and acknowledging the slightly silly side of it all. It shows the dancers to be thoughtful and introspective about the dance and the reasons for its survival and the importance of preventing it becoming a slightly middle-class re-invention of an essentially working class tradition.