MERRY YULE, AND MARI LWYD!
Thursday, 20 December 2018
Happy festive Folklore Thursday everybody!
Please find attached this year’s totally bonus ‘brand new’ yule story, for all you lovely pledgers – MARI LWYD. As you know, our book is more about tales than ‘lore’, but thanks to those lovely folks at folkwales.org.uk, there seemed just enough of a plot surrounding that Victorian vicar to wind a pleasing wee narrative around. We hope you agree! And anyway, it’s free. B-boom.
We complete another full season of Tales of Britain blogs as Yule rolls around – you can find the whole journey mapped out HERE – and now, at last, it can honestly be said that there is nothing left to do on the book. After 15 years, these 77 lovingly retold British stories are now not just at the printers, but a few copies may even be printed and headed out, just too late for the ‘holiday season’. Having had 4 books released just in time for the ‘holiday season’ however, that’s not a tragedy, perhaps we can stand out at that quiet time in the publishing industry, bringing some warmth amid the cold months of winter – and we’re all just hugely glad to finally have a British folktale collection on the shelves at last. Not a local book, not a collection of ‘lore’ not a story anthology ‘inspired’ by folktales – the ACTUAL STORIES, revived for a new generation. There’s nothing else like this out there, and it’s about time.
We cannot thank everyone who has backed us up and added their belief in Tales of Britain to ours, enough. Let us know how you wish to have your forthcoming pledge treats carried out, be it joining me and Sister Sal in Bath for a retelling of the Bladud legend on-site, or attending our launch in London, or any number of shows around the UK throughout 2019. Your names will also of course be there in the book, but equally carved on our hearts! In a totally non-literal sense. This is just the beginning of a whole new world of 21st century folktale-telling!
With this an off-day for the official Folklore Thursday, we have no theme, and no specific tale to single out. For our special live Yule show last weekend, we performed stories like The Marriage of Robin Redbreast, The Verries of Pennard Castle, The Last Yule, The Apple Tree Man and best of all, our two-person panto Dick Whittington, but here to add to the bunch we have a short squib from the Welsh valleys, a remembrance of festive daftness stretching back thousands of years beyond The Year Dot…
Thank you all again, and let’s get ready for a 2019 of British story-telling like never before!
Brother Bernard xxx
HAPPY YULE! PUBLICATION DAYS AWAY!
Thursday, 13 December 2018
DEAR FOLKLORE THURSDAY LOVERS, BOOK PLEDGERS, AND FELLOW BRITISH FOLKTALE REVIVAL CAMPAIGNERS…!
First of all, we can’t wait to see as many of your as possible at this year’s LIVE YULE SHOW in Bath on Saturday afternoon. There will be one or two traditional yule tales repeated from last year’s show, but lots of fresh tales to enjoy too, including our panto-ish rendition of DICK WHITTINGTON! Oh, and free sweets, as ever.
Brother Bernard and Sister Sal have been performing these live shows for over two years, but this will be the very last show WITHOUT BOOKS AVAILABLE TO BUY AND HAVE SIGNED!
Because yes, this very week, very final fixes have been sent off for the manuscript (for instance – the London Stone has always been described as a piece of a Temple dedicated to Diana in the Brutus legend, so we said the same… but now we come to think of it, Diana is the Roman version of Greek God Artemis, and Brutus’ story takes place CENTURIES before Rome was even founded, so how can it have been Diana? If the book arrives with ‘Artemis’ in that story, then we haven’t wasted our time this week!), and it’s possible that we may have copies even before the 25th – though that seems an insanely quick turnaround at the last minute.
This has been a very long, hard and bumpy road – the genesis of Tales of Britain goes back to circa 2004, when I simply wanted to BUY a collection of British folktales for my first of five nephews… only to find there literally wasn’t one, and one hadn’t been published since 1988 (with a reprint for that edition in 2001), plus the original leather-bound 1970s academic collections, which cost £100s. But now we can finally unveil the cover, it’s hard not to get excited!
Although, as those of you who have been in on the campaign long-time will know, our reduced budget means that a lot of difficult battles had to be won on this design. But we were very pleased to get all sorts of victories included in this cover: the first draft was packed with worrying misconceptions which we lobbied hard to fix – it needed better gender balance, and a cat, for a start – and above all, we’re pleased as pleased can be to have managed to get our official logo on there, as we were worried it wouldn’t be included.
We went through all sorts of ideas, at one stage designer Darrell Jones sent across a concept cover on spec which seemed a lovely idea – the chalkhill concept was neat, it would have been great to have had the shape of the British Isles carved into the grass, but Unbound said no. Though you can see, it was a lovely bit of work, and we can’t thank Darrell enough for the suggestion. In all honesty, although this is smart, the cover does need to convey the freaky, quirky comedic nature of most of the stories, and the new design does do that very well.
And besides, this is only stage 1 of our international campaign to promote British folktales, stories are still being retold all the time, and there will be further editions, fully illustrated, and hugely broadened, so who knows what the future might hold? For now, this will be the one full British folklore collection available in one volume, all round the world.
Those who haven’t already pledged for a copy can buy Tales of Britain online now and of course we’ll start organising all the pledge rewards and a great big London launch party once the 12 days of winter solstice are out of the way (maybe early February?). Whether you pledged to have Bernard come and visit you, or to come to Bath to visit the site of Bladud’s story with Bernard and Sister Sal, or even to have a tale retold just for you – we look forward to delivering the goods!
But before the stress and activity that January brings, what can we do but revel in the season’s pleasures? Chief of which is STORIES – this Saturday, at the Bell Inn, Bath!
Everyone readying this exciting collection of 77 stories wishes everyone who has supported the campaign the very merriest Mithras/Solstice/Saturnalia/Xmas/Winter Solstice/Yule! Let’s make 2019 THE YEAR for British folktales!
A Saxon Yule Feast: THE LAST YULE
Thursday, 6 December 2018
LET THE SCRUMPTIOUS YULE FEAST, MEAD AND FLESH AND WINE AND CAKES AND ALE, BE ENJOYED BY ALL PLEDGERS THIS FOLKLORE THURSDAY!
With only a week and a bit to go until our 2018 YULE special live show maybe we shouldn’t be sharing free stories, but well, it’s Xmas, so do find linked above the full – and rather boozy – one-man rendition of THE LAST YULE, last year’s free Xmas story for you all, which you won’t find in the book (though we now have seen the full cover, and are getting very excited about next month’s release at last!), but will be performed live for the first time by Brother Bernard and Sister Sal in the show on Saturday week!
Plus as ever, we will have a GREAT BIG PIE packed with free sweeties, of course! This is the closest we can get to a traditional Saxon Yule feast, but do feel free to bring your own suckling pigs!
Today’s story concerns a first millennium Christian, an Italian called Augustine, who was sent by the Pope to convert the English Saxons to their funky new lifestyle choice – and the danger their zealotry posed to the Winter Solstice fun that we had all been having for many centuries, long before the bread-and-wine-themed religion had been invented! It’s a tough folktale to track down – my first hearing of it was in Stephen Fry’s Paperweight (ahem, the official Fry & Laurie story SOUPY TWISTS is still in shops, should you be short of a present for a discerning comedy fan friend!), but this retelling is greatly expanded and jollied up in full Tales of Britain style, so whether you enjoy it right now on YouTube or live on Saturday, we hope you enjoy it!
The Yule feast is essential to the story, it’s the riotous, rich, warm scene where Augustine takes his gamble, to convert the drunk Saxons to his religion, and to this day we’re all still trying to recreate the mouth-watering, rich yumminess of those Saxon feasts every Christmas – it’s the groaning board which inspired Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’s most loquacious passages, the boar’s head enjoyed by weird people every December 25th, the true essence of what it means to celebrate life at this time of year, with the yule log crackling in the grate and the snow battering at the windows.
It’s also, of course, a largely true story, attached to the Kent locales of Ramsgate and especially, of course, Canterbury, as Augustine was made the very first Archbishop of Canterbury after managing to wangle the Saxons into buying into the whole Jesus thing. Luckily, the Catholics made damn sure not to ruin anyone’s yuletide traditions – they knew they had to keep these barbarians on side, and so their faith came packed with endless feasting opportunities! A millennium and a bit later, Christianity may have come and all-but gone from popular observance in Britain, we have never stopped celebrating Yule every December 25th!
Long may this be so, no matter what your personal beliefs. HAPPY YULE! And eat up.
Robin Redbreast’s Snowy Mission
Thursday, 29 November 2018
I hope you’re all wonderfully wrapped up this cold and damp Folklore Thursday!
It’s not quite feeling festive just yet, but today’s snowy theme suggests perhaps the simplest tale of the 77 in our book – a yuletide tale enjoyed by Rabbie Burns as a tiny tot, THE MARRIAGE OF ROBIN REDBREAST.
This seems to be one of the very rare tales we haven’t yet blogged about, but it’s hardly surprising as it’s so slight, sweet and simple – and of course, has no real basis in the real landscape or history of Scotland that anybody could ever pinpoint, so there’s not a lot to debate. It’s a very traditional fable, a ‘rule of three’ narrative, in which the titular birdy must fly through snow and wind across the white hills of Ayrshire to the castle of the King of Ayr in time for the Royal Wedding, where he’ll be singing a special song. On the way a cat, a kite and a wee boy all try to trick and capture the chirpy robin, but he outwits them and makes it to the wedding, where he’s repaid with the wing in marriage of wee Jenny Wren, and both couples enjoy a romantic snowy Christmas day together.
The tradition of Robin Redbreast and Jenny Wren getting married is an ancient trope, but it’s this Burns story which defines the idea as a Christmas story, and the snowy landscape over which Robin travels is one of the most key ingredients, which prevent the story from being too trite. Our source material is this retelling, attributed to Robert Burns’ sister Isabella, and though of course we’ve ironed out the language, we hope it still has a certain tinkling Gaelic charm in its retelling. Despite there being no real historicity to such a slight fable, as an Ayrshire nursery rhyme, we took a punt on the King in question being based at the ancient Brodick Castle, pictured here in the snow…
It’s only a very short story, but we featured it in last year’s Yule Tales of Britain Live show, and it’s back in the brew for this year’s show as well. And not just to allow Brother Bernard to do his Sean Connery impression for the King again.
The show is two weeks this Saturday in Bath, and it’s a Pay What You Feel deal packed with special yuletide folktales, only a matter of weeks before our books are in your hands! So please do come along and join in the festive fun – and help spread the word if you can, because the more, the literally merrier! And if a kite, a cat and a wee boy try to stop you getting to The Bell Inn for 4pm on Saturday 15th – give a wee whistle, and keep on going!
It’s… Panto Folklore! Oh Yes It Is.
Thursday, 22 November 2018
HAPPY FOLKLORE THURSDAY, BOYS AND GIRLS! And anyone else anywhere they like on the spectrum.
When we discovered that this week’s Folklore Thursday theme was THEATRE, we wasted up to a minute trying to think which of our 77 tales were relevant – the welsh harp player in ‘Vengeance Will Come’? The play acting of the locals in ‘The Wise Folk of Gotham’? Then the obvious occurred – right now we’re building up to our second special YULETIDE live Tales of Britain show in Bath this December!
Live performance is so central to our campaign and our book’s release, both via our own live shows all over the UK and the live readings we hope all readers will be performing for friends and families when the book arrives in January. So let’s take a fresh look at how British folklore has inspired that most puzzling of British seasonal traditions – the PANTOMIME!
As with most folktales, the biggest names still come courtesy of the Grimms, with German legends being retold in the nation’s local playhouses, but there are a few panto staples which are entirely home-grown – and we like to make a point of including at least one in our Yule show, to provide a kind of free (our shows tend to be ‘Pay What You Feel On Exit’) pre-Yule pantomime experience for all.
Britain is responsible for some surprising famous fairytales – Goldilocks and The Three Pigs being great examples – but neither of those stories have really become traditional panto fodder, perhaps due to the lack of a central romance between heteronormative cross-dressing human beings. But if one can be crowbarred into the existing story, it’s just the kind of thing to attract the nation’s children’s TV presenters and soap stars out to the sticks to earn a few annual salaries over the winter months.
Last year, our grand panto closer for the live Yule show was perhaps the greatest of them all – JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. As we’ve mentioned, this most famous of all tales is by far the longest in our collection (think about it, so much happens!), but last year we ended our Yule show with a full performance, complete with Brother Bernard as Dame and Sister Sal as Jack! We never have much in the way of props, but we were even pleased to find a huge bush in The Bell Inn, our venue, which came in very handy!
On the other hand, I’m no Gary Wilmot…
And then, there’s perhaps the oddest mainstream panto of them all – BABES IN THE WOOD.
As detailed in the blog above, this is essentially a horrific Tudor True Crime which became a sentimental folktale… and then, ultimately, somehow, a knockabout farce involving Robin Hood & The Merrie Men.
However, we’re not in a rush to include Babes In The Wood in any Yule show any time soon, as of course our version remains as true as possible to its source material – in fact, so problematic is the legend, we decided to offer readers a choice of finales, including the panto-style Robin Hood happy ending, but it’s ultimately such a haunting tale, it’s a challenge we have yet to face, to find a way to make it part of the weave and weft of a jolly hour’s storytelling at Christmas.
Not least as we can’t afford Cannon & Ball. Nor Derek Griffiths, more’s the pity.
But the British hero we do have making his debut in a live Tales show this December 15th is…
DICK WHITTINGTON – that Gloucestershire boy made good in Islington (home of our publishers, Unbound). Again, the true history of medieval London Mayor Richard Whittington has gone through many a perverse permutation in the 500+ years since the real fellow walked the non-gold streets of the metropolis, with added characters like Idle Jack (who has a small role in our retelling), the Spirit of the Bells and the villainous King Rat joining the cast to pad it out to a full evening of reupholstered pop songs, sweetie-throwing, thigh-slapping and a choc-ice at half time. Although the version of the tale you will find in the book when it arrives in the New Year, once again, inclines towards the traditional, it was fun to slip in references to these panto traditions – and for the live version, indeed, we’re going to beef those references up somewhat for an extended retelling – including the showdown with the King Rat himself!
So where else would you want to be this Saturday 15th December at 4pm, but The Bell Inn, Bath? There’ll be free sweeties, apple-tree-men, ridiculous voices, mild blasphemy and festive folky fun for all the family. Oh yes there will. There really will.
But: no Krankies.
SEAQUAKE! The Drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod
Thursday, 15 November 2018
Well I have to say, dear Folklore Thursday types – ‘volcanoes and earthquakes’ is a rather unfair theme for a collection of British folktales! We don’t get much in the way of streams of lava over here in Blighty, so a spot of creative thinking is required…
Natural disasters, of course, proliferate in our collection – but they are more typically of the very wet kind, and essentially Welsh. We have already detailed the drowning of the town of Bala in our live favourite, Vengeance Will Come, but it’s actually one of two stories about Welsh sunken lands in our collection. Thankfully, they are very different narratives, and besides, as we say in the tales, it’s little wonder Welsh folklore is so stuffed with tales about lost lands, when the English stole most of their land from them in the first place…
I’m proud to say that I went to University in Aberystwyth for three years, but little did I know, every time I gazed out over the Ceredigion coastline, or Cardigan Bay if you prefer, that the fertile Kingdom of Cante’r Gwaelod was hiding beneath the waves – the setting of our second Welsh natural disaster tale, ‘The Lost Land’.
For a while, it was a toss-up between this west coast story and the near-identical tale of Lionesse, based way down on the most south-westerly tip of Cornwall and with Arthurian overtones , as to which would make the grade. But even given the possible incongruity of two Welsh drowned city tales in the same collection, that corner of Cornwall was so over-stocked with stories already, we were happy to give Ceredigion its moment.
This was one of our morally problematic stories, as the central message of the original legend boils down to ‘stop having fun, and do your duty’, which you’ll agree is about as boring a moral as any story could have. By pitching the upstanding Welsh Prince Teithryn against his boozy good-time brother Seithenyn, who is too busy partying with a buxom young mermaid to check on his side of the great sluicegates which held back the Irish Sea – with predictably tragic consequences – it’s hard to disguise the obvious finger-wagging moral of the tale.
We have, however, dampened the moralising somewhat by making the difference between the brother less obvious – in our version of the story, Teithryn likes a drink and a dance himself, but he PRIORITISES his duty to prevent everyone drowning horribly, which seems pretty fair enough really. It’s not about being a puritan, it’s about… not being a knob.
Of course, there’s also a pretty unavoidable metaphor for climate change built into the ancient legend. One Prince crying out for attention to be paid to the ever-more dangerous elements, trying to save everyone by reminding them of the fragility of our environment, while the other laughs at the idea of impending natural disaster, and prefers to prioritise hedonism, hanky-panky, and… well, see Donald Trump.
This legend has long been believed to have a toe or two in historical reality, which was strengthened not that long ago with the discover of the Ynyslas prehistoric submerged forest just off the coast of Borth. As with the historical transformation of the Isle of Avalon into Glastonbury Tor as water levels sank, it’s a very useful reminder of the ever-changing landscape of the Earth’s surface, and the idiocy of assuming everything will remain the same, and that humanity will ultimately be fine, no matter how we treat the planet…
But we are at least way off the return of active volcanoes in Great Britain, or indeed earthquakes… well, fracking aside.
Seithenyn would have loved fracking. We really do seldom learn.
By the way, lovelies – with our books only a number of weeks away from bookshops now, do come to Bath on 15th December to celebrate our second special Yuletide show! There’ll be festive folktales galore, free sweeties, and who knows what else?!
Community Folk Magic From Tintagel to Edinburgh
Wednesday, 7 November 2018
Merry Folklore Thursday, all in our wonderous community!
Folk magic and community traditions, you say? Hmm, well in specific folktale terms, the one tale of our 77 which most perfectly encapsulates the concept would be THE TIDDY MUN – generally we shy away from such basic superstitions, folklore is awash with that kind of thing, but there’s our little concession to it all…
Except, of course, our live shows are their own kind of folk magic, and we’ve been travelling up and down the country all year, visiting communities and sharing not just folks’ own local folktales with them, but at least one tale from every Kingdom of Britain: England, Kernow, Wales and Scotland. Back at the start of 2018, being advised that this book would finally be released by Unbound this year, I vowed to you all to perform TALES OF BRITAIN LIVE in every part of the land… and on Wednesday, thanks to the kind storytellers of Abergavenny, I completed the set!
Cheers to Alison and all at Broadleaf books for a rainy but fun evening of storytelling!
The shows take many forms – the deluxe is Brother Bernard and Sister Sal together, with props and costume and a huge pie filled with sweeties – as a solo Bernard show, I’ve performed in amany other places this year, including camping out at Freshford, and Abergavenny was a new experience again – a storytelling circle event, with others also adding British folktales in between my own. That they were all distinct and new to me was evidence of just how copious British folklore is…
But in the attached video you will see evidence of the long tour taking in Bath, Ludlow, Tintagel, Edinburgh, and of course, Abergavenny. In some cases, true, the sites are only a few miles beyond the border, but it still counts, and I remain a man of my word!
If only we had actual books to sell in each land, but the good news is… as of January… we will do! Yes, it’s probably not wise to name a specific date, but Unbound has assured me that the beginning of the new year will finally see proper papery copies of our collection of 77 British folktales with tourist guides in pledgers’ hands, and shops all over the UK! They have apologised for the odd release date (apparently January is not an ideal book release period), but we don’t care – we’ve been writing and performing these tales for 14 years or more, and touring the UK for nearly three years, and all we’ve wanted is actual books to take to every show! We have even seen a rough cover, which is a nice start, but we’re working on getting it right for you all…
So we will have one more YULE TALES OF BRITAIN show here in Bath for 2018, but as for 2019… you name the place, the festival, the bookshop, we will tell stories there, if we can! Of course there will be a book launch in London, and the traditional Bath show and Ludlow Festival, and maybe Edinburgh again… but we really want to hear from you, with offers of places we can mount shows all year long, and beyond! Both solo Brother Bernard and with Sister Sal alongside, we’re raring to go… Poeple come together, hear the tales of their country afresh, or for the first time, and the magic is enjoyed by all…!
So let us bring some folk magic to your community!
Our Hero, TERRY JONES
Thursday, 1st November 2018
A heroic Folklore Thursday to you all, and to pledgers especially!
If you will forgive your author’s unusual stepping out from underneath Brother Bernard’s green velvet cowl, this is a rather tricky and sensitive blog which has been in the offing for quite a while, but how to go about it? Rather than focussing on one British folktale, today we’re celebrating one British HERO – Python, movie director, historian, humanitarian, journalist, poet and mainly, for our purposes, glorious storyteller, TERRY JONES!
From our very first blog in the summer of 2017, we have stressed the influence of a few key storytellers in our approach to our folklore: Rik Mayall’s Grim Tales, as adapted by Anthony Horowitz, is paramount – many of our tales were pretty specifically written for Rik’s naughty brand of anarchic yarn-spinning, and at one point, months before we lost him forever, ‘Approach Rik’s agent with Tales of Britain TV idea’ was at the top of our to-do list. The exciting mythology retellings of our patron Sir Tony Robinson were also a huge inspiration, and of course the magical weave of Anthony Minghella’s writing for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. But Terry’s tale-telling has a different, more personal relevance to this book which we’re all keenly waiting for Unbound to send our way.
I first met the loquacious, passionate Welsh Python circa 2010, as an early port of call when researching my second book, The True History of the Black Adder. Nobody filled such an authoritative chair at the juncture of History and Comedy as the man who co-directed ‘Holy Grail’, directed ‘Erik the Viking’ and wrote ‘Who Murdered Chaucer?’ Although he admitted that he knew little about Blackadder, he theorised and philosophised with me about funny history as his tiny baby daughter Siri crawled across the carpet, then he took me for a few pints of real ale (it was real, I drank it to make sure), and was generally hospitality itself.
Of course, as a fledgling comedy historian, no matter how friendly Terry was, I knew the great man was just being lovely, and very early on I developed a strong concern that his niceness was exactly the kind of rare celebrity virtue that endless folk must have taken advantage of, for many years, and his natural courtesy and kindness allowed all sorts of liberties to be taken.
As you can see from this 2014 article, Terry’s original inspiration for his celebrated Fairy Tales was not dissimilar to our own motives here – dismay that the existing lore was not fit for purpose, to be told to 21st century kids. Whereas we have taken that as a cue to delving back into a folktale’s oldest roots, and finding a way to reshape the narrative into a fresh form, Jonesy simply began telling his own fairy tales, fit for his daughter to enjoy.
The mystical and silly short stories which resulted from this rash of composition were a childhood favourite of ours back in the 1980s, and they were further enhanced on adaptation to telly, with the help of Terry’s old friend, Python/Rutles/Bonzo maestro Neil Innes, who was also entrancing my generation with Puddle Lane. The resultant programme, East of the Moon, linked above, more than deserves a loving DVD/BluRay release by now…
But knowing how Terry felt about storytelling, and loving his folkloric style, I had a dearly held request to make, despite my misgivings about his niceness making any request feel like an imposition. The thing is, back in the early days of Tales of Britain, I was so INCENSED by the fact that no proper anthology of British folktales existed that I felt it was a campaign many other famed British writers for younger readers would be equally keen to promote. I honestly felt that if, say – and let’s go right to the top – Jo Rowling, David Walliams, Phillip Pullman and so on realised that the only option for a holistic collection from these islands was to spend hundreds of pounds on leather-bound folklore collections, that they would want to right that injustice too. And so, why wouldn’t they want to join with me to write new versions of local lore from all over Britain? This is why Brother Bernard was summoned up, so a whole host of authors could join together to promote a fresh take on British folklore, all under the same pseudonym.
Of course, sadly I had got nowhere with this plan, despite some of the above names being approached professionally… and yet, I felt, surely Terry would understand, and may just be keen to join me in the project? He and Michael Palin had after all partially inspired Brother Bernard with the creation of their own author, Bert Fegg, and he had repeated the trick with his own ‘Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book‘. Plus, once again, he had a daughter to write stories for! It seemed within the realms of possibility…
There was an extra reason for being in touch with the great man anyway – Terry was a long-standing patron of the Bath Comedy Festival, and when I suggested to the festival boss the concept of THE BATH PLUG AWARD, what could be more perfect, than showing a couple of the director’s films (Holy Grail and, his choice, the wonderful Wind In The Willows) and then I would interview him on stage for a Q&A? Everyone’s a winner.
So this was all happily agreed for April 2015. In January of that year I found myself in that London, and so emailed Terry to see if he’d like a pint, and I could discuss Tales of Britain with him. He cordially (of course) invited me to his local, where we were joined by the now 5-year-old Siri and her mother, Terry’s partner Anna. All three of them seemed quite sold on my idea for a road atlas of fresh British folktales, each with their own tourist guide, and I promised a copy to Siri one day there and then. Terry, however… was rather quiet throughout. He absolutely echoed my call for a book like this, but ultimately, as a busy chap, he told me, ‘I’d love to write a foreword for you if you get it made…’
This was of course not quite what I wanted, and seemed to be exactly the kind of extremely kind offer he was wont to make – I recall he was writing a foreword for someone else’s book when I first walked into his study! Don’t get me wrong, what an HONOUR! to have a Python offer to write an introduction to Tales of Britain! But yes, I had hoped for a collaborator – and maybe I had aimed too high.
The truly sad part of the story never revealed itself until a week or two before the Bath Plug Award, when Terry emailed me to say, to admit, to opine… that he was not himself. That he didn’t think a public Q&A was going to be within his power. All comedy geeks had noted that the dear fellow was by far the least chatty of the Pythons throughout their O2 publicity, happy to let Palin and co take the lead on all questions. But that it was down to the earliest signs of an illness which could never be cured was a horrible thought nobody wanted to entertain. We agreed that Terry’s comfort was paramount, and yet, with tickets sold, however, Terry’s pluck and kindness inspired him to make an extra-human effort, and the Bath Plug Award presentation went ahead.
It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, steering the beloved comic through a whole hour of on-stage ‘banter’ (horrific word, but at least when a Python’s involved, I can use it), and one or two out in the crowd were less forgiving than others, but we survived the ordeal… and it seems I may very well have been the last person ever to interview Terry Jones, at least in public. That evening, despite my fawning respect for his privacy, he insisted that I dine with him, and he ordered bottle after bottle of extremely good malbec on Bath Comedy Festival funds… as I talked. At him. One of the greatest creators of comedy of the last 50 years, a pent-up fountain of comedy knowledge to whom I could have listened for weeks on end. Stuck on ‘listening mode’. So, as I say, I talked at him. I talked and spoke and jawed and said and blethered and protested and explained, all night long – with regular protestations of ‘I’m so sorry Terry, I just seem to be talking non-stop’, to which he smiled and replied, ‘But I like hearing you talk’. Kindness, again? For a poor drunk desperate storyteller? Any which way, having gone into the Tales of Britain project in atomic detail, I eventually sloped up the hill from the Abbey Hotel very worse for wear, and rather hoarse, but confident that one of the world’s greatest storytellers was on our side with this crucial campaign…
In 2016 I arranged with John Mitchinson of Unbound that I would bring my next two books – official Fry & Laurie biography Soupy Twists and Tales of Britain (which I had reluctantly had to write all on my lonesome, the manuscript being at least 50 tales strong by this point), to his crowd-funded publisher. By sweet coincidence, Terry Jones was a founding member of Unbound, and his own brilliant Knight & The Squire series was coming to an end on the platform at the time.
But before I could open Tales of Britain up to the public in mid-2017, Terry broke the news. His diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia explained much, but of course only made the whole story sadder than any of us would ever have wanted. And obviously, there was absolutely no question from then on that I would be chasing up any kind of foreword, no matter how sincerely offered back in 2015.
Blessedly, Terry’s old friend Neil Innes has passionately taken up the cause, pledging for a book like the rest of you, and becoming a key patron of our campaign:
But rather than ask anything of our hero, as he grabs every day remaining and makes the very most of it, the natural decision was to dedicate the book to the author of Nicobobinus, Erik the Viking, The Fly-By-Night and so many other captivating tales, making it clear from the first page that this all-new celebration of British storytelling was eternally inspired by his own magical fairy-tale-weaving. I’ve since been in touch with Anna, to update her on the new direction, and everyone at Unbound, and everyone working to make Tales of Britain worthy of this connection, hopes with all our collective hearts that the tribute will be taken with all the love intended.
There will be much talk this Folklore Thursday of Heroes, Greek warriors, Norse Gods, and so on. But for us, today is all about a real hero – both throughout his life of hilarious, cerebral, humanist creativity, and with what he faces today.
Terry Jones is Our Hero.
Black Vaughan’s Revenge: HALLOWEEN TALES!
Thursday, 25 October 2018
MWAH-HA-HA-HAAAA! SAMHAIN APPROACHETH, LOYAL PLEDGERS! Here’s wishing you a very Happy Halloween from Brother Bernard, Sister Sal and all at Tales of Britain!
If you have the slightest chance of making it to Somerset on Saturday afternoon, seek out the RING O’BELLS in Widcombe, five minutes’ walk from Bath Spa train station, where we’ll be performing a whole hour of spooky stories as part of our very first Halloween-themed show – with big news about our Yuletide shows in the offing!
Normally we like to keep details of the tales we’re telling secret until the show itself, but as most of you are unlikely to attend – especially those in Australia, you lazy gets – we thought we’d use this blog to take a quick look at the chosen FOUR KINGDOMS OF HORROR, whose legends we will be rebooting at 4pm on Saturday, even though we have blogged about them before…
VENGEANCE WILL COME
From Bala in North Wales, we’ll be giving our rendition of the tale of the flooding of Llyn Tegid – in truth, we have adapted this nasty story for both Xmas and the Bath Comedy Festival in the past, as we just enjoy it too much, and it gives us a chance to offer round a great big pie filled with sweeties! But it’s certainly very nasty, and loads of folk die in it.
Heading north of the border gives us our first ever performance of Rabby Burns’ semi-true tale of the drunken Scotsman whose journey home across the Bridge O’Doon becomes a terrifying race for his life against a gang of outraged vicious witches! Cackling and spellcasting galore!
THE EXORCISM OF JAN TREGEAGLE
Finally we head down to Kernow, one of our newest tales – written only this summer in Bodmin, when our book manuscript was formally delivered to Unbound almost exactly one year ago, on Halloween 2017 (yes, that is a long time for post-production, we can only apologise to impatient pledgers, we’ve heard nothing from Unbound for months now, but we hope beyond hope that when they do get back in touch, it will be with a really well-designed manuscript at last, worth waiting for). Retold as a kind of 17th century Ghostbusters, Jan Tregeagle’s haunting legend is a fresh and chilling note for us to end on…
But, keen-brained as you all are, you will have noted that that is only three stories, and England has been left out all together! That’s because I was in no doubt whatsoever that one of the very first blogs ever written here was on the macabre Herefordshire tale of BLACK VAUGHAN, the shapeshifting spectre of Kington! And blow us up, down and across if on double-checking, it turns out that we never wrote any such blog in the first place!
This seems especially surprising, as Black Vaughan’s tale is one of the few which was already well ingrained into my psyche from a young age – when I was around 14, my brother appeared in a Ludlow College adaptation of the legend, playing the hero, a drunken monk, as directed by our wonderful Theatre Studies teacher, an inspirational figure sadly no long with us, Ilid Landry. Ludlow being in South Shropshire, Black Vaughan’s North Herefordshire setting was positively a walkable distance.
The tale concerns a vicious aristocrat from the 15th century, Thomas Vaughan, who was killed during the Wars of the Roses, and is buried at St. Mary’s church, Kington, where his effigy can still be found – not far from his home at Hergest Court. So despised was this dark nob, however, that local lore would not let him rest, but brought him back in the form of a gigantic slavering big black ghost dog (yes, another one of those), and also, as his wicked powers allowed him to take many forms, a nasty black fly who buzzed horses and got up everybody’s nose, and worst of all, a mighty, big black EVIL BULL who galloped into the church intending to gore all who got in his way… until a wily challenge from the aforementioned tiddly monk finally laid him to rest, at the bottom of Hergest pool, where his spirit is still imprisoned to this day.
Although the tale is packed with familiar tropes, Black Vaughan is right up there with Black Shuck as one of our greatest ghost hounds, and is considered a key inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles – a Halloween favourite if ever there was one.
And so this gory, haunting story will be the first tale with which we kick off our show in Bath this Saturday – we hope to see you there, and if not – WE’LL SET THE DOG ON YOU!
Be Afraid: Of THE LAMBTON WORM!
Thursday, 18 October 2018
Howay, a f-f-f-frightful Samhain-ish Folklore Thursday to you all, lovely pledgers!
As we observed last week, our road atlas of 77 tales is bursting with beasts enough to terrify everyone to the grave and back, and we shall be featuring four such scary stories in our first ever Samhain/ Halloween show in Bath a week on Saturday! Brother Bernard and Sister Sal will share with you legends including Black Vaughan and Tam O’Shanter…
©Osweo on DeviantArt
… But today’s folktale won’t be one of them, no matter how tempting it is to attempt outrageous Geordie accents – but there are fewer tales more frightening than that Tyneside terror, THE LAMBTON WORM! Of all the dragon-slaying yarns in our collection, there’s something uniquely gross about this big, fat, white, vicious demonic creature – it doesn’t speak, there’s no Smaug charm or exciting fire-breathing, just a nine-eyed, slavering, animalistic monster intent on nothing but churning human beings up for its tea. In our retelling there’s a hopefully discernable tang of Viz comic, in the sheer ROCK-HARDNESS of the worm’s slayer, the knight John Lambton, and it would be great fun to perform some day, dodgy vowels and all.
The Sunderland area where the events of the tale take place has been very thoroughly mapped out for folkloric visits for many year, and the National trust website for Penshaw Monument (see above), where the mighty dragon was said to have coiled its slimy body, even has a full map of where to visit, to walk in Lambton’s footsteps, and try to find signs of the despicable worm. A journey so far North East in England may not most obviously be for the purpose of experiencing the sites of ancient folklore, but this one tale is the jewel of the whole countryside around here, and an unmissable part of any time spent in the Tyne & Wear region.
Worms feel all the rage right now, as the latest tale we’ve retold (of course, too late for inclusion in the first edition) is THE LAIDLEY WORM, a very original take on the dragon-slaying plot, situated in nearby Bamburgh Castle, but Lambton’s slimy, frightening beast takes the biscuit when it comes to blood-chilling horror. Yes, even when reimagined by Ken Russell in Lair Of The White Worm. Now, wouldn’t you rather come to HALLOWEEN TALES OF BRITAIN than sit through that film again…? See you there. And bring spare trousers.
The Exorcism of Jan Tregeagle
Thursday, 11 October 2018
Spooky Folklore Thursday to all!
As we mentioned a season ago, on holiday in Tintagel, staying in Bodmin led us to discover the 400-year-old legend of JAN TREGEAGLE, and despite it being a ghost story, we couldn’t resist spending an afternoon retelling the legend afresh – even though, being written so long after delivery of our manuscript, this is one story which won’t be found among the 77 in our book.
The truth is, the ghost story, like tales of Christian saints, is one genre we have made a point of avoiding in TALES OF BRITAIN – it’s a pet hate that other collections of folklore are so packed with ghost stories (and every settlement has at least a few) it was hard to find any other tale worth telling amidst the thick cloud of identikit ‘grey lady’ bilge, and ghost stories, though unquestionably part of folklore, do seem to have their own rules and traditions, they belong in their own book…
But the legend of JAN TREGEAGLE is not just any old ghost story, and as a legal thriller, the town of Bodmin, with its courtroom museum bang in the middle, somehow seems to be heavy with his spirit. It’s essentially a story of two parts – the first is Poldark meets A Christmas Carol, as the evil law man dies festooned with guilt, and is summoned in court to give evidence of his wrongdoing, which saves a young orphan from the gallows…
But then, having done a good posthumous deed, the demons who claimed his soul no longer wanted the poor shade, and so here’s where a quirky ghost story expands into full-blown regional folklore. Because Jan Tregeagle doesn’t just appear at the odd window as a smear of grey, he was damned to fulfill a plethroa of impossible tasks all around the North Cornwall coast, and the very moan of the wind thereafter became evidence of the doomed lawyer’s eternal penances, emptying Dozmary pool with a limpet shell (with a hole in it), or clearing all the sand from the coast – and so, night and day, forever more, from Gwenvor to Berepper, Portleven to Nanjizal Bay, he sweeps away the sand and bewails his terrible job.
Many landmarks around here are proud of their place in the Tregeagle legend, and the incredibly atmospheric Roche Chapel, besides having a place in the Tristan & Isolde legend, is also said to be the place where Tregeagle’s ghost was blown by a storm, in between infinite tasks.
Despite all this, however, when I popped into the cosy Bodmin museum, having completed this folktale retelling, nobody there had ever even HEARD of Jan Tregeagle! And so, I told the Bodmin natives the story all over again, and urged them to add some kind of reference to the 17th century lawyer in the museum, as they were right next door to the courts where he once plied his despicable trade. So if you visit Bodmin, and see mention of Jan in the museum, you have us to thank!
So we’re proud of our retelling – it’s a little like Ghostbusters set in the 1600s – but although you may not be able to read this tale in the first edition of our book, but you WILL hear it exclusively if you come to our first ever SAMHAIN/HALLOWEEN live show in Bath on the last Saturday of this month! Brother Bernard and Sister Sal will be performing some of our scariest stories in the village of Widcombe, only 5 minutes from Bath Spa station, so we hope to see you there – BE BRAVE! Jan surely can’t get at you in Somerset…
The Loch Ness Story
Thursday, 4 October 2018
A monstrously jolly Folklore Thursday to you, pledgers!
We may be running short of Tales we haven’t blogged about, but there’s still a certain amount of shiftiness in celebrating this ANIMAL-themed week with the tale of Nessie, the last of the dinosaurs who lives up in the deep waters of Northern Scotland.
Admittedly, her qualification as an animal is slightly circumspect, but more to the point – is there really what you’d call a ‘Loch Ness Monster story’? One of our main spurs in creating this book is that we love books on folklore, but that’s what you end up with – LORE, random bits of superstition, rather than proper stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Due to the relatively sparse population, decent tales are rare in Northern Scotland, compared to, say, Somerset or Snowdonia. And so somehow we felt we couldn’t just ignore Nessie. But eventually we had to face the quandary – what is her ‘tale’, exactly? There are tantalising similarities between the aquatic creature – some kind of evolutionary offspring of the plesiosaur, some believe – and the Scottish Kelpies, water horse spirits, of whom many a tale is told… but otherwise…?
History is a crucial element of our book – placed in rough chronological order, the Tales of Britain show that our country is a mongrel brew created by endless washes of immigration for millennia – and so that was the story we had to work from, as source material: the known history of the Loch Ness Monster.
There is a scrap of ancient lore about St Columba threatening a sea monster in the RIVER Ness, not the loch, back in the 6th century, but as that was pretty par for the course in saint biographies (we do try to avoid saint myths in our collection, they tend to be so tiresomely pat), it’s largely irrelevant. If anything, the real Nessie story begins in 1933, with the testimony of a holidaying tailor called George Spicer, which inspired photographer Hugh Gray to provide the famous photographic image of a long neck rising from the waves, just a few months later.
And so began the greatest industry in the history of British cryptozoology. But even then, there’s not really anything in the form of a plot here, despite the awful movies spun off from the legend over the years, which we certainly didn’t want to reference. So, given the existing history, our Loch Ness Monster story – one of the very few in our collection set in the 20th century – is, we admit, largely original. We share our own take on who this poor animal might be, surrounded by cynical photographers and investigators day after day, wanting a bit of peace – and a run-in with a local bullied schoolgirl, which changes the latter’s life forever.
Inventing new stories is not what Tales of Britain is all about, and this is nearly unique – the flimsiness of the Black Shuck legend also required a fair bit of narrative creativity, but in general, preserving the ancient stories of this island as they have long been told is what really matters. But who knows, if enough folk buy, enjoy and share Tales Of Britain, our Loch Ness Monster story may become part of the warp and weft of British folklore anyway.
Oh, and talk of monsters give us a good chance of plugging our next show – believe it or not, our first ever HALLOWE’EN TALES OF BRITAIN will take place on Saturday afternoon, 4pm on 27th October, upstairs at the Ring O’Bells in the wee Somerset village of Widcombe – directly behind Bath Spa train station, 5 minutes walk, so anyone travelling from other climes will have a very easy journey to come and join in all the spooky fun! There will be ghosts, killer black bulls, witches and demons galore, plus free sweeties and scares for all ages!
And perhaps even, a famous monster or two…!
Stone Dogs & Dragon Hills in the New Forest
Thursday, 27 September 2018
Happy Folklore Thursday, folks!
Folklore of Objects? Well, here’s one – what does this stone dog have to do with British folklore? Perhaps it will help if we add that it is one of two stone bull mastiffs which decorate the entrance to a place called Bisterne House, the New Forest seat of the ancient Berkeley dynasty – one of whom, Sir Maurice de Berkeley, was said to have defeated a vicious dragon in the area in the 15th century – with the help of his two faithful mastiffs, celebrated in stone here.
‘The Bisterne Dragon’ is perhaps our most vanilla dragon-slaying tale of the 77 in our collection – well, not 77 dragon-slaying tales obviously, but we have a fair few, and gave a run down of them in the KNUCKER entry last year – the release of the dogs and the hero’s use of holly to give the dragon horrific indigestion are the only really defining elements of this particular yarn, but it’s so set in the landscape down near the south coast, we gave it a whirl anyway. Right now, oddly enough, we’re adding yet another dragon story to our collection, albeit too late for the book – but The Laidley Wyrm has a proper twist to make it stand out from the others…
Anyway, what The Bisterne Dragon certainly has is a very strong tourist guide to accompany it. The legend was obviously created to feed the egotism of the local landed gentry, the Berkeley family, and may even have been based on a real encounter in the New Forest with a huge boar, slaughtered in a struggle with the historical Sir Maurice. As a result, we know that the knight’s home is a real place (albeit in private ownership, so you can’t really just turn up for a picnic), while the local town of Lyndhurst and village of Burley all boast areas associated with this particular 15th century dragon legend.
And so, the field where the dragon slayer released his hungry bull mastiffs on the scaly monster is right there to visit (whether the dogs were any use, you will have to buy the book to discover!) and you can even climb up Bolton’s Bench, a hill just outside Lyndhurst which is said to mark the actual corpse of the dragon – and, once grass had grown over it, at the very top, it also marked, in some versions of the tale the grave of its slayer, Sir Maurice. The New Forest is already a beloved holiday destination, with its hairy ponies and pretty glades, but added folklore landmarks like this make any visit that bit more exciting.
We’re in a quiet period at the moment, post-Soupy-Twists-launch and before the latest version of the Tales manuscript is returned to us – and in flu quarantine to bleedin’ well boot – so it’s wonderful to have some freedom to get back to retelling ancient folktales about dragons and slayers and the like, from scratch. It’s one of life’s great pleasures, making centuries-old narratives work for 21st century audiences, and we hope to spend forever doing it. We just hope there are further volumes which will help us to keep sharing the Tales for many years to come, so please do pledge for this first ever publication from the Tales of Britain campaign today… or we’ll set the dogs on you.
PS HALLOWEEN TALES OF BRITAIN! 4PM SATURDAY 27TH OCTOBER AT RING O’BELLS, BATH! BE VERY AFRAID…!