Roll up! Roll up! When three rounds with a pro was all the fun of the fair

With the Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick mops about to roll back into town, history writer Martin Kenny looks at an age when some of the noble art’s finest exponents took on all-comers.

Booth call out
Call out: Images from the British Pathé News film Boxing Fever (1909)

In an era of Vegas fight nights, stringent health and safety laws and padded headgear, it seems unbelievable that chancers were once able to fall out of a pub in Stratford-upon-Avon after a few pints of Flower’s bitter and face a past or future champion in a boxing booth.

Yet up until the 1960s, a nominal charge would secure a bruising encounter with a professional at the town’s mop fair. Typically fought over three rounds in a bull-baiting atmosphere, the long-running tradition gave all-comers the chance of a large purse if they could prevail.

Stratford mop returns this month, and while pugilistic encounters with Anthony Joshua or the Klitschko brothers remain of the pay-tv variety, the travelling boxing booths are as much a part of the fair’s history as candy floss and bumper cars. Fronted much like an excitable fairground house of fun, they housed a ring where bouts took place in a colourful and febrile atmosphere.

Punters clash
A contender tries his luck in the British Pathé News imagining of a boxing booth

The first mention of the mobile arenas at the town’s mop, in a review by the Stratford Herald published on October 15, 1875, casts an indecorous light on these feasts of fighting.

“A new feature this year was the Grand Sparring Saloon, the front of which was decked with flaring illustrations of famous pugilistic battles and greasy looking boxing gloves,” it read.

“The proprietors moved about in a semi-nude condition and invited the bystanders in language savouring of Billingsgate to watch inside. The orthodox penny charge was abandoned at this establishment, and two pence substituted, on the ground, perhaps that the public’s natural love for the noble art of self defence would overlook all scruples in this respect. This view of matters appeared to be correct, judging from the crowds of person that attended each exhibition.”

It appears that the boxing booth provided an alternative form of entertainment to the shooting galleries that were common at the mop at this time. By the mop of 1903 Stratford Police had begun to take an interest in the booths when they received a tip off about the arrival of Harry Mansfield, a well-known boxer who was on the run from Bristol for the theft of seven £10 notes.

In fact, Mansfield is the only opponent to have beaten the legendary Jim Driscoll, the British Featherweight Champion.

They offered a pound to anybody that could do five rounds with their bloke

The Herald details his arrest in the town:

“The Stratford Police had been furnished with a description of the wanted and P.S. Street, together with P.C.Piuk and P.C. Print, were strolling the mop between nine and ten a.m. when the Sergeant noticed a man of the boxing booth type who seemed to answer the description.

“In a sharp and friendly manner he called him by his Christian name, and the man hearing it seemed surprised.

“He was more so when the officers marched him to the lock-up, and it was not before long before Harry Mansfield was handed over to the Bristol police”.

The ferret rustler who remained defiant to the last 

It is clear that the booth professional could never underestimate an opponent.

Stratford author George Hewins, in his book The Dillen, recalls witnessing the success of a local man in the ring and gives an indication of the atmosphere in the booths.

“Then we went to the boxing booth. They offered a pound to anybody that could do five rounds with their bloke. Harry Bayliss, the missus’ brother – he’d been discharged from the army and he worked for the brickyard now – he went on.

“He was a big chap, her brother, very tall, five foot ten or eleven! His palls were there egging him on. The missus stood with clenched fists.

“Well Harry did well, but he never did get the pound. But they came unstuck!  They copped a boxer! The next chap up, he was from Stratford – an ordinary labouring chap – and he knocked their bloke out in one! We cheered and cheered!”

Rand shadwo
Randolph Turpin’s statue in Warwick. The Middleweight World Champion was a booth fighter

By the late 1940s the Stratford Mop was attracting the country’s top boxing names, including the Turpin brothers who made the short journey from Leamington to appear at the booth.

Randolph Turpin became Middleweight Champion of the World having defeated Sugar Ray Robinson on July 10, 1951 but in previous years was a booth fighter at Stratford Mop.

A statue in Warwick immortalises Randolph Adolphus Turpin, with a plaque on the plinth reading: “In Palace, Pub and Parlour, the Whole of Britain held its breath.”

By the 1960s the booth’s days were numbered, though fighter Ron Taylor continued the tradition until his retirement.

In recent years a few of the old booths have appeared on eBay, often struggling to find buyers. Perhaps the booths deserve a re-appearance in some shape or form, though the days of punters taking their chances against the likes of the Klitschko brothers are long past.

This article has been produced using the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

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‘Specials oi!’ Two eras of music unite beside an ancestral lake

REVIEW: The Neville Staple Band at Camper Calling festival

Rating: ★★★★★

three jamming
Christine Sugary and Neville Staple welcomed a surprise cameo by The Artful Dodger

In the era when Neville Staple pioneered the British ska movement, house, garage and grime were yet to register a snare kick on the musical map.

Coventry’s sound system don was an early influencer shaping two tone, rap and modern reggae styles, driving different cross-Atlantic strands uptempo with The Specials and other bands and collaborations from the late 70s through to the present age of Stormzy and J Hus.

The original rudeboy’s career has spanned the genesis of hip-hop to the current era of social media-propelled grime MCs gathering industry silverware and invites to Buckingham Palace. Staple’s living legend status was demonstrated here when the duo behind the The Artful Dodger, who had played the preceding set, came out in the buffer area beneath the stage to pay homage to the Jamaican-born originator.

The meeting of figureheads – the garage stars are also crowd-pleasing mixologists – continued on stage towards the end of Staple’s set. Spontaneity has brought about many paradigm-shifting moments in reggae – the art of sound system battles is said to originate from rival set-ups playing close to each other in Jamaica – and added vocals from the Dodger’s MC Alistair towards the close begged a longer jam.

Next year, perhaps?

The Specials frontman and his wife, Christine Sugary, who laid down flowing, top rankin’ vocals throughout, had them stomping the grass into submission in all corners of the grounds long before the Dodger’s current line up turned out to show its appreciation.

Central figures amid a steady-firing seven-piece band, the couple led a tumbling ride through their owned, revved-up covers of reggae classics such as The Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad, Toots and the Maytals’ Big Monkey Man and The Wailers’ Simmer Down. Shouts of “roodboy, roodboy” greeted Staple during brief pauses, to which he responded with wide smiles from beneath his black fedora.

staple mic

hands

Sweeping the crowd along through decades of influential music, peak skanking was reached on A Message to You Rudy, a particularly timely song that was recorded by Dandy Livingstone in 1967 but resonates now as much as it did as a Trojan records release.

Jumping on Staple’s cloud, the Dodger’s present frontman MC Alistair came out to pay homage, taking a few turns on the mic from below the stage.

Dressed in trademark grey tonic suit with out-hanging shirt, Staple looked and sounded every inch the dapper don of British-Jamaican music, toggling between singing and toasting, a playful, cajoling metronome at the heart of his band on the Lakeside main stage.

Nuance was no casualty to pace, the veteran pointing to his wedding ring with another grin while Christine, sporting a ‘rude girl’ tank top, surveyed the crowd.

It was left for the relative newcomer to lead an impromptu final salute, with a clubland chant of “Specials oi! Specials oi!” after the band had downed instruments

Another anthem with heightened resonance in present political times was The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum, originally by Staple’s 80s band, Fun Boy Three, displaying the 63-year-old’s hand at a more pop-influenced electronic sound. By the time the eerie opening strains of Ghost Town had lifted over the manicured ancestral grounds and dappled lake, Staple had dispensed with time and place, wrapping up the crowd in his own genre-distilling multi-verse, propelled by unfaltering backing vocals, trombone, harmonica and electric guitar.

The grainy shots of inner-city Britain’s concrete jungle in the song’s original video had been replaced by the lawns of Ragley Hall, but the composition had defied the years.

lake best
The Camper Calling crowd during From the Jam, and revellers during Staple’s set (inset)

Tucking the microphone into his trousers, the evergreen rudeboy noticed MC Alistair waiting eagerly in the wings and invited his fellow frontman on stage.

It was left for the relative newcomer to lead an impromptu final salute, with a clubland chant of “Specials oi! Specials oi!” after the band had downed instruments.

Husband and wife then joined their visitor centre-stage, a scene which might in reggae parlance be called three the hard way. Despite The Specials’ first album having been released in 1979, almost two decades before The Artful Dodger hit the scene, there was no time lag here.

It was a meeting of two musical eras, each with its own story of fragmentation, reinvention and revival, that rounded off one of this festival’s most memorable moments to date.

By Yunzy

Camper Calling – a small  but perfectly-formed family festival

Scouting for Girls raise a prayer to part the heavens

 

REVIEW:  Scouting for Girls at Camper Calling festival

Rating: ★★★★

Soucring GV

Rain isn’t a word in the Scouting for Girls vocabulary.

Zapping onto stage to the sound of the Superman theme tune, the chart-faring boy band set about their task like high schoolers on the last day of spring break.

A dreary deluge that had preceded their appearance on the Lakeside Stage had no chance against the solar flares of guitar-bop that seemed blessed by the heavens.

Wearing a denim jacket with upturned collar, frontman Roy Stride radiated a smile to crush California oranges throughout a deliriously bouncy hit parade.

Opening with the irresistible keys and strings of Heartbeat, the touring members of the band were soon spreading their skippy indie-pop to all corners of a deep crowd.

With a ten-year catalogue of upbeat numbers given to audience interaction, a sing-a-long broke out on pretty much every song, including Stride inviting fans to follow a series of “woooaaahhs!” as he sat at the electric piano, drifting away on a good-natured cloud during Still Thinking About You.

Switching between electric and acoustic guitars, the boyish lead had some musical craft under his easy-going tales of innocent love and teenage crushes.

“The king is dead,” he declared, coming centre-stage to intro Elvis Ain’t Dead.

Scouting for Girls, however, were very much alive.

Lights

Energy exuded from every note, the dark clouds seeming to part on cue with a bright full moon to the side of the stage. “Elvis has left the building,” Stride rounded off.

It was his simple connection with the audience, including revealing he was a VW aficionado taking his kids on holidays in the camper vans, that banished the rain gods from the neatly-clipped grounds of Ragley Hall.

The bobbing sea in front of him, including shoulder-borne children in mufflers and grown men in flowing party shop wigs, lapped up every word, proving that a Scouting gig isn’t just a case of all back to the noughties. The Londoners marked their ten-year anniversary last year, but I Wish I Was James Bond had the cheery exuberance worthy of a sixth-form prom.

soucting close

Wishes can come true, for one night in south Warwickshire, at least.

“Hold someone close and tell them you love them,” Stride shouted before Millionaire, keeping pauses between the ever-skywards trajectory of the beat to a minimum.

The crowd duly spread arms and pulled in meaningful others.

The jump factor was ratcheted up further with the band’s cover of Livin’ on a Prayer, a sprightly reworking that put the Bon Jovi anthem through a pop festival blender.

Stride’s effortless command of vocals and breakout guitar segments from Jamie O’Gorman showed that this foursome can hold its own amid dainty re-tellings of teenage romances.

The lead swept the crowd with a selfie stick during Famous, with thousands of mobile phones lit in response among the crowd, providing one of the opening night’s arena-style moments.

It was a reminder that the childhood friends, whose chemistry helped sell a million copies of their eponymous first album, have lost none of that spark, even with watery skies lurking overhead.

By the time they rounded off with the so-catchy-you’ll-punch-yourself She’s So Lovely, it was like climbing off a giddy night-time fairground ride that had ended all too soon.

By Yunzy

Camper Calling – a small but perfectly formed family festival

Jousting and flames of war help Warwick Castle ride triumphant

Review: War of the Roses Live @ Warwick Castle 

lady with smoke best

Flames were lit and lances lowered during a floor-pounding charge through one of British history’s most bloody conflicts. The pulsating War of the Roses show barely gave the all-ages crowd packing the wooden stalls at the sides of a jousting arena pause to finish off ice creams.

Invited to file into the spectator galleries supporting the House of York on one side and House of Lancaster on the other, the audience raised cheers and boos while the protagonists of the venomous feud took us back to 1455 with a stamping of hooves and clash of steel.

Charging into the intractable dispute that initially revolved around two death-locked branches of the royal family under Henry VI and his cousin Edward IV respectively, the combatants lunged into chest plate-beating performances with battlecries, jousting and swordplay aplently.

Knights on horseback galloping in with lances lowered made for one of the most enthralling stunts, the clash of wood taking place at speed and close to a roped-off spectator line.

smoke good

But there was also a dollop of blue and red pageantry as the characters dashed and swaggered from one end of the strip to the other, flags aloft on horses sporting fly rugs showing the rider’s allegiance.

Pointy visors down and in full metal armour, the knights demonstrated their martial prowess with the wooden lancing poles, piercing flames, sending splinters flying and charging down dummies as the twice-daily show unfolded over a chain mail-ripping half an hour that was all about the disputed crown.

Recreated over the length of the sandy arena around 200 metres long, all the key moments of the royal blood feud were suitably amplified, including the role of the castle’s own legend Richard Neville, a formidable powerbroker who earned the nickname Warwick the Kingmaker.

flag aloft

runners

Lady knight good

The action also took a spear-headed charge through the Richard III story, with an appearance by the princes in the tower, and had the deposed king himself shout the Shakespeare line “a horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in one of the crisply-acted battle sequences.

It was a storybook ending to a thrilling, palpitating spectacle that took all ages and nationalities on a relentless charge through the blood-soaked power struggle

Over the river from the jousting arena Richard III’s short and brutal reign is symbolised by his unfinished work on the Bear and Clarence Towers, among a number of places in the castle’s main grounds that form a real-life backdrop to the War of the Roses story.

Joust wotj flames

Jousting is also strongly linked to the castle, with Warwick having been granted a licence for the practice of the battlefield art in 1194. Legend has it that Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, was the greatest exponent in English history, having never been beaten.

Heels and hooves finally came to a shuddering halt with the advent of the Tudors as flares were lit and flags raised aloft for a new dynasty, the closing chapter played out at one end of the sand-covered arena that lies under the castle’s skyloft trebuchet.

squire

It was a storybook ending to a thrilling, palpitating spectacle that took all ages and nationalities on a relentless charge through the blood-soaked power struggle.

The fate of England may no longer rest at Warwick Castle, but this account of those who fought, perished and prospered in its pursuit is more than worthy of its place under the battlements.

*Review of 12.30pm show on 13.8.18 by Yunzy

Take sides at War of the Roses Live, an action-filled family show 

Record allotment crowd taken on enthralling march to Parliament

Mikron Theatre marked one hundred years of women’s fight for the vote with a bounding turn at St Mary’s Allotments in Leamington Spa

mikron good
Mikron brought fresh air to the story of women’s fight for the vote at St Mary’s Allotments

Sunflowers reaching for the heavens and truly bulbous pumpkins made for a bountiful entrance to this allotment patch on the fringes of town.

An audience pitching up with foldable chairs, sun hats and buggies also made this an idyll of plenty, with a record crowd of more than 250.

What followed under blue sky and fluffy white clouds was outdoor theatre at its finest. Voices projected to the very last seat many rows back in the car park-turned-auditorium, the canal-faring theatre company told the tale of women’s fight for the vote with gusto, humour and boundless energy.

Historical accuracy was here too, the story of a less-well known Pankhurst, Sylvia, reignited with spark, charm and conviction in an utterly belting performance by Daisy Ann Fletcher in the lead role.

In context, this is some of the best theatre I have seen.

The hopes, attitudes and misconceptions of 1918 were boomed forth in a merry, breathless whirl that enveloped all ages of the crowd, from those in buggies to those who pursue gardening as a way of life.

Remarkably, Mikron did this for nothing more than a whip-round.

In a way, the massing created by a core belief in a greater good was reminiscent of the hundreds that gather for the local Parkrun every Saturday in a sports field overlooking the allotment.

votes snip

With a gazebo knocking out cake, spring rolls and tea in white china, it was the most sociable occasion in memory at the allotments.

Song, dance and audience interaction helped Mikron’s multi-talented quartet –completed by James McLean, Christopher Arkeston and Rosamund Hine – kept the audience in their hands as they flitted between scenes and characters.

Above all, it was fun. As Revolting Women unfolded, Sylvia’s dedication had taken the crowd in its wake, all the way to Parliament.

A hundred years on, Mikron is telling the suffrage story in unusual and improvised spaces across the country, aided by a vintage narrowboat and van, the travelling troupe’s primary modes of conveyance.

No elitism here, just their mantra of ‘theatre anywhere, for everyone’.

Sylvia would surely have approved.

By Yunzy

Mikron, theatre anywhere, for everyone

 

Roving theatre group to mark 100 years of suffrage at allotments

 

revolting women
Mikron will follow the story of women’s suffrage through the eyes of Sylvia Pankhurst

A tale of women who took a stand for the vote will play amid the apple trees and raspberry bushes at St Mary’s Allotments in Leamington Spa.

Mikron Theatre Company, who travel by narrowboat, train and van, are returning to this idyllic corner of town for another rumbustious outdoor show.

Revolting Women follows the suffrage story through the eyes of Sylvia Pankhurst, who fought for the vote alongside other women in the East End.

Set in 1918, the story revolves around Sylvia and another campaigner called Lettie, who join forces to make their voices heard in Parliament.

Mikron combine song, dance and audience interaction in family-friendly shows that often trace the unsung heroes of British history.

The award-winning company employ their vintage narrowboat, The Tyseley, in marathon annual UK-wide tours, performing everywhere from living rooms to lifeboat stations.

Mikron producer Pete Toon said: “We’re chuffed to be coming back to the allotments with our Suffrage show, Revolting Women. It’s always such a great crowd and we can’t quite believe it’s come round again. We couldn’t do it without the support of chairman Jim Layton, and all the St Mary’s plot holders, so we’d like to send them a huge thank you.”

Revoling women 2
Revolting Women combines political satire with song and audience interaction

Revolting Women marks the eighth year running that Mikron has visited the allotments, which are in fine fettle after enhancements part-funded by the National Lottery.

Before the show the allotments will be awarding its annual prizes for Best Gardener, Best New Gardener, Best Shed and (new this year) Worst Shed.

Mikron overcame a grounded canal boat to visit the allotments last year 

A spokesman for the allotments said: “We’re delighted to welcome Mikron back to our glorious allotments for what is now a long-standing association of high-quality, engaging outdoor theatre and a chance for visitors to see what we have to offer here.

“We’re looking to rolling out the chairs and hay bales to visitors old and young and hoping they will enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake on our glorious patch.

“What makes Mikron so impressive is their mantra of ‘theatre anywhere, for everyone’ and their plays at the allotment show this truly works.”

Mikron allot
Mikron told a British story of fish and chips at the allotments in 2015

Mikron, a registered charity, head from north to south each year performing at venues including pubs, cafes, living rooms, village halls, marinas and dry docks. The versatile cast of four unpack set, props, costumes, musical instruments and lights before bringing characters, stories and songs to life.

*Revolting Women takes place on Tuesday August 7 at 6.30pm in the car park at St Mary’s Allotments on Radford Road. The awards will be held from 6pm with music, refreshments and a barbecue. The show is free but a whip-round will be held afterwards.

Mikron: Theatre anywhere, for everyone

Lookback rekindles the fire in Leamington and Warwick’s musical belly

Punks, Ozzy Ozbourne and the district council all played a role in shaping a local scene that made waves much further afield. Fire in the Belly retraces the groove over five decades.

Early Varukers Bath Place
Punk disruptors The Varukers at the former Bath Place Community Centre in Leamington

The sights, sounds and packed dancefloors that put Leamington Spa and Warwick on Britain’s musical map over the course of five decades have been brought to life in a new book. Fire in the Belly pays homage to the movers and shakers who helped shape genres such as blues, rock and skiffle and three waves of punk as well as the record stores, gigs and venues. Focussing on the period between 1950 and 2000, the book weaves together many aspects of musical life in the towns which made their influences felt way beyond Warwickshire.

Musical pacesetters included rock and rollers Woody Allen and the Challengers and punk band The Shapes while Banco De Gaia, the Edgar Broughton Band and The Varukers were among the acts who established themselves in the national scene. Many of the surprising and often bizarre stories from the period are told in print for the first time, preserving a musical heritage that had been in danger of being forgotten. Co-authors Jim Layton and Keith Hancock carried out interviews and research to trace the road from Arthur Renton’s antiquarian book, gramophone and music shop opening in 1957 to just short of Nizlopi laying claim to Leamington’s first number one single in 2005 with the JCB Song.

Jim said: “The musical landscape in Leamington and Warwick over the 50 years was a place of incredible change and development, from skiffle in the youth clubs in the 1950s through to the complexities of music harnessing world sources and new digital elements in the 1990s. Our towns have punched well above their weight in music-making, with national interest coming Leamington’s way in the 1980s and 1990s. We hope to pay respect to all those involved, not only the musicians but the shops, fans and promoters, and to tell some lively stories.”

“Over the 50 years there was some massive creativity and innovation from two relatively small towns, and some villages, in the heart of Warwickshire”
Rocking Chair Blues Band
The Rocking Chair Blues Band were among local acts in the 60s

The towns played host to balls, big dances and receptions, a 24-hour ‘jiving marathon’, the council’s Pop O Tec venue, mini-festivals on the Campion Hills and sometimes raucous ‘Twang and Twist’ rock-pop concerts. The Edgar Broughton Band – one of John Peel’s favourite live acts – are a name already familiar to many blues and rock fans. But some of the more off-beat and bizarre episodes from the town’s musical tapestry are also relived, including when co-author Keith’s former band, The Jay Bee Kay Peys, managed to win over an expectant 350-strong crowd who had turned up to see the Bee Gees after a case of mis-advertising. The Leamington band, who rolled out a few covers, still hold the record  for attendance at the Pump Rooms. More rebellious and disruptive times followed with progressive rock in the 1970s, with the decade opening courtesy of a performance by Black Sabbath at the Jephson Pavillion in the Jephson Gardens.

Legend has it that Ozzy Osbourne got his vermin-biting idea when the noise and vibration from the band scared river rats who ran across the stage – some as big as a cat. Punk’s arrival also upset the genteel order of things, with names such as The Shapes being among the ‘first wave’ that arrived in the mid-1970s.

The authors go back through the doors of The Crown Hotel in Leamington’s High Street, a place of incredible importance in the evolution of blues and rock music in the town where a sense of camaraderie extended across gigs, workshops and a cricket club. Many other pubs, cafes, haunts and characters, all with their quirks, contributions and eccentricities, are explored in the book.

Reopened and supporting local music – Head records on Facebook

Keith said: “Over the 50 years there was some massive creativity and innovation from two relatively small towns, and some villages, in the heart of Warwickshire. What is striking is not only the enthusiasm and motivation of the musicians but the supportive infrastructure. There are lots of examples where music was enabled by schools and teachers, youth clubs and groups, record and music shops, parental support, musicians’ workshops, readily-available venues, local recording studios and willingness of people, especially the young, to turn out to hear new sounds. Despite digital technology and the internet, many of these elements are still around and the town still has some fire in the belly.”

Main close cropped
Authors Keith Hancock (l) and Jim Layton with Head’s Simon Dullenty

Fire in the Belly will be stocked at the newly-reopened Head music shop in Leamington Spa, which is keen to back the local scene. Owner Simon Dullenty, who also worked at the former Fopp store, said: “It’s important to have the connection with your local community. Leamington has an independent vibe to it and we stock music by local bands so what we plan to do is have a launch day where we have up-and-coming and established artists to play in the store. We’re always trying to support local music. I remember putting Nizlopi on in the old Fopp store 15 years ago. We sold the single before it became a hit so it’s an example of what can happen.”

Head has reopened in the Royal Priors’ lower precinct amid a resurgence of interest in vinyl and is supporting an ‘alternative sounds’ night featuring local acts including Roddy Radiation and Jackdaw with Crowbar at the Zephyr Lounge on September 29.

Alternative sounds live on as local bands share bill at Zephyr Lounge

Simon said: “The customer reaction has been fantastic, people are coming up to us and saying how happy they are that we’ve reopened. A lot of people have started to buy vinyl which has been an upward trend since Record Store Day started and it’s a reaction to the internet. This is almost the opposite of what’s happening with music on the internet and shops like these have a niche market. We’re not about to be millionaires and retire any time soon, but people are interested in buying the physical product and just browsing. It’s not a phone shop, it’s not a coffee shop, it’s something different, and people like that.”

*Fire in the Belly will be available from Head, Kenilworth Books, Warwick Books and Waterstone’s Leamington from Wednesday July 25. For orders and queries contact fireinthebelly2018@gmail.com