The cast of Romans, Rioters and Rotters getting last minute notes from John
The cast of Romans, Rioters and Rotters getting last minute notes from John

In 2000 John Bailey directed the Axbridge Pageant staged in the town’s Square in front of an audience of several hundred people over the August bank holiday weekend. It was a huge success with tickets sold out, good TV and radio coverage and positive reviews in the press and media. The original script of the Pageant (and I feel this is not libellous to state) was partly derived from Francis Knight’s book, Heart of Mendip, published in 1915. And there’s the rub. Previous pageants tended to leave the most transforming period of the town’s history out of the play: namely the 20th century.

John and I worked on creating an updated version of the script to include those two monumental socially significant events: the two world wars. For in those two bloody conflicts British society was transformed. New people came to the town either as troops or through work – all adding to the widening gene pool of the residents. Social barriers were broken down as people had to work together and women increasingly entered the workplace. This collaboration helped to not only update the pageant but also to give rise to ACT’s first play: Romans, Rioters and Rotters in 2002.

Pre ACT: a scene of Roman cruelty in the 1980 Axbridge Pageant
Pre ACT: a scene of Roman cruelty in the Axbridge Pageant from some years back

The idea that there should be drama group in the town following the pageant came to fruition with the foundation of Axbridge Community Theatre by John Bailey and a core group of people who had been involved in the pageant and The House of the Square play in 1999. I wrote a series of sketches loosely based on the pageant in a sort of condensed comic version of the play – but with the intention of lampooning some of the themes of the once-every-ten-years play.

So Queen Henrietta Maria was seen as a money grabbing aristo on her visit to the town rather than the stately monarch’s wife, the Ancient Britons were sophisticated camp designers attempting to get the Romans interested in woad, and the Vikings and the Saxons played football rather than made war. The Chronicler role was reprised from the pageant, along with the Narrator plus a new character in the Jester. The play was staged in the Town Hall, at St Michael’s Cheshire Home and in a garden party in Cross with Tony Welch keeping order as stage manager. My lasting memory of the open air venue was our battle with the noise of geese and the traffic on the A38! However the play was well received especially in the Town Hall – although we didn’t charge ticket money. It was all free, meaning ACT was effectively skint as an organisation.

Harry Mottram

Next time: ACT gets its act together.

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