Badge of honour
AS DEDICATED church-crawlers, my wife and I never set out without several pieces of kit: an Ordnance Survey map, a camera, John Betjeman’s Guide to English Parish Churches, and a St Asaph cathedral car-window sticker, strategically placed where the tax disc would once have been.
St Asaph strikes the right note. Let’s be honest: not everyone knows where it is. Canterbury or York window stickers just look touristy. The St Asaph sticker makes it look as though we’re official when we’re vulnerably parked on a verge or in a farmyard, or (as happened this summer) in someone’s actual garden — or so, at least, I like to imagine.
We’ve not had a parking ticket since I put it there two years ago, which must surely mean something.
THIS week, I’ve added another sticker to the window, which reads “Presteigne, Home of the Free”. In Presteigne, there is a fine tradition of idiosyncratic panto. For 30 years, the scripts were written by a writer, teacher, and union activist, Mary Compton, whose convoluted plots took us into space, back to the Roman Empire, and into the mind of an AI librarian.
Funny, local, topical, and robustly left-wing, the panto involves as many people as possible from the community, ranging in age from eight to 80. Two years ago, Mary died; to give you a sense of the woman, at her funeral in St Andrew’s, we sang “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” — and “The Internationale”.
Mary Compton is irreplaceable, but we have fought to keep the panto alive. I always play the villain; this year, I also wrote the script. I’m in good company: professional musicians write and perform original songs; professional artists spend days painting sets. Administrators, caterers, printers . . . — the whole town gives its time and energy for free. Six hundred people come to see it over three nights. And, for 30 years, the panto has ended with its theme song: “Presteigne, Home of the Free”.
This year, an enterprising panto fan produced the car sticker to go with the song, and I’m hoping it doesn’t add too much frivolity to our bogus air of officialdom.
Stranger than fiction
THE Presteigne Panto Players always book the Memorial Hall in advance; so all year we knew that the panto would be performed on 12, 13, and 14 December. For many years, the Memorial Hall has also been the Presteigne polling station. When the General Election was called, the producer of the pantomime contacted the hall committee to offer to move one of the dates, to allow voting to take place. But it was
too late. The committee had already told Powys County Council that it couldn’t have the hall, because it was given over to the panto — #YouCouldntMakeItUp.
When I wrote the script over a few weeks in July, I didn’t know that we were going to straddle a General Election. Nor did I know that the part of the villain which I was writing for myself — a blond Prime Minister, Borissey de Spaffel Jonestown — would be anything other than mildly satirical. Mr de Spaffel Jonestown tries to build a whiff-whaff stadium against the will of the people of Presteigne, and he is stopped, as the villains have been stopped for 30 years, by the plucky pupils of John Beddoes School.
Because of the dates, one of the songs had three versions: one for election night, one in case of a hung parliament, and one in case of a win for the Johnson government. On all three nights, both before and after the election, the audience took great pleasure in booing my character, the villainous (fictional) Prime Minister, Mr de Spaffel Jonestown.
As a writer and performer, I was thrilled at the response. But, as the exit polls came in after the first performance, as a voter, as a citizen, as a Christian, I was heartbroken. Making jokes solves nothing. It all seemed hopeless.
Wait upon the Lord
ON THE Sunday morning after the final Saturday-night performance, it fell to me to read in church: Isaiah 35. And, as I started to read, my voice began to break. Not because of hopelessness, not because of any defeat (real or metaphorical), but because of a sudden, onrushing, unexpected return of hope.
Strengthen the feeble hands,
Steady the knees that give way.
As I read, I felt the truth of the words, of the Word, come into me, and saw — really for the first time — what hope is, and why it comes with faith and love. And where it has its source. Afterwards, a friend in the congregation said, “I loved what you did in the pantomime. But I preferred your reading this morning.”
Ian Marchant is a writer and broadcaster and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.