The Thelwall Fools

Gordon Gilmore
(Fool - 1981 - 1996)

Less sympathetic members of the public have been known to express the view that all the Thelwall dancers are fools. But here, we’re discussing the Fools with a capital ‘F’. There have only ever been three – Pete Jackson (until his departure to Australia in 1981), Gordon Gilmore (1981-1996) and, from 1998, Kevin Farrell.

Fooling is not a job that anyone can, or wishes, to do. Fools tend to appear in the side and continue until they fall out with the side, or off the perch. Look around at the famous Fools and you will find that they have been with their side seemingly for ever. Some, like the late Trevor Hull, continue to Fool long after they have any noticeable affiliation to any particular team. Curiously, once a Fool becomes a Fool he’s a Fool forever – a team can forbid him to dance or Fool with them, but they can’t take his bladder away! (The side had to transport Pete Jackson to get rid of him!)

So what does, or should, a Fool do? What is the role in the side for the Fool, or indeed for Betty, Bessie, Tom, Hoss or Hobby? There have been suggestions that the Fool, along with the other supernumeraries, animals and hobbies, are relics of a time when the Morris was but an interlude in some sort of a mystery play. The plays having become extinct, the dancing lived on. Modern pragmatists who assert that all Morris is merely relatively recently invented street theatre would no doubt scoff at that idea.

The essential modern role of the Fool, I believe, is to provide a bridge between the team and the public. Morris teams, in spite of their very public activity, are very introverted. Watch them. How many individuals interact with the crowd? Few. Watch what happens when the squire asks for somebody to take the hat round! If the Fool can also entertain the team itself that’s a worthwhile bonus.

Let’s make it clear at the outset that the Fool is not an idiot – it’s much too sophisticated a job to entrust to an imbecile. So, what qualities does a Fool need to have? Firstly the Fool must have an ego the size of planet to be able to go and strut around being, lets face it, very silly in public. He (or indeed she, be that an actual she or a drag-she) must have the self-confidence to play jokes on the public – adults and children – and be sensible enough to make sure that they don’t offend or harm anyone. If the Fool is going to interact with the dance he must know the dance inside out. The team are happy for the Fool to dance through the set and to follow them across the corners but are easily roused to ‘harsh words’ if he collides with them or obstructs them. (A famous, and rare, misjudgement of Pete Jackson was to stand up straight just as someone was about to leapfrog over his back during a display dance).

The Fool should not forget that the dance has priority over his desire to entertain. For that reason the Fool should keep a low profile when another team is dancing. There’s nothing more irritating for a team to find that they are dancing their socks off in their best display of the year, only to realise that the crowd is watching somebody else’s Fool! If you must Fool while another team is dancing – ask first, and don’t be hurt if they say no.

A final quality a Fool might find useful is a loud voice, particularly if, as has often been the case with Thelwall, the Fool is asked to introduce the dances. I don’t feel that that is the best use of the Fool – having to break off every two minutes or so disrupts the very serious business of creating a rapport with the crowd. It also has the undesirable side effect of giving the crowd the idea that the Fool is in charge of the team.

A good Fool will always be looking for new ideas. He will watch others Fools in action and learn from them. My own delight was to watch the late Morris Sunderland in action. He had a wonderful rapport with the crowd and had the most delightful chat-up line which would get little old ladies giggling and simpering like young girls. Morris was, of course, the Fool who rode through the centre of the Thelwall set at their first Thaxted attendance on a borrowed bicycle! There are limits, of course. Watching Dolphin’s Fool never convinced me that learning to ride a unicycle was a ‘must-have’ skill. On the other hand, his flying rubber chicken accompanied by the cry of ‘Pull!’ in shooting dances found its way into the flying hand in Thelwall’s Moulton stick dances.

An enthusiastic Fool might even sign up as member of the United Fools Union. (If that still persists after the death of its founder and organiser Trevor Hull - the one with the cock on his head). He might even attend the Morris Ring’s instructionals for Fools and Animals to learn from his peers.

The Fool is the only member allowed to wear what he likes and his kit, rather like the faces of clowns, is his alone, not the teams. As it happens both Pete and I chose to wear rag coats – ensuring that we were the only warm members of the team on cold days but suffered from hypothermia on hot summer days. Fools share with clowns the burden that on the bad days, the days when you don’t really want to be bothered, it’s still your job to go out there and sparkle for the crowd. I’m uncomfortably aware that sometimes I didn’t make it.

I believe that Pete and I both had all the qualities necessary. I’m aware that had Pete not emigrated he would more than likely still be fooling with Thelwall. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to be Fool and grateful to the side for putting up with me.

Whilst I was an active Fool with Thelwall I carried a staff. This was made by Geoff Bibby and was tipped with the cap from a sergeant major’s swagger stick. I regarded this as my authority from the team to Fool with them. Morris Sunderland once asked me about my staff and I told him just that. ‘Hmmph’, he said, ‘Fools don’t have any authority!’ And he’s right. A Fool fools by the consent of the side. (Those in the team with hernias will recall that consent was near to being withdrawn after they were trapped into lifting ‘Big Dolores’ from Ballyphehan outside the Ring O’Bells at the end of Bampton Constant Billy the first evening of the 1995 Weekend of Dance. Instead I received the ‘Dull Bugger’ award!) .

A Fool isn’t essential to the side but does add something to the whole display. On a good day when the weather is right, the side is dancing well, the Fool is on form and the audience receptive, the Fool can add that little bit extra entertainment and enjoyment to the crowd and team alike. For the Fool that’s very fulfoolling.

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Last updated 5 March 1998