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Reprinted from an article in West Gallery no.18, January 2001
Background: A Channel 4 researcher telephoned all known West Gallery choirs late in 1998 to ascertain whether they would be interested in providing suitable music for an authentic 1840s wedding, should a suitable couple be found in their area. The Lancaster-based choir The Gladly Solemn Sound were chosen and the programme was broadcast on "The Real History Show" on Sunday 5 March 1999.
“It seemed an unlikely proposition when they first rang. Why should any couple allow a film company to hijack the "Happiest Day of Their Life" and turn the whole thing into a documentary about a wedding in 1840? All the country's West Gallerians had been contacted anyway, to provide an authentic choir should such a pair be found in their area, so there was no reason why it should end up being us.
The Gladly Solemn Sound, then, held itself ready, but didn't hold its breath, and over the weeks the idea was all but forgotten. But then, in February 1999 there was another phone call: a suitably rash couple had been located on the other side of the Forest of Bowland. They were planning to marry that summer: so, a June wedding for Grace and Francis in Slaidburn, and the job of choir was ours if we wanted it.
It could hardly be mere coincidence that three days later Alan Nowell received a packet from an internet chum in Liverpool - a photocopied West Gallery manuscript book from 1779. The original is at present in Salt Lake City, Utah, but had been the property of John Swindlehurst, Blacksmith of Dunsop Bridge. And where's that? A few miles from Slaidburn. Not only that but the book contains Knapp's anthem out of Psalm 128 "Oh Well is Thee". So, we had the Wedding Psalm in a book which itself was in all probability used in the very church where the ceremony was to take place.
Now though there was a slight setback; the film people wanted a much smaller choir than I had in mind. "We must be historically accurate," was the cry. "And anyway, we can't afford more than 11 costumes." In vain to point to the 22-strong choir in the Bow Brickhill picture (see picture on the Home Page): I must embrace the unwelcome task of choosing two for each part from The Gladly Solemn Sound, necessarily excluding many who deserved a place. That done, there were musicians to find - from outside the choir as we do not have a regular band. Three was to be their number: one must be a fiddler who could also play for dancing and lead the bridal procession, another a cellist as the film director had discovered that a 'bass-viol' had been bought for the Slaidburn choir in 1830 - possibly to be used by John Swindlehurst himself, as he played a bass instrument of some sort. The third I might choose from any of Canon McDermott's list of WG bandsmen - but all must play authentic instruments.
Fate spoke once more. By April the singers were practising every week and parties of cinematic Londoners were regularly venturing into North Lancashire to make preparations and sample the ale. One evening the director and his team were taking tea with the bride's family and mentioned an ancient 8-keyed clarinet they'd seen at my workshop the week before. "Hang on," said Grace, and disappeared upstairs. When she came down she was flourishing a small boxwood clarinet from the early 19th century, made by Key of London. It had been played by her great, great grandfather, who might well have used it in Slaidburn church. In latter days it had served as a toy for the family of 5 children, so, not surprisingly, there was damage, but it looked repairable - and so it proved.
A player was found: his name was Philip, but was soon christened BBC Phil from his association with another, slightly bigger, band. He took the instrument away and learned its secrets: amongst these were that a clarinet in D from 1830 plays in D flat in 1999; that fingers were smaller in those days; and that the task of playing it was made easier if some of the holes were covered with sellotape. Though it was weakish in the lower register, it sang sweet and clear in the upper, where we needed it. Other suitable instruments were found: a local violin expert, Marcus Bennett, lent us an unpurfled violin built about 1800, and a wonderful early 19th century cello which we restrung with gut. With its massive scroll, mighty boxwood pegs and cross-eyed f holes, its country origins were self-proclaimed - it would have graced Mellstock Gallery in the hands of Tranter Dewy himself.
Knapp's anthem is written in C. Even BBC Phil shook his head doubtfully at the prospect of playing in C flat on a 170-year old sellotape-assisted clarinet, while Nick the fiddler, (used to jigs, bourees and polskas), looked downright shifty when D flat was mentioned. Simon, our nonchalant cellist, couldn't see what the problem with keys was and merely remarked that his new gut strings were "rather interesting". The obvious solution was for the clarinettist to play in his C, the fiddle to tune down and play in D, whilst cello and singers joined in in D fIat. For the other pieces, none of which would be filmed, Nick and Phil would use modern instruments.
The film company's aim was two-fold: first to recreate a country wedding in 1840 and second (this being even more important) to follow the processes involved in staging the recreation. The various stages of research and preparation were filmed over the weeks: costumiers, cooks and clergy discussed their contributions and the choir was shot rehearsing. Various members offered specific expertise, duly noted by the camera. Chrissie, a dance-caller when not singing alto, was filmed teaching wedding guests how to foot "The Broadsword Hornpipe" and "Harlequin in the Woods" - dances from the Winder collections; Alan showing a trio of sprightly lads the subtleties of the Wyresdale Greensleeves dance, a favourite at local weddings in olden days; I was interviewed talking about manuscript books and musical instruments. Altogether 32 hours of filming had to be reduced to a 50 minute programme. But of course, besides the making of the film there was another agenda - this was to be Grace and Francis' wedding, after which they would be as married as married can be. Compromises had to be made on all sides - form of marriage service, wedding dress, music and a hundred other matters of usually personal choice had to conform to historical accuracy, and the film people needed to exercise tact and sensitivity to allow the main players at least a degree of control. One sequence even had to be shot the day after the wedding. It can't have been easy for Grace, Francis and their families.
This is a video-clip from the programme A Victorian Wedding. Although John Swindlehurst does not get mentioned by name, he is mentioned as the Blacksmith of Dunsop Bridge, as they turn the photocopied pages of his hymn book.
The Day drew nearer. The choir and band were fully rehearsed and the long range weather forecast looked promising. A week to go, and I was sent a nuptial drinking song from an 1800 North Yorkshire manuscript. Could I find a tune for
it? Two days after that we received final instructions for the wedding day. No mobile phones! No make-up! No jingling keys and money! And the, at this stage, enigmatic command, "Men, start growing your sideburns now!" I mournfully examined my smooth cheeks in the mirror. Then, before we knew it, Saturday 5th June arrived and we choristers were standing at the end of the road in the early morning sunshine, awaiting our lift to Slaidburn in full 1840 regalia. "***ckin' 'ell!" observed a passing youth.
The choir performed from the old singing-pew in the south west corner of the church, which had replaced the gallery when the organ (now decently covered up) was installed. The floor was raised by a foot for the sake of the cameras. Adjustments in performance-style were necessary too: I was to lead the choir facing the congregation, as did the Bow Brickhill choirmaster; Barbara and Morgan, our twin trebles, had to moderate their practice of marching on the spot whilst singing the more vigorous passages; bass soloist David, who favours an operatic style of delivery, was sternly enjoined to keep his hands behind his back, and sardonic remarks about the women's bustles from Chris were quite frankly discouraged: instead it was suggested that he concentrate on breathing in the right place in his tenor solo.
The band looked splendid, with wooden music stands and "authentic" manuscript books to play from. The three of them, with their shared black hair, could easily have come from some family of hereditary musicians such as one reads about, who, 150 years ago, regularly trudged down from the Lancashire fells to play in church every Sunday. The parson in his Geneva bands conducted the service from an original 1836 Slaidburn prayer book, assisted by his solemn parish clerk. But who, we wondered, was the man with the whip? Later we discovered that his job was to eject stray dogs from the church - his validity borne out by the presence of the original whip in a glass case on the wall.
The congregation were primed to behave with informality, to 'face the music' and to sing up loud and hearty. The wedding hymns were a mixture of WG pieces and the more conventional; only Ps 128 would be filmed, but Old 100th was a good compromise between historicity and popularity. Stocks, Ps 146, was included for its local associations and Old Foster always makes a good exit piece. When it came to Parry's Jerusalem though, we could only offer a budget version; however, the enthusiasm of the congregation made up for the lack of the other 90 members of the orchestra. The only near-disaster was "Thine be the Glory"; the wedding guests forgot that the original had been "improved" with a symphonic introduction and launched in singing straightaway, remaining in dogged 8-bar opposition to the choir till the bitter end.
The service being over, we emerged from the gloom of the church into bright sunlight and the magnificence and variety of the costumes could be fully appreciated: there were agricultural labourers in their smock frocks (of northern pattern, I was assured); young sprigs (tradesmen's sons and the like) in the latest fashions from Skipton and Clitheroe; and farm-girls in all their finery. The guests were of all ages, from one 90-year old lady to children and even little babies - all in their 1840 Sunday best. Some of the farmers, with their weather-beaten faces and side-whiskers, looked as if they'd worn beaver hats and swallowtail coats all their lives. A pretty young ploughboy was revealed to be a female film researcher in disguise, and there, moving suavely through the throng in checked trousers, waisted frock-coat and an extraordinarily tall straw hat was a rather raffish-looking figure smoking a cheroot - the costume adviser himself.
There was the usual post-marriage chatting, milling around, and taking of photographs. Then the guests departed for the next stage - the Wedding Feast at Grace's parents' farm. The choir, judging that they had an hour to spare, sloped off to the "Hark to Bounty" before following suit.
The farm lies not far from Pendle and as we rounded that hill alto Elspeth was moved to recall that she was descended from one of the witches. Alan embarrassedly confessed that one of his ancestors had been responsible for locking them up and hanging them - but before this interesting discussion could develop we had arrived. We parked and joined the bridal procession forming up behind the fiddler outside the farm gate. First though, several young men were to be seen running down across a field from a wooded hill - an old wedding custom, the garter race, the prize being that item of the bride's attire. "Huzza!" we all shouted as they panted across the road. Stationary motorists could also be seen shouting things as they waited for the road to clear. The procession began to move, some guests already cutting capers as "Haste to the Wedding" drifted back from the front.
Anything anachronistic had been removed from the farmyard; the floor was strewn with straw and a couple of prize sheep were penned in the corner. The door of the 18th century barn was thrown open, revealing long tables and benches for the guests. On one side a huge board sagged under plates of bread, meat, cheese and Victorian puddings; on another were rows of barrels and bottles containing the wherewithal to wash it all down. The years of "Peace without Plenty" which followed Waterloo were obviously well over - this was rural life in all its mid-century prosperity. Such pies! Such ale! Such plum wine!
There was still work to be done though: the choir, plus a troop of jolly wags from amongst the guests, made its way to a discreet location behind the barn in order to learn the drinking song. Spontaneous harmonies began to flow and a grief-stricken sheepdog howled additional accompaniment from a nearby kennel. Back we went to be filmed singing it, which involved yet more ale and plum wine. Lusty swains hopped round in a circle kicking each other's backsides in the Greensleeves Dance and everyone danced to Nick's lone fiddle, proving that it simply isn't necessary to have a PA, or even a band, for a good knees-up.
The afternoon wore on, and in the way of wedding parties there came a time when food, drink and merriment began to take their toll on everyone's stamina. At this point the guests, as they usually do, discreetly began to sneak off for a few hours rest before the evening festivities, (to be held at a hotel a few miles away). We suddenly realised that the job for which we had been preparing for the last two months was done. The inevitable slight melancholy was emphasized by the shedding of costumes and our re-entering the 20th century. The sky, blue for the whole day, had become as black as a parson's coat: there was a clap of thunder and down poured a deluge of the biggest hailstones I've ever seen. It was time to go home.