Friar Park, 1980

It’s chilly out, the coal is piled on the fire, there’s barely a sixpence between us for the electric meter, and crowds of people are on their way to warm up at the community centre. There’s a new show on – ‘Babes in the Wood’, performed by a group who call themselves the Friar Park Follies – as in a lack of good sense, foolishness, or in Black Country parlance ‘yam saft in the yed’.

The performance is cheering everyone up, as it’s been a miserable year. Council rents are skyrocketing. Unemployment now stands at 2 million for the first time since 1935. Economists warn that it will rise to up to 2.5 million by the end of next year, though it actually reaches that figure within months. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, makes her ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech to the Conservative Party conference, after her party MP’s warn that her economic policy is responsible for the current recession and rising unemployment. Rishi Sunak, the Conservative Prime Minister of 2023, is also born in this wretched year.

At this time, in 1980, just before Christmas, West Bromwich Albion stand sixth in the table, offering some cause for celebration, while the ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble, along with several children and a pantomime cow, frolic amidst the freshly painted flats – not council ones, but those used as scenery in theatre, some lightweight timber frames covered with canvas, offering a fanciful depiction of the estate and local woods. 

This was a time before non-gendered or nonbinary pronouns, when men dressed gaily as dames and women took over as the principal boy in the traditional and colourful British pantomime. Thor and Loki did it in the Norse Tales, as bride and bridesmaid, to win back Mjollnir from the Giants. Hercules dressed as a woman while the slave of Omphale, Queen of Lydia, who also wore his lionskin and wielded his mighty club. Shakespeare had female characters who dressed up as men, though to confuse matters, there was a time in his England when it was illegal for women to perform in theatres, so female roles in his plays and those of his contemporary playwrights were originally played by cross-dressing men or boys. Transgressive gender portrayals on stage are as old as theatre itself. These early performances that Jubilee Theatre and Community Arts were involved with enjoyed keeping up this gender switching tradition, especially in the festive season, no doubt fortified by lashings of sherry and eggnog.

The Friar Park panto was set in medieval times – ‘900 years ago when the council estate was built’ – and told the story of Robin Hood and Nurse Ada, our pantomime dame, against the wicked new Queen Aggie, step-mother of the Babes, while King Dick is away at war. ‘Aggie, Aggie, Out, Out, Out!’ they cry. Eventually, over the course of the evening, Queen Aggie is defeated, King Dick ‘retires’ and all council house rents are abolished. As with all pantomimes, there is a rambunctious mix of songs, jokes, slapstick comedy, dancing and plenty of audience participation.

In his introduction Robin Hood tells the crowd:

‘So now on with the story, an’ I’ll warn you afore we start, 
Them of yer oo’m queasy or ’oor’ve gotta dodgy ’eart, 
Yoh’d berra gerrout now befower the intermission, 
Cos this story won’t suit them of a nervous disposition. 
It’s a tale of greed and wickedness, envy, hate and spite, 
Thievin, grief and misery an’ plotting in the night, 
In fact it was much the same then as it is today,
Folks like Ada ’oo scrimp an’ save, an’ ’oo every day...
Ave to werk for a living just to mek ends meet.
While them ’oo ’ave the money con just put up their feet
An’ loff at yer as if life were just a farce.
They never do a stroke but just sit on their...’

The photograph shows Alan Foster playing Nurse Ada, who looks after the Babes.


Dow be saft! For some Black Country dialect see:

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