Paul Saunders, director of entertainment for Ludlow’s Medieval Christmas Fayre, shares his passion and enthusiasm for bringing entertainment, medieval style, to the atmospheric setting of Ludlow castle.
You are the director of entertainment for the Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fayre as well as a (take a big breath) a musician, comedian and some may call you either a medieval minstrel, a troubadour, a fool, a clown, or a Music Hall turn. How do you (forgive the pun) juggle it all?
It’s really a combination of hard work and passion. I love all aspects of my job and what I do is what I am. I don’t really have ‘hobbies’ as such as my family will happily tell you! I am always looking for new ideas and entertainments, something a bit different. It is in my blood — my great-aunt Florence Saunders was a renowned Royal Shakespeare Company leading lady, my great-uncle was the actor John Laurie, widely known for his role as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army and my mother met my father when he was on stage performing a ‘Wilson, Kepple and Betty’ routine.
My maternal grandmother taught me traditional Pace-Egging and Mummers’ songs at the kitchen sink. So really, it has all happened through osmosis. I think my first appearance was playing the part of Mr Rain in a ‘Weather House’ at the age of five. I famously fell asleep on the second night and missed my cue. It’s been all downhill from there…
So, because I know the job of an entertainer, I have always worked hard at Ludlow to look after our performers. Outdoors, at the end of November, can be hard climate to work in if you have fire torches, juggling balls, swords or musical instruments in your hands — a lot of care is put into making sure that we look after people — both performers and visitors. With upwards of 15,000 visitors over two days that’s quite a challenge! The balance of keeping what everyone loves about the Fayre while at the same time bringing in new elements, is something we have done very successfully over the years, bringing in bands such as: Tryzna from Poland, the Shrewsbury Mummers, the Sunday pantomime, the Mystery Plays and Longsword Dance and Combat Through The Ages with their unique style and fire weapons. One of the benefits I bring is that the rest of the year I’m out performing and I’m also seeing new acts, new styles and ways of doing things that we can utilise. Plus, the performers see me working in Ludlow and know that I roll my sleeves up, put on my boots and get out there with them to face the audience.
All of that would not happen without a great team making the whole thing work. I am still fascinated at the way we can create it from almost nothing and then in a thrice: the marquees are up, the traders arrive, the visitors flock in and a magical happening takes place. Then like Brigadoon, it all vanishes and the Castle returns to normal though it never happened. The Fayre itself is full of wonderful, ephemeral moments and many visitors return year after year to get their annual fix of the magic we conjure up. Which brings me back to the question “How do you juggle it all?” Hard work, passion… and magic!
2. As a director of entertainment for the Fayre give us your take on a medieval Christmas Fayre and what makes Ludlow’s special? And second, how does entertainment contribute to it?
Medieval life was difficult and winter time could be exceptionally hard, particularly if you were living outside the castle without the safety and security that it provided. What we do know, however, is that it was also a time of great celebration, religious and otherwise, a turning point in the year when people gathered to eat, drink and dance. Many of our modern Christmas carols are based on medieval dances. In fact that is what the word ‘carol’ means – to dance in a circle. Our vision for Ludlow was to bring all those elements together and pack them into two days. Whether you come to the Fayre to buy your Christmas presents or not, it is simply a great experience in itself with all its sights and sounds. We want visitors to take that step back in time, move away from the noise and clamour of the modern high street with its chain stores, and to embrace the spirit of the time of year — collective rejoicing, shedding your everyday cares and worries and joining in the medieval way!
The entertainment plays a large part in evoking the spirit and nature of the time but in a way that is accessible to us today. Whether it’s a show or a have-a-go activity, it is something that was part of medieval life – but without the unpleasant parts! For us as a team, everything is an entertainment, not just the shows but also the leatherworkers, potters, the cloth merchants and toy makers and the victuallers. As a Medieval Christmas Fayre, our performers, traders and visitors all tell us that nothing evokes that spirit like Ludlow.
3. What would you say to those people who have never been to a medieval Fayre, why should they come?
This is the Fayre’s 21st year and I never tire of the glorious setting. On a crisp, sunny morning with church bells ringing and the Fayre just coming to life; costumed traders busying themselves getting their wares ready; the falconer preparing his birds; musicians warming up with some fantastic, ancient sounds and melodies; the smell of hot food — there simply isn’t a better place to be! Saturday night after dark with a marquee full of carol singers, what better way to start Christmas than in a collective celebration of the turning of the year? People come to see old friends, make new ones and mark the passing of some. It truly is a way of marking time, a gathering like no other. If you haven’t been, then you should because it is a happening that will lift your spirits unlike any other!
4. You are a medieval music expert and play ten instruments, which one is your favourite? And, what drew you to medieval music?
That’s a bit like asking which of your children is the favourite! Whether it’s the strident sound of the shawms and rauschpfeife, the melodic beauty of the santour, the soulful gittern or the driving rhythm of pipes, drums and hurdy gurdies, they all have their own charms and allure. I suppose the best answer is ‘the one I have in my hand at the time!’ At the Fayre because we have our Motley gathering at the start and end of each day, we tend to pick up different ones for each tune and whilst your presence on a whistle may not seem significant at the time, its absence would be. So each one plays its part in the grand collective.
What first drew me to medieval music is both its simplicity and complexity. The players of the 13-15th century were jazz masters — they would take a simple dance tune and play endless variations on it in order to invigorate the dancers and vitalise the ear of the listeners. Much of it is simply a melody played over a drone — the way a bagpipe or hurdy gurdy works but that generates a variety of sounds and emotions, forms wild dance music to soulful reflective moments.
Medieval music is drone music. It is in our beings, a collective sub-conscious. It is the sound the unborn baby hears in the womb, which is why the sound of a distant vacuum cleaner can send them to sleep! There is no one thing that is ‘medieval music’ other than that defined by date. It is such a rich and varied repertoire that can be performed in so many different ways. We have a very good idea of what Beethoven or Mozart should sound like, it’s all written down. But medieval music has no such limitations and will go wherever you want to take it. Much of it was dance music and the titles denote the dance in the same way that jig or reel is used in traditional music. So it is truly demotic music, music of the people played for celebration and reflection, any way you want it, as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. It has weight, a heft to it that reflects its time, place and people.
5. Finally, how are you going to top last year’s Medieval Fayre? What’s added to the programme this year?
We ask ourselves that every year! Every year I search for something new, something the visitors won’t have seen before and some things that you won’t see anywhere else, such as: The Mystery Plays, Wild Edric by Peter Cann and of course our very own Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fayre panto. Last year we added more walkabout characters and a fire show on the Saturday with the knights. This year, Sunday will be very special with a wonderful new walkabout Crumpet and Blitzen, which I think everyone will love and they will be joining Hodman and Sally Forth who everyone loved last year.
People also loved the sound of Tryzna for the last few years, but this year we are bringing some changes — keeping that same big sound with Diabolus In Musica, a quartet of shawms and trumpet players, along with drums, pipes and hurdy gurdies giving us a medieval wall of sound Phil Spector style! Plus Combat Through The Ages are extending their finale of fire weapons with more knights and weapons that will definitely be one to look forward to. Finally, we will also see the return of Revellion, albeit in the different format of a trio, some new faces but with the same spirit. Hand To Mouth Theatre return with a different show, A Dragon’s Tale and all of this alongside regular favourites so it’s sure to be a year and Fayre to look forward to and remember!
For more info on the Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fayre or to book tickets, click here .