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The William Webb Ellis Ensemble

January 2005  

THE WILLIAM WEBB ELLIS ENSEMBLE

Jenny Lucas celebrates an extraordinary team of buskers

It was in 1984, at the Chiddingly Festival’s Olde Tyme Music Hall
, that I first encountered the William Webb Ellis Ensemble. This group of gentlemen buskers is named for their sporting hero and inventor of the game of rugby. Over the years they became my music hall heroes and a symbol of a disappearing English art form.

The East Sussex village of Chiddingly has been running its own arts festival for a quarter of a century. Supported by ardent fans and by local community and business interests, the Chiddingly Festival has been a joyous mix of just about everything, for just about everyone: classical concerts by students of the Menuhin School, pulsating dance rhythms of a South African township, children’s theatre, folk song and jazz at the village pub.
 

Amazon book - 101 No 1 hits for buskersI will never forget that first crisp autumn evening in the Chiddingly Village Hall. The William Webb Ellis Ensemble bestrode the toy theatre of a village stage, like hirsute giants let loose from a rugby scrum, clothed with a dignity that suggested lives far removed from their grease-paint-and-fancy-dress incarnation. In fact, our village buskers comprised the Director of Leisure and Tourism for Lewes District Council, a biology teacher, a public health inspector, an IBM sales manager and a local authority schools inspector.

To a collective gasp of surprise, the proscenium curtains parted to reveal a small contingent of uniformed and helmeted SS stormtroopers, saluting and heel-clicking with disturbingly authentic Prussian fervour. In impeccable German, loosely translated by an earnest henchman, their “officer” spoke, with passion, of his pleasure at being on English soil “AT LAST!” and with what delight he and his colleagues would perform for us ein well-known ballad – “Du Bist Mein Sonnenblicht” – at which point after a quick reprise of salutes and heel clicking, they burst into a hearty rendering (in German) of “You are my Sunshine”.
But there was more!

As they sang , eyes front and to attention, the six foot tall, sixteen stone IBM sales-manager-turned-stormtrooper emerged from the main corps for his solo. He pirouetted, he jete-ed, he wafted hither and thither with ethereal grace; jack-booted toes pointed, muscular arms arched in ecstasy. Our prima ballerina’s head, helmet intact, inclined to the right then to the left, fluttering eyelashes lowered in maidenly humility. And all this to the relentless singing, marching rhythm of the accompanying SS chorus line. The Producers – eat your heart out.

Each brief sketch seemed simplicity itself but was, in fact, like some intricately painted miniature, so precisely executed it is impossible to see the brushstokes or the painstaking labour required to produce the art that conceals art. What they did was, in its way, as fine as the finest of live theatre.

A few festivals later and their piece de resistance was an interpretation of the sporting sensation of the age – Synchronised Swimming. It is difficult in these ironic times to recall the wild enthusiasm for this skilled, but exquisitely daft pursuit which peaked in 1984 when formation dancers of the swimming bath were accorded Olympic status. So imagine the unrestrained joy when our famous five entered stage left as The William Webb Ellis Synchronised Swimming Team, their discreetly sculpted bodies sheathed in shimmering pastel lycra, each manly chest pneumatically enhanced to Dolly Parton proportions.

They moved with chorus line precision to the strains of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and promptly disappeared stage right , only to reappear stage left behind the waist high, proscenium wide cardboard wall of their pretend “pool”. Five hands rose as one, each bearing aloft that essential Synchro-Swim accessory, the nose clip. Then our aquatic stars were suddenly lost to view below the pool wall; total immersion, total silence, and agonising suspense broken only when five little sprays of water spouted aloft followed by five arms raised excalibur like on high. From then on we followed the elegant geometry of the back-stroke, the slow measured crawl and the occasional rainbow arc of bubbles.

All this invoked a kind of inverse ratio of emotion in the audience; the more serious and dedicated the synchro impersonation, the more wild and uncontrolled was the audience response. “I could have died laughing” became a distinct possibility. Suddenly, five left legs are raised on high, all WOODEN! A long pause (what next?) and then from pool right, to sinister music, a single shark fin (screams of horror) and only FOUR legs raised! My folding village chair can barely contain the weight of laughter.
I cannot remember precisely how it all ended; there was a swish of velvet curtain and pool, wooden legs, shark’s fin and water babes gone forever, or so I thought. It was, they had announced, their final performance.

Amazon book - All the tunes you`ve ever wanted to playBut not long ago I heard that The William Webb Ellis Ensemble were re-uniting in our county town of Lewes to help raise money for charity and that Synchronised Swimming was on the bill. Of course I got tickets. A lot of water has flowed through the pool since we last met, and it was clear that squeezing into the lycra swimsuits is a lot harder these days. In the twenty-first century, music hall is semi-retired and the Webb Ellis Ensemble only rarely come out to play. But the magic was still there; the perfect timing, the dead-pan delivery and the impeccable attention to detail.
From time to time over the years I have spied one of the gentlemen buskers on the London to Eastbourne commuter train; soberly suited and utterly correct behind his protective newspaper. Only I could see what other commuters could not; a local education authority schools’ inspector in a day-glow pink lycra swimsuit and wearing a very small nose-clip.


 


   

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