Old fogies reminiscing of past times seem always to remember even the most miserable failures in a haze of golden glory. Hence it was something of a comfort to hear several old fogies remark that the pageant performed this summer on the backs of St John’s was the best to be staged in Cambridge within living memory. That it managed to eclipse so many past efforts by C.U.M.S., together with their spurious halo of excellence accumulated with the years, speaks highly of the production. One recalls the odd representation of Dioclesian in 1947, a happy farce for friends of the performers, but three hours of unremitted ennui for the ordinary theatre-goer—and one recalls Purcell’s King Arthur murdered in the following year, a tremendous error of artistic taste.
To do better than these poor affairs would scarcely require much effort. Effort if conserved and directed is so effective. In most Cambridge ventures it is frittered away in cross-currents of individual antipathies, ambitions and vanities. On the occasion of which I now speak the committee was a strong body with one purpose. It included three hard-headed business-men and a number of exceptional artists, whose aim was not personal aggrandisement or pecuniary gain, but the presentation of really artistic whole suitable to Coronation Year and to a city Cambridge’s traditions.
Some £200 profit was netted (by guarding against needless expenditure) for the Cambridge Fund for Old People’s Homes. Deep gratitude is due to the Master and Fellows of St John’s college for their making available so exquisite a site for the performances, and to those patient members of the College whose rooms in New Court were daily jangled and thundered with the noise of rehearsing alarums and excursions. A choir, a piano and a Hammond organ in the cloisters were something to contend with.
This Pageant was perhaps a novelty. The basic script of six episodes was specially written by Mr John Saltmarsh of King’s. Upon this “urtext,” six undergraduate poets imposed the fruits of their own peculiar genius. They were: Thom Gunn, Hugh Thomas, Norman Buller, John Arden, Julian Cooper and John Mander. And the pegs they thus provided were hung with music by: Nigel Glendinning, Paul Burbridge, Allen Percival, Hugh Baillie, Peter Tranchell, David Gwilt, Raymond Leppard, John Exton, Gordon Lawson, Ian Kemp, Philip Radcliffe and Angus Watson.
One might think that a show made of contributions from a dozen different musicians would be an ill-assorted patch-work of botches, but in this case, somehow, we musicians might be called “The Cambridge School.” There was in our music a very remarkably apparent common factor.
So, in the event, the Pageant though home-grown from very diverse sources had a unity about it that greatly enhanced its impetus, and elicited very many enthusiastic comments both on script and on music.
The six scenes had as their guiding text a quotation from Shakespeare: “Nothing shall we rue if England to herself do rest but true.” Each one was preceded by a convenient prologue written by Peter Green and spoken by Mr Donald Beves in the guise of Merlin.
The theme was of the chances of a nation’s history and the part played by the monarchy. The passing of Arthur after civil war with Mordred; the disputes at the death of King John and the accession of the boy-King Henry III; Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury; the unrest in London when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway unopposed, while Pepys arranged with his wife to bury their golden guineas in a garden in Huntingdonshire; the effect of war on a country village, and the news of the victory at Waterloo; and finally the accession of Victoria, a young woman undertaking at an unexpected moment, after a major war and a financial disaster, the grave responsibilities of queenship. Mrs Oldfield as Elizabeth and Mr Tickell as a messenger rode horses valiantly. Apart from Mr Hedley Briggs as Pepys, there was a cast drawn from Colleges and Town alike. There were trumpeters, pikemen, sluts, harridans and every conceivable person characteristic of British History. There were many magical moments. Those who do not respond to pageantry cannot appreciate such moments. The handing of Arthur’s crown to Queen Victoria meant more than a mere script or a mere fanfare could ever express.
Our congratulations are due to the production-team headed by Mrs Camille Prior, to the ladies in charge of the wardrobe and to all those who took part.
[Find out more about the 1953 Pageant here: https://historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1497/]