‘Morris dancing’ is officially cool, and it can only be a matter of time before the likes of Jay-Z start sampling a few beats from the 1972 floral folk classic Morris On, simultaneously inspiring kids from Compton to Clapham to strap on wrist bells and get their handkerchiefs flapping. When the history of this new Morris revival is written, many will claim to be the founding father but those in the know will point to Tim Plester, Rob Curry and their charming documentary Way of the Morris (2011) as being the rock on which we first bashed our sticks together.
OK, so that may never happen; Morris dancing is – and always will be – a bunch of jangling, ale-drinking men in strange costumes hopping around and waving hankies. It’s quaint, eccentric and quintessentially English. However, Plester and Curry’s Way of the Morris – which focuses on the Morris men of Adderbury in Oxfordshire – will certainly persuade many viewers who formally ridiculed the tradition to show it a lot more respect.
Adderbury lays claim to being the birthplace of the early-1970s Morris dancing revival. Before the First World War, the village had a thriving Morris scene, but all but one of the dancers tragically died in the trenches. This seems to have been a common theme; after the war people didn’t feel like dancing anymore and it wasn’t until the birth of the English folk-rock movement – spearheaded by the likes of Pentangle and Fairport Convention – that interest in Morris was rekindled.
For Plester, this is a deeply personal project. He comes from Adderbury and his father and grandfather were Morris men, but growing up he had no interest in joining the group. At its best, Way of the Morris gives a rare insight into a tradition that few of us know anything about. He shows great affection for the people and some skill as a filmmaker. Everything is beautifully shot, and at just over an hour in length, he manages to avoid dragging out the story.
The only real qualm is that he doesn’t delve deeper into the history of Morris. He hints at possible roots in North Africa and pagan rituals, but claims that nobody really knows the true origins. Whilst it’s easy to appreciate the desire to keep things shrouded in mystery, the film would have benefited from some more thorough research.
Way of the Morris is a short, sweet and satisfying glimpse at a national pastime that has become a national joke, and Plester and Curry’s documentary goes a long way towards redeeming the reputation of a very British tradition.