The Pageant of Buxton in Light and Sound

Pageant type

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Performances

Place: The Slopes/The Crescent (Buxton) (Buxton, Derbyshire, England)

Year: 1958

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 40

Notes

9 April–31 May 1958

Evening. Performance lasted for 45 minutes.

The pageant, at first, had two performances each evening. After poor attendances, this was dropped to one performance evening around 18 April. It is likely, however, that the pageant was performed at least 40 times.1

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Producer [Pageant Master]: Ede, Christopher
  • Manager for Ede Productions: John Jevons
  • Music: Reginald Jacques

Names of executive committee or equivalent

n/a

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Burton, Ivor

Notes

Ivor Burton, ALA, The Borough Librarian with Messrs Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Ltd; Messrs Ferodo Ltd.

Names of composers

n/a

Numbers of performers

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

n/a

Linked occasion

n/a

Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a

Notes

No grandstand: it appears that people sat on chairs on the Slopes—a natural hill in the town centre. The capacity was 5000.2

Fewer than 200 saw the pageant in the opening weekend.3

The manager for the pageant, John Jevons, said ‘we expected thousands and only had hundreds'.4

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

4s.

4s. initially; from 2 May children were admitted for half price.5

Associated events

n/a

Pageant outline

Scene I. Quintus, an Imaginary Roman Centurion, Tells how he Came to Buxton and of the Blue Springs he Found

Scene II. The Sealing of the Wells on the Orders of Thomas Cromwell, 1538

Scene III. Mary, Queen of Scots, a Prisoner under the ‘Protection’ of the Earl of Shrewsbury, Stays at Buxton to Ease her Sickness, 1577

Scene IV. The Fifth Duke of Devonshire Summons the Architect John Carr of York to Plan the Crescent, 1780

Scene V. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Visits the Site while Building is in Progress, 1783

Scene VI. At the Height of Fashion, the Visitors Attend a Ball in the Assembly Rooms, 1800

Scene VII. The Adventures of Mr Ryley, the Manager of the Theatre, 1810

Scene VIII. The Great Actor, Edmund Kean, Plays for One Night in the Theatre, c. 1820

Scene IX. The Great Virtuoso Violinist, Paganini, Plays at Buxton, 1833

Scene X. The First Train Reaches Buxton, 1863

Scene XI. An Impression of Buxton Today

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Mary [Mary of Guise] (1515–1560) queen of Scots, consort of James V, and regent of Scotland
  • Cavendish, William, fifth duke of Devonshire (1748–1811) nobleman
  • Ryley [formerly Romney], Samuel William (1759–1837) actor and author
  • Kean, Edmund (1787–1833) actor
  • Paganini, Nicolò (1782-1840) Italian violinist and composer

Musical production

Music under the direction of Reginald Jacques: The Jacques Orchestra. Recordings of Works Band from Ferodo [local manufacturer].


Newspaper coverage of pageant

Buxton Advertiser
Manchester Guardian
The Stage

Book of words

The Pageant of Buxton in Light and Sound. London, 1958.

Price: 2s. Copy in Local Studies Library, Matlock.

Other primary published materials

n/a

References in secondary literature

n/a

Archival holdings connected to pageant

n/a

Sources used in preparation of pageant

n/a

Summary

The Pageant of Buxton in Light and Sound took place over a month-and-a-half period in the spring of 1958. It was directed by Christopher Ede, the most famous (and active) of the post-war pageant masters. He was certainly at the height of his popularity. In the late 1940s he had directed the pageant at Bradford and in 1951 had produced the Pageant of Boston and the Three Towns’ Pageant at Hampton Court for the Festival of Britain. In the mid-1950s he had revived the seventeenth-century Chester Miracle Plays, and in 1953 he had masterminded the Pageant of Rhodesia. Most recently, he had produced the Pageant of Guildford in 1957.6 Ede brought the six narrators of that pageant with him from the Guildford Theatre Club. Probably the most famous of these was Edward Kelsey, a stage-actor and voiceover artist. Though wholly produced by Christopher Ede, it seems that it was the Buxton Corporation that organised the initial financing and invited Ede to the town.7 Its ingenuity in terms of production, as a pageant of ‘light and sound’, was matched only by the pageant’s utter inability to capture the attention of local people. Up to 5000 people could have seen each performance, but the final figure of attendance was only in the hundreds, making the pageant a significant failure.8

The type of light and sound entertainment used for the pageant had first been presented at Chambord, France, in 1952, under the title ‘Son et Lumière ’. It was devised by M. Paul Robert-Houdin, and rapidly spread throughout France. Britain seemingly first witnessed the entertainment at Greenwich in 1957, directed by Robert-Houdin with French equipment and technicians. Buxton thus billed itself as ‘the first professional production using British artists and equipment in England’—though a letter to The Stage claimed that an all-British production had actually taken place at Woburn Abbey in 1957.9 Ede told The Stage that he was ‘at pains to stress the British aspect by avoiding the French title.’ Though he recognised the full title of the pageant sounded ‘clumsy’, he thought it best indicated the kind of entertainment the public would find. However, as he recognised, he had been wrong; some of the public felt ‘misled’ that there was no visible cast.10 As with the original Edwardian pageants, the appeal rested ‘very much on the site’ of the performance. The light and sound show was thus projected onto the Crescent—a famous 18th-century building, commissioned by the Duke of Devonshire, who was encouraging the growth of Buxton as a spa town. Three miles of cable and 166 flood and spotlights, as well as a three-colour lighting system, were used to illuminate the side of the building—not distinct images, but merely changing colours set to sound and narration.11

Despite the shortness of the pageant, at only 45 minutes, and the lack of real people in the performance, the pageant was still historically well-researched—probably due to the involvement of the Borough Librarian, Ivor Burton. In the pageant programme, a fair amount of detail was provided to explain who the characters of each episode were, and why they were important to the history of Buxton. In terms of the structure and chronology of the pageant, it was a classic example of the inter-war evolved form of historical pageantry. It began, as had been the case with the Edwardian pageants, with the arrival of the Romans. It ended, as had more frequently been the case from the 1930s, with a portrayal of the successful and vibrant town of the present day. In between, various events of local importance were depicted, from the construction and opening of important buildings such as the Crescent, to the first train reaching Buxton. A number of visits from famous figures also featured—such as those of Edmund Kean, a famous 19th-century actor, and the great virtuoso violinist, Paganini. By far the most celebrated, and always a dead cert for the pageant, was Mary Queen of Scots, who had stayed at Buxton four times to ‘ease her sickness’ in the 16th century. Above all, the aim of the pageant storyline was simple: to construct an image of Buxton as a cultural holiday destination based on its long and vibrant history. The explanation of the last scene in the programme epitomised this ‘boosterist’ aspect of the pageant, describing all the public work the Corporation was undertaking, as well as the social and business amenities of the town.

Despite the thought put into the pageant narrative, and the ingenuity of the production, the pageant was a complete failure. Hundreds rather than thousands saw it, despite there being at least forty performances! Before the pageant had even begun, the response from the town was thought ‘poor’—the Corporation struggled to find £500 for its part of the guarantor’s fund.12 When the pageant had its inauguration by the Rt. Hon. Hugh Molson, the MP for Buxton, there ‘were few present apart from a small official party’—the ‘freezing wind’ being blamed by the Buxton Advertiser and Herald.13 The cold weather continued, and fewer than 200 people saw the pageant during the weekend—some of whom were from outside the town. John Jevons, the manager of the production, refused to tell the local press the actual attendance figures a week later—but insisted they were on the increase.14 Eventually, the amount of performances per night was dropped to one, and children were admitted for half price.15 In the end the pageant fizzled out, and its conclusion was barely even reported in the local press—a noticeable difference from the excitement in the run up to the first performances.

Various reasons could be given for the pageant’s failure. Firstly, it was a completely spectator event—there were no roles at all for local people, whether in performing or creating costumes or scenery. As one of the defining characteristics of the historical pageant, this probably diminished local interest. Secondly, Buxton has a notoriously cold climate—staging an outdoor event in April and May was risky, to say the least. As Ede later explained, it had been necessary to have it at this time of year because later, when the leaves came on the trees, the view would have been obscured.16 It was also considered to be expensive, at 4s. Ede, for his part, later agreed that many people had found that the price for a ticket was too much.17

But at the heart of the issue was a more general cultural malaise in the town. Before the start of a One-Act Play Festival at the Playhouse in Buxton, taking place at the same time as the pageant, Councillor G.E. Motion (Chairman of the Buxton Drama Festival Committee), complained to the audience that there were many empty seats—and reminded them that ‘without the support of the public, these festivals could not continue.’18 Motion, at a later council meeting, said that ‘he wanted to see Buxton as the premier resort in the North’ but blamed the low and stagnant population rate for not being able to sustain high rates—vital for funding public improvements.19 When he assumed the Mayoralty at the end of May, he used his Banquet to launch a scathing attack on the ‘laziness’ of the townsfolk. Declaring that the Corporation was at ‘present working on the basis that Buxton was a resort, and that as a resort they were expected to provide a high standard of entertainment for visitors’, he blamed local lethargy for the lack of support for concerts and repertory seasons.20 Seemingly Buxton’s shaky position as a resort was a big topic of local talk. The Chamber of Commerce and Trade, for example, was fully aware that people were saying that Buxton was finished as a leisure resort. The President used his inaugural address in 1958 to urge the Chamber to ‘stop the stupid talk that Buxton was ‘finished as a town’’—by doing ‘Anything that helped to bring visitors or residents into the town…. bringing in prosperity and encouraging potential clients.’21 But it seems that the problem ran deep. John Jevons, the manager of the pageant, wrote into the press to bitterly ask ‘Do we deserve visitors?’ As he pointed out, the railway station was not welcoming; the hotels were inadequate; the swimming pools were small; there was a prohibitive charge on using the pavilion gardens; and that year’s International Musical Festival had been cancelled with barely an explanation.22 In many ways these were not new problems at all. In the inter-war period, too, the Corporation had struggled with trying to preserve Buxton’s civic identity as a spa and leisure town—subsiding many of the town’s attractions at a loss. A large proportion of Buxton’s inhabitants, both in the inter-war period and post-war period, were part of an industrial working class. They seemingly had little interest in the Opera House or the Pavilion Gardens—though there were still queues to the cinema.23 The Corporation of the 1950s had merely inherited this inability to face up to reality: Buxton was no longer the spa town it had been in the nineteenth century, and its inhabitants did not really want the same kinds of entertainment that they had had.

It seems that the failure of the Buxton Pageant was a combination of both the unattractiveness of the new style of performance to local people and a more general cultural malaise in the town. Either way, the experience does not seem to have put Ede off the format—over the next twenty years he went on to produce many more Son et Lumière pageants, while the historical pageantry movement more generally faltered.24

Footnotes

  1. ^ ‘Light and Sound Pageant’, Buxton Advertiser Herald, 18 April 1958, 1.
  2. ^ ‘Son et Lumière at Buxton’, Manchester Guardian, 11 January 1958, 2.
  3. ^ ‘Pageant Inaugurated on a Chilly Note’, Buxton Advertiser Herald, 11 April 1958, 1.
  4. ^ ‘Back to Normal’, Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 6 June 1958, 7.
  5. ^ Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 2 May 1958, 6.
  6. ^ The Pageant of Buxton in Light and Sound (London, 1958).
  7. ^ ‘Buxton’s Light and Sound Pageant’, Buxton Advertiser Herald, 21 March 1958, 1.
  8. ^ ‘Son et Lumière at Buxton’, Manchester Guardian, 11 January 1958, 2.
  9. ^ The Pageant of Buxton in Light and Sound (London, 1958); Letter from J.H. Stock, The Stage, 25 September 1958, 13.
  10. ^ Letter from Christopher Ede, The Stage, 18 September 1958, 13.
  11. ^ ‘Buxton’s Light and Sound Pageant’, 1.
  12. ^ Ibid., 1.
  13. ^ ‘Pageant Inaugurated on a Chilly Note’, Buxton Advertiser Herald, 11 April 1958, 1.
  14. ^ ‘Light and Sound Pageant’, Buxton Advertiser Herald, 18 April 1958, 1.
  15. ^ Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 2 May 1958, 6.
  16. ^ ‘Back to Normal’, Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 6 June 1958, 7.
  17. ^ Ibid., 7.
  18. ^ ‘Too Many Seats, Says Festival Chairman’, Buxton Advertiser, 25 April 1958, 5.
  19. ^ ‘Warning that Borough Status May End’, Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 23 May 1958, 5.
  20. ^ ‘‘Too Much Laziness among our People’’, Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 30 May 1958, 1.
  21. ^ ‘”Stupid Talk” about a “Finished Town”’, Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 9 May 1958, 4
  22. ^ ‘Do We Deserve Visitors?’ Buxton Advertiser and Herald, 30 May 1958, 7.
  23. ^ Tom Hulme, ‘Urban Governance and Civic Responsibility: Interwar Council Housing in Buxton’, Midland History 35 no. 2 (2010): 242.
  24. ^ ‘Obituary: Christopher Ede’, The Stage, 25 February 1988, 29.