The Bridport Pageant: Film

The Bridport Pageant of 1953, or 'Bridport Through the Ages', was had eight episodes, 1300 performers and six performances—impressive considering Bridport was only a small town of about 6200 inhabitants at this time.  Its pageant master was William C. Fear, a Canadian from Nova Scotia who had first come to England in 1941 with the armed forces. It had many of the common themes of pageantry from the first half of the twentieth century, but was notable for its simplicity and humour—losing much of the moralising edge, and some of the historical accuracy, that had accompanied Louis Parker’s original vision. To many local people the main draw of the pageant was the visit of Princess Margaret on the opening night: apparently the first ‘official’ royal visit in the town’s history.  Margaret was given a beautifully leather-bound blue souvenir programme, tooled in gold and printed on art paper—and lacking the advertisements of the normal souvenir.

Because the pageant was commemorating the anniversary of the granting of a royal charter in 1253, and 1953 was Queen Elizabeth IIs Coronation Year, the pageant storyline was dominated by historical royal visits. Each royal figure had their own compliment to give to Bridport and Dorset, repaid in cheers from assembled townsfolk. King Athelstan, for example, said he had come to ‘breathe the sweetness of our Dorset air’. A more peculiar star of the show was Bridport rope, the most famous product of the town, which showed up in several of the scenes. In Queen Joan Navarre’s visit, for example, she declared ‘Welcome, rope-makers. Your strong cordage weathered the storms from Brittany to Britain. Sorely we were buffeted. Already—n’est-ce pas—I owe you my life.’ 

Societies and local people, especially women and school children, made the vast proportion of the dresses and properties. Unlike the Sherborne Pageant in 1905, pageants, which finished its story several centuries before the present, Bridport’s final episode went up to the present day. Beginning in 1879 with the tale of the decline of the Bridport shipyard, the Victorian characters spotted a fire. Unable to extinguish it with their outdated contemporary equipment, a modern day ‘stream lined red fire engine’ appeared, with ladders quickly detached to save a screaming woman from a building.  As the Dorset Daily Echo observed, the ‘ancient horse-drawn engine’ ‘raised such a laugh’ in comparison with the ‘businesslike thoroughness [of] a modern brigade’. Other episodes concentrated on making it clear that Bridport was a town in charge of its own destiny, showing historical rights - such as charters and markets. But, above all, this was a fun pageant - more concerned with entertainment and humour than making any great claim about tradition, modernity or patriotism. This was the case in the farcical fourth episode, in which various officials wrangled over harbour dues, and the seventh episode especially, in which Charles II managed to evade capture in the town during the Civil War. The dialogue was simple, easy to follow, mildly humorous or farcical rather than serious, and not long. Royal figures featured prominently, but more of the dialogue was taken up by locals, some of whom made funny predictions: in the final episode, for example, the first Shipwright exclaimed: ‘Why man, one of these days we’ll be building ships to sail in the air’ to which his friend replied ‘Pigs might fly! I suppose you’ll be saying next they’ll be building ships to sail under the sea.’

The local press went mad for the pageant, and the Princess seemingly enjoyed herself too; the Bridport News reported that her final words when she left the Mayor were ‘Please thank everybody for the wonderful welcome given to me. I congratulate all who took part in the Pageant.’  These sentiments were reinforced in a letter the Princess’s lady in waiting sent to the Mayor following the pageant.  Sir William Appleton, a visiting former Lord Mayor of Wellington, also heaped on the praise, stating that he was ‘frankly amazed that such a small town with a little over 6000 inhabitants could produce such a show of such overwhelming excellence.’  The watching crowds agreed with the praise, giving the performers a standing ovation and throwing their hats into the air.  When the Mayor called for the pageant master to come forward and take a bow, the ‘cheering rose in volume until it sounded like a cup-final roar.’ Footage was shown on BBC news, and in general the radio and newspaper publicity was supposedly ‘on a scale such as Bridport has never known’.  

You can get a sense of the pageant from the oral histories and the beautiful colour film that we are hosting for the Trust: