THE PACE EGG (1960-1961) film no: 1178
The Pace Egg play is performed each year on Good Friday in the towns and villages in the Upper Calder Valley. The name derives from the Latin word for Easter - Pasche. This film documents the street performances of the play in which the actors are dressed in traditional mummers costumes.
The film opens with a train passing though the valley and a title which reads, “The Pace-Egg.” The commentary explains that the Calder Valley is an industrial highway at the crossroads of many of the larger cities of Yorkshire and home to a diversity of industry in its own right. This commentary is accompanied with examples of the various motorways and industrial buildings in the valley including Calder Mill. The film then goes on to explain the history of the Calder Valley showing parts of the old towns, bridges, churches, and the early industrial factories near the water. Children can be seen walking around the small lanes in an old town. Additionally, sheep farms and the expansive moors which surround the valley can be seen.
Each year the players of the Pace-Egg walk through town and over the bridge to St. George’s Square where they perform this traditional play. The commentary explains some of the history of the play and the significance of each of the characters. The players make their way through town dressed in Mummers costume. Specific to the Calder Valley plays is the character of Tosspot, an old coffee grinder.
Practically the entire village, from young children to the older members of the community, has turned out to watch the players displaying the close-knit fabric of village life. The villagers are gathered, and many watch the play seated on a nearby stone fence. The countryside can be seen in the background, and the film captures many examples of the crowd’s reactions to the play.
At the end of the Pace-Egg, the players as well as the spectators make their way back through town. The commentary explains that they are indebted to H.W. Harwood. He was the former chief reporter for the Halifax Currier and Guardian, and in working with head teacher of Midgley School, is responsible for the revival of the play. The performances which took place in 1931 and 1932 were broadcast on the BBC, and in 1934 the broadcast took place directly from the streets of Calder Valley. Harwood can be seen talking to the players from Calder High School. The film then closes with a list of credits:
Produced and Edited by Peter Boocock
Filmed by P Boocock
Costume and Regalia the late P Patket
Historical Details Scriptwriter and Narrator
Cast of Boys Calder High School
Produced in Collaboration with HW Harwood
This film provides a rare glimpse of a live performance of the Midgley Pace-Egg play. The early part of the film, describing the decline in local industry, is also of great interest. But the real value of the film lies in its focus on the local performance of the pace-egg play; a long standing tradition that continues to live on. The film was commissioned by Calder High School and made by local filmmaker Peter Boocock, a member of the Halifax Cine Club who helped in making the film. Peter also made The Long Drag about the Settle to Carlisle Railway which made it into the world wide 'Ten best' film awards for 1963. There is also a reference to another film made by Peter Boocock, Power for Local Industry, in the Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society Local History minute book for the 2nd October 1958. Peter sadly died in a road traffic accident in Manchester in 1970.
Much of our knowledge of the Midgley play comes from the local journalist and historian Henry Harwood who co-wrote, with Frank Marsden a local teacher, The Pace-Egg: the Midgley Version, first published in 1935. From this we learn that the play was performed all over the Calder Valley during the nineteenth century, with villages usually having more than one group of players, usually aged between 16 and 20, often in competition. Eddie Cass presents some evidence that the play was performed in the Calder Valley as far ago as the late eighteenth century, but the evidence is inconclusive (See References). In recent times the play has been produced and performed in Brighouse and Heptonstall, as well as Midgley. There is also a long tradition of the play in Lancashire.
After a long period stretching back to the early 1800s, the play ceased to be performed after the outbreak of the First World War. It was Frank Marsden, the English Master at Sowerby Grammar School, who revived the play, getting the BBC to broadcast it in 1931 and 1932. On the back of this Midgley School performed it in 1932. Performances then continued right through the Second World War, switching from Midgley School to Calder High School in 1951.
However, it nearly didn’t get taken up at Calder High School at all. It was only when one of the boys who had transferred from Midgley mentioned the play to a teacher, Barber Gledhill, that Gledhill organised for Calder to perform the play. Gledhill was a member of Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society, and was aware of the play’s significance. He also got Harwood involved – he oversaw the play for many more years – and it was Harwood who got the BBC to transmit another performance, as part of its Children’s Hour, in 1952. The play was initially played just at Mytholmroyd, before branching out to Hebden Bridge and Midgley. It was performed at very many locations, as far afield as Halifax, Harrogate and York.
The costumes shown in the film match those that can be found in descriptions of late nineteenth century performances, apart from that of the doctor – which reflects an even earlier fashion. A photograph of the 1913 production (reproduced in Cass, 2004) shows some differences. Some of the costumes have changed in recent productions, but in any case it was the responsibility of the players to make their own costumes. The bugler was introduced when the play was first broadcast on BBC radio in 1931, and the bugle used then is possibly the same one used in the film.
In 1955 Gledhill left, and the task of putting on the play was taken up by the deputy headmaster John Muschap. He was taken over by Albert Greenwood in 1961, and it was he who was responsible for the production seen in the film, and who continued in charge until 1976.
The Pace Eggs plays have a long and convoluted history. They are one of several archetypal folk plays with a common plot, involving a hero, their adversaries, and a doctor who revives the slain. This story can be taken to symbolise the eternal struggle of good and evil, or light and darkness, or the natural cycle of death and rebirth. Although having strong religious affiliations, seen also in the costumes, for the performers it was a way of getting money instead of just begging. The plays took place around Easter, All Saints Day and Christmas, and are variously known as 'pace-egging', 'souling' and 'mumming'.
The name itself has various contenders as to its meaning. Some claim that the name derives from the Medieval Latin word for passion ‘Pasche’: hence Easter and also “Paschal Egg”. Chapbooks from the 1830s and 40s, call it "The Peace Egg" from northern England. But the expression "pace egg" also bears a striking resemblance to the Jewish name for Passover "pesach" (pronounced "PAY-sahch") and which comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Samech-Chet meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare.
The Pace Egg is a form of what are called ‘mumming plays’. The word mummers refers to a person who is mumming – from the Greek word "Mommo", meaning a mask. These were worn in many contexts: they were popular at royal functions in the C14th, and when the practice moved into the streets it became common for revellers; and perfect for crime at night, causing some towns to ban ‘Mummery’.
There is controversy too about the origins of mummer plays. Some trace it to the old pagan ceremonies, relating them to the medieval ‘Feast of Fools’ and ‘Lord of Misrule’, which in turn connect to the Roman Saturnalia. These become Christianised in the early middle ages when the Church introduced Saints and Old Testament Prophets into the drama to produce Christian Miracle Plays. But these retained certain pagan elements, such as the players blacking their faces, wearing masks and wearing garments made from ribbon or strips of paper. In a Diary entry for 1713, Ralph Thoresby notes “that hardly a Yorkshireman has not been entertained by the mummer’s plays.”
However, Peter Millington, from his survey of the literature, concludes that, “that there were no Mummers' plays earlier than the mid Eighteenth Century - i.e. no earlier than about the time the first chapbook was published.” (Chapbooks were booklets, usually printed on a single sheet or portion of a sheet, folded into books of eight, 12, 16 and 24 pages, which circulated between the C17th and C19th) Millington notes that medieval mummers are well documented: “They cavorted in masks, including in animal masks, but they didn't perform plays.” It seems that there was much cross-over and borrowing from different sources. Some of the characters, like the doctor, go back much further, as do some of the textual sources; and pantomime may have been an influence as it was rising in popularity early in the eighteenth century.
The text for the commentary to the film owes a great deal to Henry Harwood, but although Harwood was an authority on the play modern scholarship might cast doubt on some of its assertions. For example, it states that, “the earliest traceable [text] is from 1788, based on Johnson’s history of the Seven Champions of Christendom, printed in 1596.” But Peter Millington notes a source slightly earlier than this (see References).
It is uncertain who appears in the play shown in the film, although Peter Kelly, who taught at Calder High from 1958 to 1961, names some contenders on the Hebden Bridge History webpage (see References).
Calder High School still performs the play, and has used it to teach cultural history and drama. It has also branched out in the performing arts, and in 2008 won an Arts Council Gold Award. Heptonstall School also performed the play in the 1950s and 60s, although ceasing it in 1967, until David Burnop - who played in it back then, and continues to still – revived it in 1979; and it continues to be performed, raising money for charity. The possible links to the crusades makes the play a controversial one, but it seems to have transcended its historical context and is evolving to embrace all communities.
Eddie Cass, The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play, The Folklore Society, London, 2001.
Eddie Cass, The Pace-Egg Plays of the Calder Valley, The Folklore Society, London, 2004.
The script of the Midgley version is in Harwood, H W & Marsden, F H. The Pace Egg - The Midgley Version, 1935, repub David Bland, Halifax, 1977
Eddie Cass and Steve Roud, edited by Malcolm Taylor and Doc Rowe, ‘An Introduction to the English Mummers' Play; Room, Room, Ladies and Gentlemen' - by EFDSS in association with the Folklore Society, 2002.
The Diary Of Ralph Thoresby V1: Author Of The Topography Of Leeds 1677-1724. For 1713, where Ralph Thoresby notes that hardly a Yorkshireman has not been entertained by the mummer’s plays.
Peter Millington, ‘Mystery History : The Origins of British Mummers' Plays’, American Morris Newsletter, Nov./Dec.1989, Vol.13, No.3, pp.9-16
William Smith, Rambles About Morley, Guiseley: M.T.D. Rigg, 1990.
Folk Play Research
Peter Millington on History Plays
Calderdale Local History, the Pace Egg
BBC feature on the Pace Egg plays
BBc H2G2 on 'pace-egging', 'souling' and 'mumming'