U.K. dancing film jigs for distributor

A dancer featured in the film "Morris: Life With Bells On"


Tess Vigeland: The British-made movie "Slumdog Millionaire" stands a good chance of winning something at the Oscars on Sunday. It has ten nominations, including Best Picture. The film is one of those British "sleeper" hits. Think the "Full Monty" -- ignored at first in Britain, but exploding on the international scene after getting a U.S. distributor. Scores of independent film makers in Britain hope that their movies will follow suit. One example? A film about Morris dancing. What, you've never heard of Morris dancing? An Ancient British folk tradition where guys in white shirts wave hankies and bash sticks together. Well Marketplace's Stephen Beard advises us to get ready for the hot new thing.

Stephen Beard:

Datchet Border team: Are we all set? Nice and smart. Two straight lines!

This may not seem the most promising theme for a full-length movie.

Datchet Border team: Give it plenty -- right this time!

Morris dancing is an offbeat, ancient pastime, performed here by the Datchet Border team. These days the dancers can often be seen in the summer capering outside country pubs with their curious paraphernalia.

DANCER: We've got the bell pads on our shins. We've got the sticks in our hands. And we've got handkerchiefs which we always use in the dancing.

This 500-year-old English eccentricity has now been parlayed into a comic feature film.

Film Teaser: Morris dancing: seemingly an innocent pub pastime involving hanky-waving bearded men.

"Morris: A Life With Bells On" tells the story of one man's struggle to modernize the dance. Poking gentle fun, it's proving quite a hit with English audiences.

English Viewer 1: I could recognize the caricatures of certain kinds of people and I really enjoyed it.

English Viewer 2: I laughed like a drain. I thought it was wonderful I really did.

English Viewer 3: I thoroughly enjoyed it -- very tongue-in-cheek.

But the audiences have been tiny. Only a few hundred people have seen the movie at special screenings in village halls. There hasn't been a general release. Writer Chaz Oldham says the distributors didn't share his enthusiasm for the subject.

Chaz Oldham: They think it's too niche and they're not sure that there's a market for it here. And therefore they're not prepared to take that risk.

And risk there certainly is. The distributor buys the rights, pays for the prints and markets the movie. That can run into millions. The director, Lucy Akhurst hopes to persuade a more entrepreneurial, American distributor to pick up her film.

Lucy Akhurst: My experience of people in the entertainment industry in the States is that they will give you the time. They want to see if you've got something that could possibly be the next big thing.

After all, she says, look at "The Full Monty", "Four Weddings and a Funeral", and other British movies that were hits in the U.S. first before they even opened in the U.K. But Terry Ilott of the Film Business Academy says these were exceptions. Don't be surprised if Morris doesn't sweep American distributors off their feet.

Terry Ilott: I mean, American distributors make exactly the same calculations as everybody else. And if it's a British film they'd want to know why it hadn't been distributed in its home market.

But on the positive side, he says, an odd subject matter is no bar to success.

Ilott: "Slumdog Millionaire." What could be less likely: a combination of Mumbai slum life and a TV game show? I mean, what could be less likely as a subject? I don't think subjects matter in films really.

Unlikely as it seems, the producers of Morris hope their curious little movie will strike some chords and ring a few bells in America.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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Morris may be vanishing in the UK - but it's alive and well in California!! (And - no- I haven't witnessed any "free Morris" even out of Orange County).

I would REALLY like to see this film. Morris dancing is so offbeat that I believe it has "legs" as a story and a film. Hope it makes it into distribution in the US. Yes, it's a financial gamble, but so was 'Riverdance'.

I've experienced something similar. My film, American Scary (www.americanscary.com) talks about TV Horror Hosts. Remember the people who introduced the late-night scary movies?

We finally found a distributor in Cinema Libre and launched the DVD last week. The result, Amazon.com sold out by 6 p.m.

Distributors need to realize, your "niche" is bigger than ever on the Internet. They might also miss the diverse markets your film can appeal to.

Morris Dancing is for anglophiles, people interested in dancing, quirky hobbies and much more.

American Scary is local TV history, national TV history, quirky hobbies, horror, childhood fun and nostalgia.

You can reach many different audiences today, not just one.

Although I have never seen morris dancing and do not know how it is done, I happen to be reading a book about traces of magical rites in Shakespeare's works--Linda Woodbridge's *Scythe of Saturn*, 1994. Woodbridge says that morris dancing comes from earlier pagan fertility rites (page 235) and was banned by Puritans because of that fact. Dancers used to wear red sashes across white costumes and blacken their faces. Apparently, the word "morris" is a corruption of the word "Moorish." She quotes Chambers' 1923 book *The Elizabethan Stage* that, "faces were not blackened because the dancers represented Moors, but ... dancers were thought to represent Moors, because their faces were blackened." Apparently, there was a sword dance with a resurrection at the winter solstice and a bean dance around May Day to help the crops.

I am an American living and folking in the UK. FWI - there are a number of petitions set up for getting the Morris movie distributed in the UK. The same could happen for the US.

Google - Morris A Life with Bells on + petiton.
This brings up loads of links to petitions.

There is also a Facebook group. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=124629910009

And a thread on the Mudcat Cafe Blues and Folk music forum. http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=117870&messages=169&page=1&des...

The interest is out there. It just needs pulling it together and directing to independent film distributors.

As a former Morris dancer (founding member of Bluemont Morris in Bluemont, VA and a member of Marlboro Morris and Sword in Marlboro, VT) my ears really perked up when I heard this story tonight. I surely hope this movie makes it in the US. I'm going to go for a search for it on DVD tonight.
Thanks for covering it.

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