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How they’re reviving the Yorkshire village fete with a cast bigger than Ben Hur

Lady Florence Bell at the original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927
Lady Florence Bell at the original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927
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IT WAS a village show with a cast bigger than Ben Hur.

Deep within the North York Moors exactly 90 years ago, in the woodland setting of the 14th century Mount Grace Priory, more than 1,000 people, a team of horses and a dancing bear put on a pageant so big they talk about it still.

The original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927

The original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927

There is even a film of it, though without a soundtrack, for it predated talking pictures.

As far as anyone knows, none of the cast, nor any of the thousands who saw it from the grandstand, survives. But tomorrow, it will be revived for a new generation.

However, with money evidently tighter these days, a cast of four will do the job.

The pageant at Mount Grace Priory in 1927 was the pet project of Lady Florence Bell, whose husband owned the former Carthusian charterhouse, east of Northallerton.

The original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927

The original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927

The Bells were an iron and steel family, forged in the industrial revolution. Sir Hugh Bell was three times mayor of Middlesbrough, his wife a writer and social historian.

Hugh’s father had bought the priory as a ruin, and had restored the manor house and rebuilt one of the monks’ cells.

“Lady Florence wanted to tell the priory’s story in the form of a pageant,” said Simon Kirk, whose theatre company, Time Will Tell, is staging this weekend’s anniversary mini-revival on the site of the original.

He has called it An Affair of No Little Art, after the 1927 review in the Manchester Guardian.

The original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927

The original production at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, in 1927

Not all the original reviewers were as complimentary. One complained about the local accents, another that his enjoyment had been spoiled by the sight of one of the Cathusian monks smoking a pipe.

However, a further writer said the production had been “something in the nature of a miracle”.

Mr Kirk, whose company has mounted other productions in their proper historical context, including Dracula at Whitby Abbey, said: “There was immense local interest.

“Eventually, there were more than 1,000 actors and they all had to be costumed - a massive undertaking by itself.

Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton

Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton

“It crossed all sorts of classes. Magistrates and MPs, captains of industry, military men and high churchmen rubbed shoulders with local amateur dramatics people.”

Most of the cast were non-professionals, but the cost of costumes, transport and special effects soon demolished the then-generous £2,000 budget, and the production eventually lost £800.

The available funds might have been greater still, but the for interruption of the general strike the previous year, which had taken its toll on the Bells’ industrial fortunes.

Lady Florence, a determined woman in her 70s, was forced to auction off a collection of books and letters in her library which had belonged to Charles Dickens.

Mr Kirk said: "It was only 10 years after the Great War and people were still making adjustments. The Bells really just wanted to being people together.”

He added: “The script goes straight from intimate scenes to craziness involving acrobats and a dancing bear. I would love to know whether it was a real one or a man in a suit."