Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

Folk culture, new paganism and the mainstream – Bridget Christie notes The Change afoot

New Channel 4 comedy, The Change, is the latest programme to recognise folk culture in the current zeitgeist. But what does it all mean? Jon Wilks has a ponder.

“People like to look back when the present is unsatisfactory,” said Burd Ellen‘s Debbie Armour in a recent interview on Bandcamp. “Artists like to hold a mirror to what they see, so we get a rise in a darker view of historical British and Irish culture.” And it’s in these darker waters that Bridget Christie has been fishing for her new comedy, The Change, currently screening on Channel 4.

The series launched on June 21st – the summer solstice – and quickly garnered high acclaim. “Bridget Christie’s super-cool menopause comedy is like nothing else on TV”, announced The Guardian, going on to praise its “Sheela-na-gig chic” and proclaim Christie’s character, Linda, as, “the role model we’ve all been waiting for. Hot flushes never looked hotter.” The Evening Standard called it, “a feminist take on the menopause [that] quickly snowballs into a collection of tongue-in-cheek but outspoken ruminations on everything from climate change, race and paganism to the culture wars and gender identity.” The Telegraph, meanwhile, fretted that it was a case of Channel 4 trying, “too hard to be offbeat.”

Trust The Telegraph to turn up to the wrong party. Far from offbeat, The Change is the second TV show this month to tap into the rising interest in folk culture; folk horror in particular. The Gallows Pole arrived in late May, resplendent with stag-headed men and Jennifer Reid and Tom Kitching belting out some seriously infectious 18th-century broadsides, not to mention a soundtrack dripping with Lankum and other psych-folk tasties. Less subtly, The Change can sometimes feel like a programme trying to cram as many folk culture references as it can into the little time it has. A 10-min town hall meeting in the third episode veers from a running joke about the aging town lothario and his trousers to an impassioned plea for the preservation of ancient woodland, via an eloquently delivered segment denouncing blackface morris (“Our festivals are for everyone,” explains the brilliant Tanya Moodie. “They’re a celebration of what it means to be alive, to be human, and that’s all of us. If we start excluding people, then they’re for none of us.”) We’re not complaining here, by the way. We’re thankful for every morsel. It’s just that there’s so much to take in.

Bridget Christie in The Change. The show’s official artwork was created by Alex Merry of Boss Morris.

It’s a veritable roll-call of the English folk scene’s heroes, heroines and hipsters.

This interest in the more esoteric aspects of folk culture has been bubbling away, edging ever-closer to the surface, for some time, and some may wonder whether we might now be seeing it spilling over into the mainstream. Boss Morris on the Brits, The Gallows Pole, and now The Change – it’s difficult to recall a time when the world of beasts, hobby horses and morris dancers featured on the nation’s TV screens in such quick succession, and The Change takes it a step further again. Regular readers will note the appearance of many folk artists that commonly turn up on these pages. Angeline Morrison, Stick in the Wheel and Shirley Collins all make the soundtrack, while the eagle-eyed will spot Nick Hart leading the procession around the climactic Eel Festival, not to mention references to Sam Lee’s Singing With Nightingales walks, which appear on posters in the programme’s coffee-shop-cum-radio-station. Ben Edge, folklore consultant on the series, gets a line about maypoles, while, Boss Morris chalks up yet another mainstream TV appearance. It’s a veritable roll-call of the English folk scene’s heroes, heroines and hipsters.

Tanya Moodie at The Change’s Eel Festival. Nick Hart and Boss Morris in the background.

If The Guardian is hailing “Sheela-na-gig chic”, then we’re surely only a season or so away from smocks on the high street.

There’s no question that an interest in this stuff is on the rise. Over on Instagram, The Stone Club and its sister account, The Folk Archive, are now closing in on a combined followership of nearly 80,000. Here on the Tradfolk website, we’ve seen over 4,000 visits in the last three months alone – most of them from new readers – searching for “morris dancing near me” (up approximately 37% on May last year). It’ll be fascinating to see whether Boss Morris’s appearance in The Change lifts that any further. In which case, where’s it all heading? If The Guardian is hailing “Sheela-na-gig chic”, then we’re surely only a season or so away from smocks on the high street. We’ll be seeing Goblin Band on the catwalk before Christmas. Can it properly spill over into the mainstream? I doubt we’re in any real danger of that. I suspect that Christie’s character, Linda the ‘town-mouse’, represents the thoughts and feelings of most of the country when she yelps in the final episode, “It’s all getting a bit too Wicker Man for me.”

Diversity is at the heart of the new generation’s desire to engage with folk culture.

Of course, those who have long been around the folk scene will tell you that this wave is part of a common resurgence. As someone pointed out on a folkie Facebook forum recently, the media pricks an interest in the folk scene once every decade or so and then goes off to sniff at something else; meanwhile, “we’ll still be here doing our thing”. The much-missed fRoots published a “Morris is Cool” cover feature as far back as 2004, replete with a beasts-led photo shoot, and you’ll find videos on Youtube of Alex Merry (Boss Morris) extolling the virtues of morris dancing over a decade ago. However, there are admirable differences this time around. Diversity is at the heart of the new generation’s desire to engage with folk culture, whether that’s via the Queer Folk project or via Angeline Morrison‘s profound efforts to make traditional songs more inclusive to a non-white audience. Both the aforementioned Goblin Band and Shovel Dance Collective address queer narratives in the old ballads and hold them up as examples of outsider art to be rallied around. Boss Morris, The Belles of London City and The Wad have combined centuries-old art forms with their own modern art backgrounds to shatter stereotypes around traditional dance, reveling in what morris historian Michael Heaney calls the “exotic and spectacular”.

Nick Hayes on the Right to Roam Trespass. Photo credit: Weird Walk
Nick Hayes on the Right to Roam Trespass. Photo credit: Weird Walk

The commonly touted reason for this folk resurgence is, of course, a response to climate change. Ben Edge, noted it in the first interview we ran on Tradfolk, back in November 2021, and it has cropped up in multiple interviews since. Perhaps, more accurately, it’s a response to the feeling that so much of what is rightfully ours, as creatures of this planet, seems to be slipping from our grasp. Bridget Christie spots it in many of its guises in The Change, whether it’s the destruction of our ancient landscape or the more subtle (yet no less insidious) corroding of our time; the constant, ever-present demands of brands, corporations, conglomerates, seemingly as desperate for our attention as they are for our money and natural resources. Elsewhere, Nick Hayes has devoted his life to highlighting our removal from the land around us, and he does so carrying a vast corn dolly head on a stick, while wearing a Herne the Hunter mask. Although clearly related to the traditional folk scene, I’m tempted to call it the ‘new pagan’ movement, such is its connection to the land and the mythical.

It’s undoubtedly cyclical; anything so tightly tied to the wheel of the year is bound to be. And I think Debbie Armour is right to say that people look back whenever the present seems to be on the blink. Why they do it, and what they think they’re looking back to, are different questions entirely. As the folk historian Steve Roud points out, there’s very little evidence to suggest that druids ever congregated at Stonehenge before modern history’s druidic revival. Similarly, Michael Heaney’s authoritative history of morris dancing, published this year, is unyielding on the origins of what we now think of as border morris (invented by John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris in Shropshire in the early 1970s). But all traditions and rituals have to start somewhere, and maybe that’s the fundamental difference between being a folk historian and being part of a living, thriving tradition: you’re either sat behind a desk, interested in dates and documents, or you’re out there doing it, sewing these rituals into your every day because they resonate with you in a way that gives you a sense of community and purpose.

Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs - cover sleeve

Bert Lloyd felt similarly back in 1965. Writing in the sleevenotes for Frost and Fire, The Watersons’ seminal album of calendar and ritual songs, “Just as one doesn’t need to be an ancient Greek to be moved by the plays of Aeschylus, so it’s not necessary to be anything other than an ordinary, freethinking 20th-century urban man with a proper regard for humankind to appreciate [their] spirit and power… To our toiling ancestors, they meant everything, and in a queer irrational way they can still mean much to us.”