Very good article …

Crying ‘racism’, and lodging objections on behalf of those who have never objected, does no one any favours.

Blacking up among morris men is about disguise, not race - Morris men in race row? It just doesn’t ring true

Blacking up among morris men is about disguise, not race Photo: ALAMY

By Robert Colvile

8:45PM GMT 09 Jan 2012

In some houses, Father Christmas comes down the chimney. In ours, he uses the front door. That’s because, in my home village, they still perform a traditional mumming play. Every Christmas Eve, a group togged up as St Nick, Robin Hood, Tom the Tinker et al tour the homes and pubs, putting on their age-old show. There are deaths, resurrections, men in bonnets, imple pimple pills, some truly laboured rhymes – and, at the end, a collection for charity, and a few more pints to see the players on their way.

Over the years, each of the surviving mumming plays has diverged from the others, in a giant game of Chinese whispers. Ours is apparently unique in having two separate acts: the same players who fight to the death as St George and the Turkish Knight enjoy a second-half rematch as the King of Prussia and Soldier Bold, perhaps so that they both get to perform a melodramatic death scene.

It’s a wonderful thing to watch, but there’s one thing that sits uneasily with modern tastes: some of the parts require the performers to, well, to black up. That would be anathema to Andy Abbott, a “rights campaigner” from Essex who has condemned a group of Chelmsford morris men for doing the same. Seeing their darkened faces was, he says, “like a nightmare from my childhood”.

Is Mr Abbott right? Certainly, the cartoonish blackface of the Black and White Minstrels is abhorrent today, as is the idea of a white actor such as Laurence Olivier slapping on the boot polish as Othello. Yet for our village mummers – as, presumably, for the Chelmsford morris men – the make-up has nothing to do with race. Instead, it is about disguise: a centuries-old method of ensuring that the players are protected (if only symbolically) from recognition by their peers, or the gentry whose homes they are invading. Just as the play itself echoes ancient, pre-Christian rituals of death and resurrection, so its trappings echo the moment during the festive season when the social order would be turned upside down, and the Lords of Misrule would reign.

For Mr Abbott – or, no doubt, his namesake Diane – that would not be enough of a defence. But crying “racism”, and lodging objections on behalf of those who have never objected themselves, does no one any favours. Let’s hope that in next year’s stocking, Father Christmas brings him a little perspective.