In answer to the chap who commented on my blog about enjoying the Natural Theatre’s appearances on the Great British Bike Ride many years ago, I have unearthed this column I wrote for the Bath Chronicle in June 2000.
Recently, almost 30,000 people took part in the 25th annual London to Brighton Bike Ride, a stupendous occasion organised as usual with great aplomb by Bike Events of Bath. As ever, the Natural Theatre Company was in attendance, entertaining the spectators and participants en route and at the finishing line on the sea front.
Years ago, we invented something called Art on the Run for Bike Events and their many bicycle-related escapades. This was a variation on our street theatre and consisted of fleeting images in landscape settings, designed to lift the hearts of exhausted riders and send them on their way with a smile.
Thus we might be seen standing stock still, covered in children’s windmills, whirring away at the top of a windy moorland outcrop. Or shouting abuse as angry scarecrows in a potato field. A lay-by would become a pit stop where crisply uniformed nannies would massage sore thighs, and chubby garden gnomes with fishing rods would appear in cottage gardens.
Eventually, Bike Events invited us to become Resident Artists on their annual John O’Groats to Lands End rides. Several hundred sponsored cyclists of all ages and abilities would spend up to three weeks on the road, and our entire company would go with them.
Three weeks with three or four ‘performances’ a day is a lot of surprises! Some things were planned, but mostly we would take a huge van full of costumes and improvise. Such is the amazing variety of the British landscape that even on a slow moving bicycle, each day would be of a completely different character.
The fertile minds of the performers came up with some wonderful images. Romantic poets, scribbling with quill pens in the Lake District, a Christmas fairy waving from the top of a lone pine in Northumbria and an RAF pilot dangling from a parachute high above a lane, calmly puffing on his pipe as he awaited rescue.
Most memorably, the famous Levis-in-the-bath advertisement was recreated in drinking trough in a field by one of the more dishy actors, much to the interest of about thirty heifers and the local farmer (who called the police)
Speaking of police, once the organisers asked us to ‘theatricalise’ a safety check on all the participating cyclists. So, in a lonely lane in Devon we set up a police road block, using uniforms borrowed from the Avon Constabulary (we told them we were putting on an Agatha Christie murder mystery). From a distance we looked pretty convincing.
It was very hot and the riders were late, so we retired to the nearest cornfield with some cans of lager, occasionally jumping up to see if any cyclists were coming. I will never know what the occupants of a police helicopter that happened to pass overhead thought as they looked down and saw three policemen and a police woman lounging in a field swigging beer!
Sometimes we would deliberately plan to involve passers-by. In each town the cyclists would be greeted by the mayor. When a mayor was unavailable, the Naturals could always provide a realistic stand-in. I’m sure a lot of tourists still think the mayor of Hexham is a fat old drunk on a folding bicycle! And what about the near-riot when the now famous British Anti-cycling League first put in an appearance in Tewkesbury? People pelted us with chips!
Near Bath, a grand piano was lowered into a river and a flashy pianist in sparkling tails played gushingly in a wonderful tableau designed to be fleetingly glimpsed from a nearby bridge. Imagine the complicated logistics involved in what was a momentary but unforgettable image.
Perhaps the most elaborate scenario however was The Crawlers. Having done the End to End run several times, in both directions, we had noticed that at any given time there was always somebody doing a sponsored Lands End to John O’Groats something or other, whether a pram push, a tandem relay, or on one memorable occasion, a man who tiddly winked the whole way! (Yes, really!)
That year we were sponsored by a big corporation, so we invented a group of people from their head office who were crawling the length of Britain for charity. At the official Bike Events start they arrived in a posh Ford Galaxy and demanded to be allowed to go first. Lots of people believed they were real and got quite shirty (most participants at this point would have been unaware of the pending Natural Theatre contribution to the ride).
After that, The Crawlers would be spotted almost daily at different stages in their amazing journey. Of course, we didn’t crawl very far, just a few yards when a group of our cyclists came along –and then we’d dash back and await the next lot. We did however find it necessary to crawl a considerable distance across the Forth Bridge as we were unfortunately in full view of the mayor (a real one) and her party of dignitaries. That day we suffered gravel rash for our art!
As the three weeks progressed, the crawlers became more and more decrepit and exhausted. Each night we further ‘distressed’ our costumes, so our smart office suits became worn at the elbows and knees. The men sprouted stubble and Mrs Vaughan from accounts sported more and more protective bandages.
Eventually, The Crawlers arrived at the finish at Lands End in a spirited dash to the tape. Mrs Vaughan was a complete wreck, her nice twin-set in shreds, her spectacles held together with Elastoplast, her knee bandages bloody. To huge cheers she dragged herself and her charity tin over the line, still wearing her best but now battered pink hat.
Editor’s note: The idea of theatre in the landscape was later developed into a series of elaborate mystery coach outings. They survive to this day in the form of the Red (or White) Wine Arts Trail, an unmissable feature of the annual Bath Comedy Festival. So all that crawling was worth it!