(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)
In May, Martin (right) won the 2013 International Jesters Tournament at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria
In May this year, comedian Martin Soan became the official court fool of Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. His payment is as much beer as he can drink.
“They’ll go broke buying that amount of beer,” I told him yesterday.
“I thought they were going to deliver free beer to me for the year,” Martin told me, “but, no, it’s only when I’m at the castle.”
“When are you going up next?” I asked.
“I’m going up for a Halllowe’en special, but the major thing is me compering the International Jesters Tournament in May next year.”
“And that’s when you get usurped as a fool?” I asked.
“I do,” said Martin.
“Did you get a trophy when you won?” I asked.
“I got a commemorative bowl,” said Martin. “carved out of the tree Tom Fool used to sit in. And I get to wear the Tom Fool coat. There’s actually a portrait of Thomas Skelton in the castle.”
“He was the origin of the word tomfoolery?” I asked.
Muncaster Castle original Thomas Skelton
“Yes,” said Martin. “He was an eccentric who used to sit in a tree outside Muncaster Castle. Lords and ladies used to come by and, if he didn’t get on with them, he used to send them the wrong way and they used to get in trouble in the marshes and quicksands of the River Esk.
“He was well-loved by the Penningtons, who owned Muncaster Castle, and he was a very clever man. In the end, he managed their estates. He was a very eccentric man who wore a very eccentric cloak – very Harlequin-like – and had a slightly hunched-back and looked very, very like Mr Punch.
“Whether Charles Dickens based Mr Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop on Punchinello or on Thomas Skelton, no-one is quite sure.”
“Was it a surprise to win the competition this year?” I asked Martin.
“I had done it twice before, but I did it on condition that I didn’t win.”
“Why didn’t you want to win?”
“Because it means you have to go off immediately afterwards, leave the castle and the absolutely stunning countryside and go to a TV studio in Carlisle to be interviewed. The competition finishes at about six in the evening and I didn’t want to leave behind all that beautiful countryside and beer and miss the rest of the evening.
“This year, because I’d done it twice before, I didn’t think to say again I don’t want to win. And what happened was there was a tie for between me and this girl from Australia.”
“She,” I asked, “had come over specially to take part in the competition?”
Martin Soan sees no need to use costume
“Yeah,” said Martin. “This year, two guys came over from the US with costumes and everything, keen to win. They pay a small fortune to compete, what with costumes and travel and accommodation and everything. It’s glamorous to them. The Penningtons are a ‘real’ English family who have lived in a ‘real’ castle for centuries and it’s where Tom Fool lived. In America and Australia there are societies devoted to Tom Fool. They spend thousands of pounds on costumes and learning the skills.
“So they come over here to compete and I haven’t even bothered to put on a costume and I can’t juggle and I tie with this girl from Australia and that’s when it got out of control because it had been decided that, in the event of a tie, the casting vote would go to this little girl who is aged about eight. So I was looking at her trying to mime Pick the Australian girl! Pick the Australian girl! but she chose me to win.
“So I had to go off to Carlisle and do the interview and miss-out on the evening but, after that was done and dusted, I decided I was going to take the role seriously and try and change it a little and get less traditional Tom Fools involved. I’m putting a lot of effort into trying to get a woman to win next year. There’s never been a woman fool for Muncaster Castle.”
“Surely,” I said, “court jesters and court fools were men not women?”
“But now,” said Martin, “times are changing and women are just as idiotic, shambolic, funny and stupid as men can be.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve got the headline for my blog there, then…”
Martin ignored me.
“I’ve got two women lined up – Cheekykita and Lindsay Sharman – for next year’s Tom Fool competition,” he continued.
“And presumably,” I said, “Tom Fool was not a straight comic: he was not standing there telling jokes like a stand-up. He was a genuine eccentric. He wasn’t a jester: he was a local loony who sat in a tree.”
“Also,” said Martin, “he manipulated the aristocracy into trusting him, because he was a very intelligent man. He ended up managing the estate really well and made a success of the castle.”
“So he wasn’t even necessarily a loony,” I said. “He might just have been a man who liked surreal pranks.”
“Yes,” agreed Martin. “I think we’ve corrupted what fools were about and have this image of men going around waving bladders with bells on the end of their hats. Tom Fool and his cloak were nothing like that.”
“You were telling me the other week,” I said, “that you think the majority of the really interesting, bizarre new comedy acts at the moment are women…”
Potential Tom Fool Lindsay Sharman
“Absolutely,” said Martin. “Yeah. We’re coming across more women who are free and open-minded about their comedy… That’s why there are so many women performing at Pull The Other One (Martin & Vivienne Soan’s London comedy club).
“But it’s unbelievable. Talking to Cheekykita and Lindsay Sharman and all the rest, women still find it hard to get comedy club gigs. Unbelievable! There are still a lot of clubs that are only booking male stand-ups. Or booking just stand-ups.
“The big agencies just deal in stand-ups, not variety acts. They’ve got absolutely no concept of what’s actually happening out there. Although maybe they’re right for themselves. All they’re after is training people to go on television and you’re not going to get surreal, madcap people presenting programmes for the general public. But there’s definitely more interesting acts around at the moment who are women. Definitely.”