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The Comedy of Errors

The Dilettante Society on Shelford Tommy

8 June 15 words: Lady M and F Dashwood
illustrations: Christine Dilks

"Just as she raised her knife to gut the creature he projected a woeful cry of 'Don't cut off my head!' into the kitchen"

The passing of Keith Harris last month turned our thoughts to the many modes of entertainment that have pleased the crowds and then passed on throughout the years. Today, there are such dazzling displays of technological advancement that we can soon forget how marvellous the sights before us actually are and, sadly, a man physically animating a strange puppet friend – however skilfully – is just no match as a spectacle against the magic, monsters and mayhem CGI can bring to life.

Curiously, ventriloquism has indeed stood the test of time so far, with its beginnings marked in early spiritualism and religious ritual long before little wooden men with silly voices came onto the stage. From the Latin venter loqui or ‘to speak from the stomach’, it is known to have been practised at the Delphi Oracle by the Ancient Greeks as a tool of clairvoyance. During the ceremony, spirits and gods were said to take possession of the ventriloquist’s stomach, speaking through them to foretell truths and future events.

Such mystical associations quickly faded as ventriloquism was later developed into a stage show in the travelling sideshows of the eighteenth century, and the use of a doll was incorporated into the mere act of ‘throwing one’s voice’. Gaining popularity during the music hall era of the next 200 years and again flourishing in the early decades of television, this age old trickery even made the somewhat illogical jump to radio in the fifties with the BBC’s enormously popular Educating Archie.

But, we digress. This is not a history lesson of a peculiar art form, nor lament to Keith and his irksome green bird, but merely an introduction to a far more amusing tale set in our own dear city, about a prankster by the name of Shelford Tommy.

Born James Burns, much we know about this unusual individual’s exploits comes from anecdotal evidence from the peak of his popularity during the late eighteenth century. A native of Ireland, like many provincial entertainers of the day, Tommy was a drifter, and despite his detest of confinement and love of earning a living roaming across the land, he adopted his wife’s village of Shelford as his own.

Under the guise of ‘Shelford Tommy’ or ‘Squeaking Tommy’, he quickly became known throughout the county for his remarkable talent and as one of the most conspicuous characters of Nottingham. At public houses, markets and fairs he would produce from his pocket a small, ill-shaped and broad faced wooden doll, sometimes referred to by Tommy as his ‘son’ to demonstrate not only his prodigious skill but plentiful wit. Crowds would gather to amaze at the the puppet’s speeches and songs, during which Tommy would down an ale or two in a curious display of his formidable ability. It was his antics beyond the stage however, which have preserved his story and cast him as Nottingham’s oldest practical joker.

It is said Tommy was utterly convincing in his deceptions, and used his considerable talents not just to delight the crowds, but to amuse himself along the way, causing mischief wherever he went. A story tells of a young servant girl whom Tommy spotted busy in the work of preparing a fish recently caught from the River Trent. Just as she raised her knife to gut the creature he projected a woeful cry of “Don't cut off my head!” into the kitchen, startling the young lady considerably. After gathering together her wits and having inspected the fish to see it was plainly dead, she once again raised her knife only to hear a howl of, “What, will you cut off my head!?” The servant ran off in fear and is said to have been ‘seized with a fit’ considerable enough to get Tommy time in the local police cells.

This wouldn’t be the only occasion he found himself in police custody due to the consequences of his own amusements. Indeed, the targets of Tommy’s humorous escapades did not always take kindly to his antics, and some of his shenanigans were rather less good-natured. Whether simply a result of his particular talent for imitating the cries of an infant or by bent of his mischievous character, it seems he was rather fond of revelling in the frenzied panic resulting from his mimicry of a lost child. It is said he once reduced a young maid passing through Weekday Cross into a state of ‘alarmed fits’ with his antics, almost driving the girl into a state of madness searching for the child she could hear but not see.

He saw another opportunity to play this somewhat cruel prank when following a carrier wagon laden with hay on the road from Bingham to Newark. To the alarm of the driver, the wails of what sounded like an injured infant began to emanate from within his cart, only to curiously cease each time he halted the wagon to investigate. This continued throughout the journey until the driver, so convinced there was some poor thing trapped beneath his load and unknowing he was in the company of a wiley ventriloquist, resolved to rescue the urchin. With Tommy’s assistance the pair hurried to remove the bales of hay trapping the child, the cries of whom became louder and more frequent as they worked. Of course, there was no child to be found, and after a hearty laugh Tommy left the disgruntled countryman, whose confusion was quickly turning to anger, to repack his load alone.

While so many entertainers and their trades have faded into obscurity, the tales of Shelford Tommy are as silly and humorous as they were over 200 years ago. He may have been a bit of a scoundrel, and his pranks a little bothersome and creepy, yet his wit could not easily be forgotten. His perpetual urge to inject a little mischief into the daily goings-on in Nottingham surpassed his stage career and ensured his memory would endure long after the art of ventriloquism fell from fashion. However discerning audiences become to illusion, humour will always lie at the heart of entertainment. From complex stunts to simple stand-up, we hope characters like Tommy and his imaginative antics are still lighting up the stage and causing a little mayhem along the way for years to come.

The Dilettante Society meet every second Tuesday at The Golden Fleece, Mansfield Road, from 7.30pm. All welcome – the more the merrier.

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