Wet and Wild Winchester

Feature in Issue 16-3/4 | Autumn 2004

A rainy day in the life of Hat Fair performer Katie Etheridge.

The unofficial theme of this year's 30th Anniversary Hat Fair was water. Getting out of my tent on Saturday morning, it is the first thing I see. A sparkling river lapping at the roots of weeping willows. Within minutes the heavens open, followed by my broken umbrella. Paddling through street performers and crowds of Saturday morning shoppers, I head for the Cathedral Green.

Two guys walk past pulling a caravan, shouting 'Bonjour'. It's Compagnie Provisoire: an offstage performer creates live sound effects with a table of junk and a microphone as the clowns set up camp in front of a soggy but delighted audience. I enjoy their antics until play is stopped by the now-torrential rain.

Meanwhile the Brits plod bravely on. The Great Orlando picks a member of the audience and then makes a puppet in their image with blue foam, an electric carving knife, old tights and unhealthy amounts of UHU. Not quite Blue Peter but quirky fun.

After a restorative but financially crippling hot chocolate, it's time to get ready for my show. Willett and Patteson are kindly letting me transform their ‘Amazing Camera Obscura' (a lovely 14-sided wooden travelling sideshow) into a minimal cinema showing Kitty Deplihez's Animated Pictures.

As Kitty, a Victorian ‘actress' and early film star, I am hosting a rolling ten-minute programme of silent movies. Evoking the experimentation and energy of early film and the humour and playfulness of music hall, the films range from a peep through the keyhole to a museum visit that goes horribly wrong, via an exotic snake dance.

I've shown this growing series of films in cabaret, museums, shop windows and installations but the sideshow is a first. We remove the innards of the camera obscura, and install benches, a screen, and video projector.

I decide to treat myself and get changed in the cathedral loos which cost 10p but are nearby and clean. On returning I discover that we have a queue of people but no power. Luckily Miss Fay is on hand to regale waiting audiences with charming renditions of particularly sadistic music hall numbers, whilst promised power supply is chased up.

Despite thinning crowds as the evening sets in, each screening quickly fills up with passers-by, policewomen, loitering teenagers and deviating churchgoers. At one point, seventeen eleven year-old boys (with their skateboards) are crammed in giggling hysterically, and they donate afterwards. Exit comments include 'I love the Hat Fair' and 'She's as fit as my mum', which I tentatively take as a compliment.

Apart from mysterious power cuts and the odd leak, it all works better than I'd imagined, and everyone comes out smiling. The only awkward bit is operating the video. I feel that the spell is broken when I burst in at the end with my remote control. Next time I will try to hide the technology.

Afterwards, I dive into the nearest pub and find Giro the Clown propping up the bar. He insists on making me a balloon sausage dog.

By now, my umbrella is doing a passable impression of Brighton's West Pier, a pathetic heap of tangled metal pounded by water. Even the nice policewoman takes the piss out of it as I see her trying to explain what apathy means to a pair of teenage boys bemused by Comic Character Creations' brave and sodden World Record Attempt at Apathy.

Set to be a festival highlight, Mirando Al Cielo's Producciones Imperdible cannot go ahead in the rain as it is performed on a glass stage, with the reclined audience watching from underneath. I am lucky enough to catch one eight-minute section, a taut duet danced to an electronic score. The experience is intimate, and truly exhilarating when the dancers hover inches above you, but eye contact is slightly awkward and I sense that they are warming into it. Disappointingly, they don't get a chance to, as the show is aborted by rain.

Unfazed by the weather, the hardy folk of Winchester turn out in force for Saturday night's street party. I am starting to fade so after ooh-ing and aah-ing over the 30th birthday fire sculpture, I head for the dry warm wonderland that is the NoFit State Circus tent for the Hat Fair cabaret. With a vibrant variety of acts and laid back but celebratory atmosphere, it is the perfect late-night focal point for performers, public and crew to meet, relax and reflect on a long, wet, but triumphant day.

Fraser Hooper masterfully rides the chaos when a large dog invades the stage. Wordlessly he tries to persuade the interloper to go, eventually resorting to stick throwing. Later, two very drunk ladies climb on stage, and in an inspired moment he throws a stick for them too. By now the audience is hysterical, and the women just don't get it.

Tired, happy, and still a little damp around the gills (although not sure now if from rain or lager spillage), I roll back to my tent, put on all my clothes and hat, and gratefully flop into a dry sleeping bag...

See www.hatfair.co.uk

For Willet and Patteson's Amazing Camera Obscura see www.amazingcameraobscura.co.uk. Katie Etheridge can be contacted at oldclockshop@dsl.pipex.com

This article in the magazine

Issue 16-3/4
p. 19