David Clarke (1931-2014)
Pageant Master, Theatrical Director, Film Maker, Artist
David Clarke of Chilworth was a major force in the theatrical life of south west Surrey for around three decades, and most notably is considered to have been the pre-eminent pageant master in England in the late 20th century.
Clarke was born in London, but although he was a nominal ‘Cockney’, much of his inspiration in his creative life arose from a love of the English countryside and the timeless qualities of rural landscape, through which he loved to stride, ignoring if possible the modern convenience of the car. The family moved to Farncombe during Clarke’s early childhood, and he was always to remain a resident of rural south west Surrey.
After attending Godalming Grammar School, Clarke studied theatre, costume and tapestry at Guildford School of Art, all of which were to shape his artistry in later life. He went on to qualify as a teacher at Goldsmith’s College, London.
During this period, Clarke had his first taste of the excitement of pageantry, the form with which he was to be so strongly associated: he took acting roles in the ‘Pageant of Farnham Castle’ of 1950 and the Guildford ‘Coronation Pageant’ in 1953. He was also an enthusiastic actor in a number of amateur theatre companies the Chantry Players, the Richmond Shakespeare Society, the Surrey Community Players and Polesden Lacey Open Air Theatre.
A Pageant of Guildford, 1957
While Clarke was working as a sergeant instructor in the Education Corps for his period of National Service in February 1956, advertisements in the ‘Surrey Advertiser’ and ‘Surrey Times’ for a proposed pageant in Guildford caught his eye and imagination (SHC ref 8147/1/1/8). Concern about the consequences of uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary and the Suez Crisis put the project in doubt over the year, but to his relief, the borough committee decided to go ahead, to promote Guildford in 1957, its year of celebration of 700 years since the first borough charter.
Christopher Ede was already a noted pageant master when appointed to the grand Guildford event, master of among others the Festival of Britain pageant at Hampton Court (1951). Clarke, appointed as the production designer of the ‘Pageant of Guildford’, was to treasure his opportunity to shadow Ede, whom he watched ‘devising a broad canvas yet having complete control over all aspects of it’ (SHC ref 8147/3/1). Clarke’s contributions to the production were significant, and the origins of visual and thematic motifs he would revisit in his own pageants. As well as the cut-out model of the recently completed Guildford Cathedral, which provided the backdrop to all the historical scenes, he designed a moving train commemorating the coming of the railway to Guildford in 1845. Notable Guildford people involved in the pageant included Crossley Clitheroe the conductor and choreographer Bice Bellairs, with whom Clarke would often work in the future.
‘A Broad Canvas’
Having completed his army service, Clarke now began his teaching career, as head of the art department at Frimley and Camberley Grammar School. In 1958 he also founded the Cloister Players, an ambitious theatre group ‘presenting plays that stimulate thought, discussion and argument’ (SHC ref 8147/2/1/1, programme 1959) – its first productions being the medieval mystery play ‘Everyman’ (Nov 1958) at Christ Church, Guildford, and, notably, TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (1959) at St Mary’s, Guildford. Characteristically, Clarke immersed himself in the visual impact and setting of the plays. His beautifully executed costume sketches for ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ are now among the his archives (SHC ref 8147/2/1/1; illustration); the costumes designed during this period formed the basis of a costume store which would evolve over the coming decades, with costumes appearing across both Clarke’s productions and numerous other plays performed in the locality. Clarke’s deeply felt sense of venue was well matched to Eliot’s play, which Clarke saw as essentially placed within a church, where its echoing of the performance of Mass could be appreciated (Clarke would revisit this play six further times throughout his theatrical career, and would write his own pageant scenes depicting Becket’s conflict with King Henry II).
‘A high degree of professionalism …in all departments’
In 1960, Clarke and his friend and artistic collaborator, the artist, illustrator and designer Juliet Renny were married. Renny’s vigorous and distinctive line drawings were an ongoing a feature of Clarke’s pageants and other theatrical productions, notably in the programme design and promotional material; she was also a mainstay of the costume and props design. Clarke strove during the 1960s to broaden his experience of the performative arts, while continuing to work as an art teacher (latterly at King Alfred’s Training College, Winchester).
The Cloister Players productions developed steadily, with in addition to plays at St Mary’s church in Guildford, open air summer performances, initially at Racks Close, and from the mid ‘60s at a variety of venues in south west Surrey, West Sussex and beyond, including Loseley Park, Midhurst Castle, West Dean College and the clifftop Minack amphitheatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall. Loseley, his local historic house, was an important setting over the years, both as an enchanted garden space for open- air summer Shakespeare, and for its potential to preserve and recapture the historic moment (a ‘Gloriana’ pageant of 1982 was based around the first Queen Elizabeth’s visits to the house, although the production was cancelled). The Minack too, would be an enduring love; a Romeo and Juliet balcony required for Clarke’s production was in recognition made a permanent fixture there in 1974. Clarke was keen to extend the possibilities for the group, emphasising high quality production values in aspects such as lighting, costume and set design and music. Music by Andrew Thesiger was specially written for ‘The Castle of Perseverance’ in 1961, and the group ventured into operetta in the same period with ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ by Menotti (SHC ref 8147/2/2/5).
It was in this period that Clarke experimented in film-making. Two films ‘Mr Guy’ and ‘The Girl with the Pony Tail’ were shown at the 10 Best Amateur Films Festival at the South Bank, London, in 1961 and 1967. At this stage, Clarke wondered whether his future lay in film production. However, he had also pursued his interest in pageants, and henceforth his success inspiring support for these large scale community undertakings appears to have determined the course of his succeeding decades.
‘Drama, spectacle and colour’
Guildford Publicity Advisory Committee, formed in 1966 to promote tourism in the town, was persuaded by Clarke to support a proposed pageant, to become ‘A Pageant of England’, which it was hoped would attract overseas visitors as well as local interest. Although a small Organisation Committee was formed, and officers appointed including a publicity officer and a costume organiser, most of the practical as well as artistic undertaking appears to have remained in Clarke’s hands (including ticket sales, and issuing advance copies of programme). Performed in 1968, Clarke’s ‘own first venture’ (SHC ref 8147/1/3/3), scripted, designed and directed by him, and including around 2000 people in the production, was very well received.
Clarke was now well positioned to be a major influence on cultural activity in Guildford. In 1973, by now sporting his distinctive large moustache, he was given an ongoing role as artistic director of Guildford Festival of Arts; having convinced the borough that the post should be a year round, permanent one, he was able, somewhat precariously, to leave teaching. Art exhibitions and concerts were now within his purview, as well as theatrical undertakings. He would continue in such a role until 1996.
Clarke’s ‘Silver Jubilee Pageant’, was the centrepiece of Guildford’s celebrations of 1977. Clarke later considered this pageant to have been his best script and production, and for it he was awarded a Silver Jubilee medal. He directed the Carlisle Pageant at the end of the same summer (for participants’ memories of this pageant, see https://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/events/carlisle/memories-getting-involved-1977-pageant/)
‘An Epic, but what a marathon!”
Clarke entered his most highly productive decade at this stage, with his reputation as the premier pageant master established. Clarke thrived on his own abilities to inspire, direct and control, coping with the risks of managing large casts of people and often horses as well, and the vicissitudes of weather (reviews show that many productions coincided with weeks of rain). He also strongly believed in the pageant’s vernacular character and its power to enlist the engagement of the community in which it was set, commenting in 1987 how ‘most people in the pageant are not even amateur actors, they are just ordinary people’ (SHC ref 8147/1/5/13). He is fondly remembered for his sympathy in encouragiing individual performers (verbal accounts, 2019). In succession, he staged pageants across England, in Winchester, Salisbury and Exeter, as well as co-directing the York Mystery cycle in York Minster.
These productions were in addition to a demanding schedule centred in Guildford. Although the Silver Jubilee Pageant evoked the past of England, rather than directly calling upon the past of its locality, Clarke was alert to the potential for the broader setting to enhance the experience of pageantry. A ‘river bus’ had been offered from the pageant arena at Shalford Park to the Jolly Farmer Inn and Guildford Boat House, and performances were added to with a parade and thanksgiving service. In 1985 a lower key Guildford Festival pageant, set as a walk-around tableau sequence, exploited numerous smaller historic settings across the centre of the town, including the Royal Grammar School and Guildford Castle.
St Catherine’s School, Bramley, commissioned Clarke to produce a centenary pageant to involve the entire school, both girls and staff. This pageant, ‘A Vivid Tapestry of 2000 Years of Women in History’, was also performed in 1985.
To follow was perhaps the largest pageant of all Clarke’s productions: ‘A Pageant of Monarchy’, comprising 25 scenes, performed in 1987. The scale of the pageant dwarfs the splendours of the ‘Pageant of Guildford’ 30 years before, with around 1000 actors, 2000 involved in all, and 100 horses (the earlier production of 19 scenes, had about 840 actors). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the truly ‘epic’ undertaking suffered magnificently from the common problems of the form, including summer downpours enmiring the arena on the meadows of Shalford Park, and difficulties in coordinating the massive cast of humans and animals. ‘An Epic, but what a marathon!’ exclaimed the ‘Surrey Advertiser’ doubting the length of the show, although the conclusion was ‘pageant success despite problems and likely loss’.
‘You are in the midst of history’
Despite the large toll on his energies, Clarke was already at work on his next pageant, staged at Farnham Castle. The confined site at the foot of the Keep necessitated a smaller production with a cast of around 200 players, but no horses or vehicles. Staging the scenes using a tiered platform beside the keep wall enabled a larger multi-level performance space: Clarke is quoted saying ‘If I cannot have width then I must go up’ (‘Surrey Advertiser’ article, ‘Layer cake pageant’ 8 Jul 1988). In common with the earlier ‘Gloriana’ project, the Castle offered the epitome of pageant, the highly specific location in which to revisit historical moments. ‘The distinction of the Farnham Pageant ’88 is that practically all the 14 scenes actually happened in the confines of the Castle or in the town and immediate countryside..You are in the midst of history’, claimed the souvenir programme.
The 1990s proved a difficult period for Clarke’s kind of theatre, with ever-increasing possibilities offered for home entertainment to compete with in terms of both recruiting participants and audience. After many years under Clarke’s sole direction and single vision, The Cloisters Players began to flag. Clarke agreed to formalise a new management structure to increase members’ participation, and the group was renamed Cloister Productions in 1993. The ‘intimate and exciting’ (SHC ref 8147/2/2/5) Mill Studio of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre became the new venue for productions henceforth, with differing plays more suited to the enclosed space (‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, ‘Ghosts’).
An open-air staging of Henry Purcell’s ‘King Arthur’, set in a River Wey pageant, planned as Clarke’s signature offering of spectacle and essentially authentic historical setting, was cancelled in 1994. A production which revived the 19th century ‘Railway Mania’ pageant theme introduced in 1957, was realised in 1995, but the scale was quite literally a fraction of its pageant predecessors, amounting to an expansion of what had been a single scene. The performance beside the London to Portsmouth line, made use of the station car park; performances were paused to allow for the arrival and departure of modern trains.
Clarke continued in his fascination with the pageant, as he worked towards a definitive history of its 20th century form, as well as researching other interests such as the local figure Lewis Carroll and his ‘Alice’. His final opportunity to celebrate the pageant form in action proved to be the Millennium, when, encouraged by the possiblity of local grants, both Shalford and Cranleigh villages engaged him to create the pageants ‘Tillingbourne, the Violent Valley’ and ‘Cranfold Pageant’ (2000). At Cranleigh the wooden steam engine arrived again, but, approaching 70, Clarke was challenged by the enormous feat of organisation and performance of these events, which were to be his last pageants.
Clarke directed his final plays with Cloisters Productions in the early 2000s, including a last production of his beloved ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ in 2001, at the Mill. By now, Clarke had been involved in at least 91 productions (Ian Maxwell and Juliet Renny)
‘Inspired dramatically, artistically and spiritually’
2005 was the centenary year of modern pageants (since Louis Napoleon Parker’s pageant at Sherborne Castle in Dorset in 1905), and Clarke mounted an exhibition at the Harvey Road Gallery, Guildford, entitled ‘Masters of Pageantry’, also the intended title of his projected book on the subject. Confronting the defining form of his career, he wrote, ‘Have we seen the last pageant in this country? I do not know. Other forms of entertainment have tended to take their place. But it is good to look back over the last 100 years and realise that hundreds of thousands of people have been inspired dramatically, artistically and spiritually by taking part in them, and recalling with immense pleasure a profound and unique experience. I am sure that has been true of the audience who saw them too’. (Surrey Liive archived article 24 Jun 2005)
Clarke’s retired years were spent in the secluded 16th century cottage he and his family had lived in for decades. Clarke died in 2014. His ashes were scattered at Porthcurno. ‘Masters of Pageantry’ remained unfinished at the time of his death, but his text and research materials are now held among the special collections of Kings College, London.
Written by Isabel Sullivan
For the David Clarke archive at Surrey History Centre, see SHC ref 8147.
For the Historical Pageants Database, including detailed production information for many of Clarke’s pageants, and contextual information on pageants, see the Redress of the Past website https://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/. It includes a special study of the Carlisle Pageants, and the memories of participants in the 1977 pageant directed by Clarke.
For the David Clarke archive at Kings College, see https://kingscollections.org/catalogues/kclca/collection/c/clarke-david?searchterms=clarke
For copies of works by artist Juliet Renny at Surrey History Centre see SHC ref Z/551.