On Photographing a Most Unruly Horse

by Andrew Robinson

I first photographed the Antrobus Soul Cakers some 22 years ago in the November of 1997. On this occassion I was disappointed with my results and was only really happy with one image from the evening, shown below.

The Wild Horse and Driver, Antrobus Soul Cakers, 1997 © Andrew Robinson.

The Soul Cakers enact their variation of a traditional mumming play at a number of pubs and other locations in the vicinity of Antrobus and Cumberbach, Cheshire over six nights during late October and early November as they have done for well over 170 years. Characters include: the Letter-in, Black Prince, King George, Martha, the Quack Doctor, Little Dickie Dairy Doubt, Beelezebub, the Wild Horse and his Driver who all travel from venue to venue in a mini bus.

The play is usually performed at four pubs per night between 8:30 and 11:30pm with each performance becoming increasingly raucous as the evening wears on and more drinks are consumed. The venues are crowded, with poor patchy lighting, where the performers constantly pace up and down, moving from bar to bar whilst reciting their lines. This makes photographing the event, especially with a manual focus, film camera, a challenge. Other photographers have solved this challenge by asking the performers to pose as a group before or after their performance. Of the photographs from the play itself, most, like mine, show the horse and driver.

The Wild Horse and Driver, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

On revisiting the event this year I had more success, thanks in part to the advantages of digital technology, and I’d like to think greater experience, however again my most successful images, like the majority of photographs of the play, were of the horse and driver. I realise now however that this is largely because, whilst the other characters quickly move on and off stage, constantly pacing up and down and around the pub, the horse and driver remain before the audience for an extended period, over 10 of the roughly 25 mins of performance, and during this time remain relatively still while extended speeches are made. This provides far greater opportunity to capture successful images than the earlier more fluid scenes of the play, aside that is, from the sudden crazed lunges of the wild horse, his escape from the bar and at times the pub and the attempts of the driver to chase him down and bring him to heel with whip in hand.

The Quack Doctor and Martha mourn the passing of the Black Prince, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

Another challenge for photographers, sound recordists and other observers in attendance is their non-invisibility and the performer’s lack of respect for the fourth wall. Such readily identifiable outsiders often attract the attention of the performers who intentionally pause and pose for their photograph, shout into their microphones or tease or taunt them. This I experienced myself on my most recent visit when performers would stop, pat me on the head, crouch down and pose in an exaggerated manner for my camera until I’d taken their photograph, much to the amusement of the audience.

The Wild Horse and Driver, The Antrobus Arms, 10/11/19.

Also present at these performances was a PhD student, who had been interviewing the Soul Cakers as part of research into disguise and performance. During the final performance of the evening at the Antrobus Arms the horse character pulled the reluctant folklorist from the audience and danced her around the room much to the entertainment of rest of the onlookers.

Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2019