Western reenactment is all about reliving the “Old West”.
Not content with just reading books about the wild west, or watching westerns on television, clubs and organisations around the world have taken things to their next logical phase. Reenactment groups are nothing new. People have been staging shows for more than 100 years. Even Buffalo Bill’s travelling shows, that featured staged “Indian” attacks on settlers, were a form of reenactment. Members of The Portsmouth Wild West Association (PWWA) pride themselves on authentic attire, replica firearms, and many put in countless hours of historical research into their characters, surroundings and cultures. ‘The Preacher’, AKA Mike Smith, lives in the New Forest in Hampshire, UK, and this is his story.
Fishing, a back operation and the ‘Blues Brothers’
RP: Have you always had an interest in this particular period or its history?
No, it all started back in the 1990s and it’s quite a strange path that I took. Up until then, my main interest had been boat fishing. I used to have a boat stored down at the Eastney Cruising Association. My fishing partner, Tony, and I started to take a regular two-week fishing holiday during the month of September. We had a couple of trips over to Ireland and one down in Looe (Cornwall), then we spotted an advertisement in one of the angling magazines for a fishing holiday in Florida. The advert was from an English chap trying to start-up a fishing holiday business in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, it was a bit beyond our budget, so we decided against it.
Then, out of the blue, I had a phone call from the holiday company. They were trying to put together a publicity film, and it turns out that the anglers who were booked in, had to cancel. So he was stuck with a film crew all lined up for filming, with nobody to film. He was calling, as he knew we were interested in going over, because of our booking enquiry. Anyway, he made us the offer that, if we paid for our flights, he’d find us a cheap motel nearby and we could have the fishing for free. That brought the holiday into our price range, so we decided to go on over.
A bit of luck.
Yeah. So we went over to Florida, as arranged, and were driving back from the bait shop one morning, along the beach front, when we came across a beaten up sort of old barn. There was a hand painted sign over the top, ‘Hanks Cocktail lounge’, with a blackboard outside saying ‘country music jam session tonight’. Now I should say that I was not in the least bit interested in country music, in any shape or form; my preferred choice had always been the blues, but Tony, my fishing buddy, was a fan. So I said, “We could go to that tonight if you like.” Tony said‚ “But you don’t like country music.” I said‚ “True, but we might find a blues club next week, then it will be my choice.” Have you ever seen the film the ‘Blues Brothers’?
Well, the night in that club was just like the scene where they perform at country music bar, but without the bottle throwing (laughs).
Wow! sounds like an interesting evening
The beer was served in bottles, a really basic spit and sawdust place, but it was an absolutely brilliant night. The atmosphere was electric and the music really got under my skin. I was intrigued enough that, the next day, I fiddled around on the car radio and found a country music station to give it a listen. When we got back home to the UK, I got in touch with an old friend that I knew who used to go to a local country music club. She told me that the club night was held at the Blue Lagoon at Hilsea (long time readers may remember that one of the contributors to Weekend Passions, was once the manager of this venue – [link to story] small world, isn’t it?)
So you’d been bitten by the bug?
Exactly. I started to go to the Blue Lagoon and other clubs dotted around the area. One night we were at a dance in Portchester and there were some people there that were dressed as authentic westerners. My mate and I thought, that looks like bl**dy good fun. We got talking to them and it turned out that they were members of the Portsmouth Wild West Association (PWAA) and they invited us along to the next meeting. So it was indirectly as the result of a fishing trip to Florida, that I became involved in Western reenactment [laughs].
Portsmouth Wild West Association [PWWA]
And the rest is history as they say.
About a year after I joined the PWWA, I had to have a back operation. Although the operation was a success, I had a couple of discs removed, I found that I could no longer launch the boat because it put too much stress on my back. So my hobby transferred from fishing to Western reenacting.
Strange how events shape our lives
I remember as a kid back in the 1950s, the only things that interested me on the television were things like The High Chaparral, Wagon Train‚ The Lone Ranger‚ and programmes like that. Plus I’ve always had a fascination with firearms. So it all came together in the one hobby.
How many members are there in the PWWA?
Roughly thirty. Back when I first joined, most of the members were from the Portsmouth area. Since we’ve been putting on shows around the country, we’ve gained members from some of the attendees who took an interest. We now have folks from Plymouth in the West, across to Bexhill-on-Sea (near Eastbourne, Sussex) on the East coast, and as far north as Derby.
That’s quite some spread.
Not all of them can make every show, but we probably have around eighteen to twenty of what you might call die-hards.
How many shows do you put on a year?
It varies. At one time we were doing eighteen to twenty weekends a year, with two shows a day. But since the recession hit, the bookings have tailed off. We’re usually part of bigger event, a steam rally or similar, and because the economic downturn has affected them, it also affects us. Here we are in February (at the time of this interview) and, as it stands at the moment, I’ve got six confirmed bookings for this year. We need at least eight shows to make it financially viable, because of the high running costs for the van and public liability insurance etc.
Do you operate as a company?
No it’s all ad hoc and goodwill. Nobody gets paid; any income is used to offset our costs. For the last thirty years PWWA has done at least one show a year, which is purely for charity. This year it’s going to be for the Air Ambulance. Last year we split the proceeds between a special needs school in Liss (near Petersfield) and the Alzheimer’s Society. The members vote at our AGM every year for which charity we will donate to.
How did PWAA start out?
The original founders were a group of country and western music enthusiasts who wore replica clothing of the wild west, whilst attending country music dances. This eventually evolved into putting on reenactment shows for the public.
I guess you get quite a few repeat bookings?
Definitely. When we started to become known, we began getting bookings at steam rallies. The one in Rudgwick, Surrey, is one that we have attended for the past fifteen years. The show. that we always do for charity, is held in a little village in Dorset called Sixpenny Handley. That one we’ve been doing for thirty years.
Is Greta (pronounced Greeta), part of PWWA?
Is that how you met?
On the weekends that PWWA didn’t have a show on, I used to go to a country music club on a Saturday night, just outside of Southampton. That’s where we met. And, to my surprise, Greta was as enamoured with the Wild West as I was. So it really has been a marriage made in heaven [laughs].
One of the things that Greta and I are keen on promoting, is the ‘authentic’ side of things, rather than just the Hollywood view. We do a lot or research to make sure of our facts and, between us, we’ve probably got near on four hundred text books on the wild west.
Not quite as glamorous as Hollywood painted it, of course.
I was show manager for about five years, which was basically writing and directing the shows, as well as acting in them. During that time I developed a penchant for discovering events that actually happened; for example, gunfights that took place, and I would build the show around that. So, we were essentially reenacting history.
How long does a show usually last? I guess it varies?
The average is around twenty-five minutes. Half an hour, including the obligatory safety talk at the beginning. Obviously we’re using blanks in the guns, but they can still do a lot of damage! So we have to make sure the public are kept out of harm’s way during the performances. We usually demonstrate that side of things by blasting a few polystyrene cups and balloons, to make the point of how far the muzzle blasts can go. A few of us do actually use licensed firearms, but only fire blanks in them. No member is allowed to take live ammunition to our shows.
Staring down the barrel
How many guns do you own?
I’ve got ten guns on license, the rest are unrestricted. Originals are out of the question, of course, because of how much they cost. But there are a few gunsmiths in Italy that make exact replicas. Mind you, even they are starting to creep up in price now. We have one of the guys in the club that has a black powder licence, who makes a lot of the blanks for us, to help keep the price down.
The price for the ordinary 9mm blanks is £16.50 for 50, with twelve bore being £1 each. So you can see how expenses can quickly rack up for one of our shows.
You said that you always had an interest in firearms. Was that before getting into reenactment?
Yeah. As a kid in the fifties, I was always playing cowboys. Then, as a teenager, I was in the Air Training Corp. I used to love going to the rifle range. After I left school I originally worked for the Co-Op, and they had a rifle club. I worked for twenty years with British Rail, and they had a rifle club as well. A couple of years ago, I had an invite to go deer stalking. I only agreed because it was something that I’d never done before, but I wouldn’t do it again. I much prefer shooting at targets. A lot of Western reenactors use the 1873 Colt Peacemaker Blank firer.
When you were the show manager, did you choreograph the shows?
None of the shows are scripted, because there’s always the possibility of something going wrong [laughs]. Some years ago now, I used to belong to another group as well as the PWWA. Their shows were totally scripted, with everyone playing the same part for each show. When somebody didn’t turn up, through sickness or unforeseen circumstances, there was always a complete panic. So, when I took on the show manager role for our association, I decided that nobody would always play the same part. The members get to know a lot of the shows and I would switch the players around.
The key thing was to instil in people the expectation that there’s always something that can go wrong. That way it’s not such a shock, and we can ad-lib to cover the cracks. The most common things that go wrong are guns not firing. You draw a gun to shoot someone and ‘click’, nothing. I saw this in the other group’s show and everything ground to a halt, with the actors all looking at each other, not having a clue what to do next. It was a good learning experience that I filed away for future reference. So now, if that happens, we’ve usually covered it in the pre-show briefing. Another player steps in and carries on doing what the first character should have been doing at that point. Don’t forget the public don’t know what should be happening anyway, so, as long as we can cover a mishap, it’s not that noticeable. They just think that it’s part of the show.
Back when I started, in the ’90s, there were around thirty-eight western reenactment clubs. There are now about nine still going.
One of the trickier areas is the use of the correct, or appropriate, terminology. For instance, we had a scene once, where a sheriff was supposed to be arresting somebody and he said “Right mate, you’re going in the clink”. I had to point out that ‘clink’ wouldn’t have meant anything to an American, and they definitely wouldn’t have used the phrase ‘right mate’, which is specifically British. The other thing, with regard to language, is that we put on a show that’s suitable for all the family, if you get my drift.
I bet that there have been a few slip ups in that area
[laughs] For a lot of the shows that we put on, there are beer tents and live music etc. We’ll also usually have a camp fire going and sit around that. There’s one of the women in the group that has a tendency to turn the air blue when we’re all sat around drinking and yarning. Anyway, one time we’re down at Sixpenny Handley during a weekend when it was bucketing down with rain. Nothing much was happening because of the atrocious weather, so the organisers asked if we could put something on in the beer tent. We put our heads together and came up with the idea of a cat fight between Greta and our ‘expressive’ lady, which would trigger off a gunfight, as it seemed appropriate for the location.
I took the lady aside and implored her to be careful of her language and not to let me down. So we put up a safety rope to keep the public at bay, and it all kicked off. They were really going for it; the crowd were cheering encouragement; it was fantastic. They were rolling around and ended up right under the rope. Suddenly, the back of Greta’s dress split and, clear as a bell could be heard ‘oh F**k’. Everyone burst out laughing of course [laughs]
What do you enjoy the most, being the show manager?
Yes. Luckily Baz, who is the current show manager, lets me take the reins a couple of times a year, which keeps me happy. I’m the association chairman, which I have to say is not something that I particularly enjoy. So anyone reading this from PWWA who would like the job, just shout [laughs]
How much input does the show manager get from the rest of the association?
We encourage everyone to contribute story-lines. We need to assess them for entertainment value and how practical they are, of course. At a large venue, there will often be a lot going on, so we’re in competition for the public’s attention. With members coming from far and wide, and all the effort that it takes to actually put on a show, we have to be comfortable with the material. One of my favourite approaches is to throw in a few punch-ups, along with the obligatory gunfights. There has to be action to keep the public’s attention. Twenty to twenty-five minutes is quite a long time, so it’s a balancing act, and not that easy to do well. I love the challenge though.
Well nobody wants to see a wild west show that has everyone sat around a camp fire talking!
Exactly. Back when I first started, you were either a sheriff, a deputy, an outlaw or one of the townspeople. I wanted to change that a little bit. My thought process was, what are townspeople? Let’s give them a little bit of the limelight. So we introduced some key figures like a Bank Manager, a Bar Tender, or some Saloon girls. Over the years we’ve had a few instances where families have joined us. So that’s given us the opportunity to have mum, dad and the kids, from real life play, the equivalent roles in the show. We’ve also had a Schoolmarm, a Prospector, a couple of Buffalo Hunters and a Preacher, which is my nickname. One show I came up with, featured a family of Mormons. Not every character in every show of course, but mix it up a bit.
The man in black
That’s a really good spread of characters. How did you come to be the Preacher?
The name just sort of stuck since about 1999, I’d guess. I’d say that over 50% of the people who I know, through the reenactment or the country music scene, don’t actually know my real name is Mike [laughs]. Every year, usually about the first week in October, there’s a big country music festival at Bream Sands in Somerset. Everyone dresses up, there’s about eight live music venues, and it virtually takes over the whole village. I’ve seen so many people over the years at festivals and shows and what not, that I could be walking down the road, the length of the village and I’d get at least half a dozen shouts of “Hiya Preacher” by the time I’ve finished. I haven’t got a clue who most of them are, but then there’s only one of me [laughs].
I took a couple of years off from PWWA and, during that time, I used to visit a place called Wattlehurst Farm, which is just outside of Horsham, West Sussex. And there, in the in the woods, they’ve built a replica of a wild west town called, as you would expect, Deadwood. Anyway, I started to visit to see what it was all about etc; and I used to have a big 20ft trapper’s tent, which was pitched, almost permanently, just outside the town. The owners came to me one day and asked if I would like to have a permanent building. So, with the help of half a dozen of the blokes there, I built an 18ft by 15ft town eating house. We managed to get hold on an authentic copy of an 1860 American cook book and, early Saturday evenings, we used to do a meal from the book. Lots of people would take their caravans up for the weekend and camp out. So all those folks know me as well. It’s weird, sometimes I think that I’ve lost the real me! [laughs]
Greta told me how Mike got his nickname of The Preacher:
For one of the shows the Preacher, who likes a tipple, has to knock back half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Mike would always prepare the bottle by mixing a little bit of a well-known brown‚ fizzy drink with water, to get the right colouring. Before one particular performance, Mike took a pre-show nap and was woken suddenly with the last call for the start of the show. When the moment came to down the drink, he realised that he’d picked up the wrong bottle. This one was full with real Southern Comfort Mikes actual preferred tipple! Being the trooper that he is, he continued on with the act and consumed the full amount as required. From then on he was always known as the drunken Preacher, or just Preacher.
Who decides which roles are played by whom?
The show manager. But they don’t just say, “Right, you’re playing this role for the show.” It’s an agreement. We want the players to enjoy themselves, after all. The first time that I was asked to play the Preacher, myself and the show manager at the time chatted about it, and I suggested that the character could be known to take a drink or two. By me having some input like that, I took more ownership of the role and I feel that I played the part a little better for it. The one thing that we don’t really do is comedy.
It’s very difficult to do well and you have a very broad audience to please.
You’re right, it’s not easy. Some time ago we had a chap known as Sawbones, although he wasn’t a member of the club, who used to be a regular at our shows. He and I hit it off straight away and he was a natural wit. He and I used to put on comedy shows at a holiday camp in Dawlish. It was for a crowd of Westerners that used to go down there. Technically, not part of the PWWA. We didn’t get paid for it, but the deal was we’d get free camping in return for putting on a show every day. Those shows always degenerated into comedy. There was a show called Shotgun Wedding; I actually did it last year (2013) at ‘Bar X Rancheros Round Up’, a country music festival in Alfold, in Surrey. I’ve been the compère there for the last eleven years. It’s held at the Merchant Seaman’s Retirement Home. I play two parts in the show‚ The Preacher, who likes a snort, and his twin brother‚ The Judge‚ who also likes a drink or two. I dress in red long johns combinations, with a bowler hat for the judge, and a preachers hat for the Preacher. Going back to PWWA, we don’t do comedy, intentionally, but of course there will always be unplanned things that happen that will raise a laugh.
With all the potential roles that you could play, you must have quite a collection of outfits
All the members have at least two outfits. Because I’m really into it, I’ve built up quite a wardrobe over the last thirty years. I must have over a dozen.
Where do you keep them all?
Here in the house. During the summer months they’re all kept in the caravan, because we’re out on the road so often. A couple of years ago we had to get a larger caravan, because it wasn’t big enough to hold everything. We’ve now got one that’s the biggest legal size. Including the tow bar it’s twenty-seven feet long [laughs]
Where are all the props kept?
The props and scenery are stored in the van. When you see the contents laid out, you’d say that there was no way that it would all fit into a long wheel based Transit van. But we’re masters at packing. Mind you, there’s probably only just enough room to put a packet of fags in there when it’s fully loaded (laughs).
How much scenery do you have then?
For the Western town, we have the Sheriff’s office, General store, Doctors and Barbers combined. Also, a Bank, a Church or School house, depending on what show we’re doing. There’s a Saloon, of course, and now we’ve even got a full-sized covered wagon, which only just about fits into the van when it’s folded down.
Who makes your scenery?
I think the originals were made by a fella named Alf Grubb, who lived in Gosport, back in the 1990s. The town itself hasn’t really changed. Of course, all the wooden panels have been painted, repaired or replaced numerous times over the years.
When it’s laid out, how big an area do you need?
For just the arena, we reckon twenty by thirty yards and it’s laid out in a crescent shape, like an open horseshoe. Instead of a single, long street, that other shows were doing at the time, we opted for that shape so that the public can see something happening, no matter where they’re standing. A single line is more restrictive. I think most of them take that approach now. I like to think we lead the way on that one [laughs]
We have to take poetic license for the purposes of entertainment, of course. In reality, some of the gunfights would have taken place inside, usually in the saloon. But that’s no good for an audience, so we have them outside in the street. Props and things, like foodstuffs for the general store, are put out the front, instead of inside the buildings.
How long does it take to put it up?
We’ve got it down to an hour, hour and a half, on average.
You said that you have a hardcore of around eighteen to twenty members for each show. Do you use all of them?
On average eighteen is about right. It could be anything from eight to thirty. You just end up with more dead bodies at the end of the show (laughs).
What’s the minimum that you need to run a show?
Well I remember one we did about six years ago, that only had six of us. Four blokes and two women. It was bl**dy hard work mind you, but we managed two shows a day over the weekend, and got booked for the following year. So it can’t have been that bad. But, generally, anything less than a dozen makes it a struggle. It’s very rare that we get less than that now though. A lot of the new members that have joined over the last two years are very keen.
What’s the age range of the association’s members?
A very wide spectrum. Most of us tend to be knocking on a bit, but now we have a couple of families with kids, which is always good. A handful are in their early twenties. A few in their thirties and forties. So, like I say, a wide age range.
Has the group ever been approached to be involved in any sort of filming?
We’ve done a handful of short films over the years; mainly for student groups, that sort of thing. We did do one about four years ago, for a chap who hired us out like you would for a normal show. He brought in a director who, apparently, had done quite a few TV commercials. That was an eye-opener; he certainly knew his stuff, that’s for sure. He rented a field, and we did two days of filming. To keep his costs down, he only had one cameraman, so where he wanted several angles of the same piece of the action, we would have to redo something repeatedly until he had the footage that he wanted. All well and good, except that, in one sequence, I get shot during a gunfight and I accidentally fell arse over head backwards. Of course, that’s the bit that the director loved. So I had to repeat it over and over, for all the alternative angles. Blimey, I didn’t half ache after that. But we never did see the end result. I’d love to have seen it.
Do you have any plans for the future?
The focus at the moment is to keep PWWA going. With all the financial constraints that everyone is suffering with, we face a bit of an uncertain future. But, if for whatever reason we were unable to carry on, Greta and I would probably do some form of ‘living history’ with our covered wagon at shows instead.
Mike’s not quite ready to hang up his guns just yet, and he and the rest of the PWWA folks are always happy to welcome new members to the club (joining details below). If you do spot The Preacher at one of the Wild West shows, a music festival or country music club, be sure to say ‘hi’.
Web Links and References of interest
Portsmouth Wild West Association
Main Website: http://www.portsmouthwildwest.co.uk/
Bookings: Telephone Greta Cook 01590 683187
To enquire about joining PWWA: email [email protected] or [email protected]
YouTube: Purbeck Rally (Dorset) 2012