London, Aug. 5: Laughter is in such short supply in Tony Blair’s Britain that a state-funded jester is to be appointed for the first time since the humourless Oliver Cromwell got rid of the role in 1649. The appointment is to be made by English Heritage, the body which strives to protect the best of the old way of life — even in Cool Britain, as the Prime Minister loves to call it.
Requirements for the job are set out today in the “Situations Vacant” classified ads in The Times: “Jester wanted. Must be mirthful and prepared to work summer weekends in 2005. Must have own outfit (with bells). Bladder on stick provided if required. Salary to be negotiated. Auditions Saturday 7th August at the Festival of History, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.”
English Heritage issued a statement today to assure the public of the seriousness of its purpose. “We’re not fooling around!” it said.
Tracy Borman, director of education, events and outreach at English Heritage, commented: “It is about time we had a jester again. This will be the first jester to be employed by the state for hundreds of years. It is one of those roles that fell by the wayside when Cromwell made Britain a republic, but there is no reason not to bring it back now!”
The organisation stressed that candidates should have “an insatiable appetite for playing the fool”. It added: “Because English Heritage is a government-funded body, the successful candidate will be the first professional joker to be employed by the state since the court jester’s role became a victim of Oliver Cromwell’s republic in 1649. Wannabe fools are invited to audition at the Festival of History this weekend, English Heritage’s flagship event. They must bring along their own outfit (preferably with bells), although a bladder on a stick — the prop traditionally employed by jesters — will be provided.”
According to English Heritage: “The last court jester was employed by King Charles I. His duties were to make his master laugh, prevent the over-oppression of state affairs and to provide lively entertainment at feasts and banquets to aid his lord’s digestion. Although it is fair to say the jester employed by English Heritage is likely to have a very different role from his historical counterpart, he will need to show willingness when it comes to feigning stupidity and madness for the sake of others’ enjoyment.”
Applicants at the weekend will be taken to the event’s main medieval arena for auditions, and “the winner will be based on their popularity with the audience”.
The newspapers will come up with their own recommendations for possible jesters. Among the favourites is likely to be the thick-set deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who has never been forgiven for his working class origins, his fondness for expensive Jaguar limousines and his habit of punching hecklers who throw eggs at him.
Historians say that the English jester made his first appearance in medieval courts around 1202. “Jesters were a lot different back then,” says one. “They did pratfalls, physical comedy, and other things as well as the classic juggling. Many were musicians and acrobats as well.”
He adds: “Some jesters were chosen for their trade because they were a little slow, and thus perfect scapegoats and victims. However, many jesters were extremely bright and used their position of never being taken seriously to make comments about their superiors that wouldn’t have gone over well if they weren’t jesters. Shakespeare’s jesters — as in King Lear and Twelfth Night — were extremely bright.”
In England, jesters typically wore brightly coloured clothing in a motley pattern. Their hats were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points, each of which had a jingle bell at the end. Although Shakespeare allowed his fools to make sharp and profound observations, the tradition of jesters has been found in many other cultures.
The jester has often been perceived as the little man fighting oppression by the powerful or protecting a king from his own vanity or foolishness.
In the Islamic world, Sufi mystics tell tales of Mulla Nasrudin, the legendary 14th century mystic jester of Tamerlane. Emperor Akbar had Birbal. In the folk perception of southern India, a king was hardly considered a king without his jester, and the continuing appeal of the court jester in India, in stories and comic books, is perhaps equalled only in Europe, historians have pointed out.
Should Manmohan Singh decide to emulate English Heritage’s example and appoint a court jester, the public will probably not be slow in making recommendations for likely candidates. And the Prime Minister may need to look no further than his own court.