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Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society

Remembering Paul Saunders

The epitaph on Spike Milligan’s grave famously reads “I told you I was ill.” It’s a gag that my friend and colleague Paul Saunders loved and gleefully repeated on many occasions. Paul was a professional ‘medieval entertainer’, working castles, festivals and fairs the length of the country, and sometime beyond, as a solo performer and in various costume bands.

This can be hard and exacting work, in all weathers and for not much pay.

Despite its high skill levels and professionalism, it’s a trade that can be overlooked, rather like that of the travelling minstrels and wandering jongleurs of yore whose spirit it evokes. Yet it remains one of the primary ways in which the public get to hear early music or experience other-than-Scottish bagpipes and

constitutes an important stratum of British popular entertainment. Paul was a well-known and loved figure within that scene, though he also had a long history of playing in, and working for, English folk music. I doubt there’s a member of a medieval costume band in the country that hasn’t at some time worked with him.

Paul was a multi-instrumentalist, with guitar, gittern, hurdy-gurdy, sackbut, side drum, English bagpipes and song-writing to his name, and if at times he played with more enthusiasm than elan, that’s because his attention was ever on the audience. Paul was first and foremost a gifted comic, seeking out any opportunity to have people in stitches. Blessed with a clown’s face and an innate talent to work a crowd, Paul was part Max Wall, part Jasper Carrott, with a dash of William Kempe and just a sprinkling of ergotism. He had only to walk on stage for the gales of laughter to begin. The promised tune at the end of any set was really the McGuffin to keep the gags coming. Working with Paul was famously an easy gig, for you spent most of the set sat patiently on stage, waiting for the semi-improvised stream of jokes to cease and the music to commence, with many false starts. There’s a parallel universe in which Paul is the doyenne of 1980s Saturday-night light-entertainment, but even if fame eluded him outside the scene he knew and loved, he remained justly proud of being invited to tour as support for Ritchie Blackmore’s Night. He included members of Fairport Convention as his friends.

Long after I’d officially hung up my codpiece, Paul would often throw tempting gigs my way that I could never refuse. Together we worked providing historical reconstruction for German TV; as background colour for the US reality gameshow, The Amazing Race; and at too many English Heritage castles to list them all. But it was at the annual Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fayre that Paul, the fool, became king for a weekend. He organised all the entertainments, performed a Mummer’s Play, a mystery play, and of course music, and somehow kept his cool when instruments were incapacitated by bitter cold, or the occasional performer by over-indulgence the night before. You’d never know that he also had diabetes to manage as well.

Paul’s masterpiece was his rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, in which he got members of the audience to enact each of the gifts with silly hats and gestures, rubber chickens and duck calls, and a toe-curling Alan Partridge joke, that only Paul could carry off. I shall never forget the time we opened the show to a cold and empty marquee. By the end of the act it was standing room only and the roars and guffaws of the crowd could be heard outside the town walls, such was his power to draw people in. Come the evening, all the medieval entertainers would gather together for a jam, pipes and gurdies and drums, riffing round hoary old classics like the Bear Dance or the Horse’s Branle. And as

the scene transformed into a Breughel painting, with the flagon-waving public kicking sawdust into the air, Paul would catch my eye, grin and simply nod. He understood the visceral power of this music, its joys and its sorrows, and I know it moved him deeply. A wistful rendition of an old tune echoing round a castle keep would always have him wiping away a surreptitious tear. Like so many of us, his youthful discovery of David Munrow and Blowzabella came as a kind of revelation and set the direction of his career.

As with many larger-than-life performers, Paul was intensely private. He hinted at buried troubles to do with his time at public school – something that united us – and I think these unresolved wounds sometimes left him quick to perceive a slight, much slower to forgive. But to me he was always a kind and generous friend, and he was without doubt a devoted husband and father. As with Spike Milligan, Paul did try to tell me he was ill, but for whatever reason we never found time to schedule a call, something I now regret deeply. I suspect however that, despite his being gifted with the gab, he wouldn’t really have known what to say. The news of his death from cancer came as a great and unexpected shock, as it did to many who knew him.

I have no idea if there’s a heaven, but if there is Paul won’t have made it inside the Pearly Gates just yet for he’ll be far too busy entertaining the queues outside. St Peter will look up from his ledger to see what’s causing all the commotion, but before he can protest he’ll be leaping like a lord, swimming like a swan, and belting out “five gold rings” at the top of his voice with the tears rolling down his face. And when Paul cracks out his pipes, he’ll be kicking up a Scot’s Branle along with the rest of ‘em.