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Ted 'Darkie' Duckett

New Forest bones player and step dancer

This photograph, taken during the late 1950s or early 1960s at the Bold Forester at Marchwood, is of the late and gifted New Forest bones player and step-dancer Ted 'Darkie' Duckett, who lived for a large part of his life a mile or so away at Hanger Corner on the Beaulieu Road.  Although well known locally, he came as a young man from Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, and married the daughter of Bert Doe, who had served in the cavalry compound at Denney Lodge before the widespread rehousing of all New Forest Gypsies in the new housing estates built at Hythe, Thorney Hill and Totton after the Second World War.

His lifelong ambition to perform on a London stage was not fulfilled until late in life, when he represented the Hampshire tradition at an annual National Gathering of the English Folk Song and Dance Society at their London headquarters.  Prior to this he had appeared on BBC South television and at festivals and concerts, including Bournemouth Winter Gardens and Southampton Nuffield theatres, where - as always - he stole the show.  He was also featured on the Forest Tracks record First Tracks, and in a BBC documentary on the Christchurch Folk Festival, where his great skill as a bones player is preserved.

Ted had been a Mummer in his youth, playing the role of Happy Jack, and as a dancer and bones player had often taken part in competitions, and 'never been beat'.  He died after his wife at Netley View, Hythe, and is succeeded by his daughters.

Some memories by Dave Williams

First Meetings

Although I had gone to school with his children, Joe and Ivy, and knew of Ted by reputation, I first met him at a family party of my childhood friends the Surplice family of Marchwood.  Ted had been invited by the father, Vince, who was a great champion of the common man and community life, sometime Labour Parish Councillor, regular campaigner for and supporter of Labour attempts to gain New Forest seats, and onetime Welterweight champion of the Army, in which he had served as a farrier during the Great War.  Surplice family parties were really quite exciting, as I remember them: lots of physical and boisterous games like 'The Queen of Sheba', 'Nelson's Eye', and the like, eccentric diversions such as hypnotising the chickens (yes really, and - rest assured - without harm!), feats of derring-do on big swings off trees in the garden in the names of famous motorcycles (all five sons and Vince had them at one time), and occasionally diving through open ground floor windows to practice newly learned judo rolls!

Ted was well able to acquit himself in such company despite his small stature, and as well as dancing and playing the bones, displayed the odd feats of strength like lifting large men off the ground with his teeth, using a scarf round their waists!  In this exhilarating company a young lad like me from a comparatively sheltered environment could not help but be suitably impressed!

Early Musical Days - "I ain't never been beat!"

My real awareness of Ted's great musical skills came during the mid-1950s when, with Vic Wilton and other friends, I used to play music every Thursday at the Bold Forester.  On occasion, we would be joined by the man who, in retrospect, provided a somewhat eccentric percussion element to our then principally American fare.  All this was to change with the invasion of the village by a great number of men in blue pinstripe suits who had come to build the SEB power station, and one evening as we played in one room of the pub, we heard music coming from another which was thereafter to turn our heads.  It was played by McAlpine's ganger on the site, the late Peter 'Paddy' Keane of Ennis, on anglo concertina, who, with Michael Morrisroe (originally from Roscommon and now Langley) on concert flute and others, who played there regularly until the project was complete.

Ted was in his element here, especially when any of the number chose to dance a step or two.  Not for Ted the restrained wait until the other had finished, but a tap on the dancer's shoulder, a pointed finger in the direction of his own feet as if to say "Like this!", and he was on his way to victory, even in his Wellington boots!  For Ted the dance and any performance was very much a competition in which he could and did prove himself best, and as old age and infirmity overtook him, it had a noticeably quieting effect on his normally confident self.

The Bones Championship - "I had him on the doubling"

On one occasion a bones competition was organised in a Southampton Jazz Club at the Portswood Hotel, between Ted and Len Danks, a Southampton teacher who was really not a bad player.  On the evening of the event, the Bold Forester's coachload of supporters came into town with Ted, descended the stairs into the murky depths to witness the contest, drink town beer and cheer on their man.  Lots were drawn, Len went first and chose to play Whistling Rufus, accompanied by Southampton policeman Pete Beasley on piano.  Len was flash enough to whistle at the same time, which drew cries from the Duckett camp of "Play fair!  Play the bones straight!  No whistling!" and other demands felt necessary at the time.  But, as it transpired, without need: Ted stepped up in his turn, asked the pianist to "Play any music, Sir", and to Maple Leaf Rag proceeded to play like a man possessed, with all the breaks in place as if personally schooled by Scott Joplin.  He won hands down (or, more appropriately, 'hands up'!)

Ted's success was self-endorsed and proclaimed with a proud and confident "I had him on the doubling!", which was and will be indelibly engraved forever in all our memories.

BBC - Bob Wellings and "the varnish off the ship's bottom".

There are many stories which have been ascribed to Ted, few I suspect being true, but there is one I remember hearing from 'the horse's mouth', and the occasion of its telling.  Ted had agreed to take part in an early BBC South TV programme, in which he was to talk about playing the bones and dancing and play to my accompaniment.  Bob Wellings was the interviewer, and having run through a series of questions with Ted, including one which was to trigger him to 'look at the camera with the red light on and play', the programme rolled into action.  At the appointed time and cool as you like, Ted leant over to Bob on camera and said, "Here, what camera was it you said I had to look at?"  That was a real test for the whole studio on its first night of 'professional' action, and there were lots of sweaty palms to prove it!

That wasn't the only line to floor Bob during this baptism of fire.  He asked why the bones were black and, having told him they were made of whales teeth, Ted quietly and with steely eye added, "it was the varnish off the ship's bottom, Sir!"  I confess I loved every minute of it!

Mummers - "too much acting"

The late Eric Jones-Evans was a local doctor who divided his time between matters medical and being a well-known character actor.  He also wrote for the Hampshire Magazine and had documented the East Boldre Mummers play he had seen in the mid-1920s at the Royal Oak at Hill Top.  This was to become the vehicle for a rival team, which on a couple of occasions featured the good doctor himself and Ted in his original boyhood role of Happy (Little Johnny) Jack.  Ted's own play was very interesting in that it had no action at all, but merely a sequence of introductory lines from each character who then 'did a turn'.  By comparison, although not as heavily laden as some, the East Boldre play does have a little verbal and physical interplay.  Ted was never impressed by this - he always said there was "too much acting" and if we were to "get the hat round and visit other places" we would have to cut it out!

The Winter Gardens and Nuffield Theatre - knowing one's place!

Bournemouth's 'Sinnermen and Sara', enjoyed a considerable wave of local popularity which led them at their height to stage a concert at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens.  [Dave Williams' original article stated that the 'Sinnermen and Sara' modelled themselves on the Settlers / Seekers style groups then popular on the folk scene.  However, Annie Christopher, alias Sara, tells me that 'We were considered to be MGM's answer to the Seekers and our style had been set long before we hit the fame trail.  The Seekers actually lived and worked from Bournemouth for a while, which was our home base.  We had been firmly established in our own style before they ever arrived' - Ed.]  Being of fairly broad outlook, they asked me, as compere, if I could recommend any suitable supporting and contrasting performers for the evening.  I suggested a couple of then very young and charismatic Morris dancers, Geoff Jerram and Robin Plowman, and Ted Duckett accompanied by George Skipper on piano accordion.  Past experience had told me that Ted would 'rise to the occasion' and this he did with a vengeance.  His performance, enhanced by his usual show of sartorial elegance, took the audience by storm and he relished every minute of the applause.  The killer came when the promoter gave me instructions for the 'planned encore' - Ted and the others were to come on at either end of the stage for their bows, the centre stage position reserved for the principals of the show, but this was not for Ted, who strode to the centre front, both hands and sets of bones raised in triumph to the biggest round of applause of the night!

He had shown very similar style at an earlier concert by Rory McEwen at Southampton's Nuffield Theatre, at which Ted shared a supporting spot with Peter Roud, a colourful harmonica player from Romsey.  Both looked at one time as though the only thing to remove them would be a big hook!  I have found this kind of upstaging of stars by unknowns to be rarely enjoyed by promoters, and suspect this was no exception, but it was clearly enjoyed by Rory and the audience as well as the performers in question!

On another occasion, Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard were guests at a local concert for which Ted was again providing support.  When the finale arrived, Mike graciously gave him prominence - an honest, reasonable and gentlemanly gesture.

Latter years - 'the glittery'

Toward the end of his life, and following the death of his wife, Ted suffered from poor health, including, I suspect, chest and heart problems, compounded by rapidly failing eyesight, this giving him what he called 'the glittery'.  This proved not to be good for performances where stage or other lighting could aggravate the situation.  This was the case in a couple of his last public appearances, which were nonetheless high points to him.  He represented Hampshire at the EFDSS National Gathering in London accompanied by George Skipper, who commented that Ted had played very well as always, but had sadly, and due to 'the glittery', walked into a lamppost outside, which shook him up a little.

The BBC television lighting for the Christchurch Folk Festival, at which Ted later played, accompanied by the High Level Ranters, must have proved equally trying, but he triumphed over it as one would expect.

One flash of the 'old' Ted was for me the highlight of that or the previous festival, and is something I will always remember as typical of him, even though he was not well.  He was the special guest at a Reading Clog Dancer's workshop on New Forest step dancing, at which, having declined to dance due to ill health, he was to comment on the dancing of another dancer providing examples of his style of stepping.  The lot fell to Ian Dunmur, who no sooner had started to dance than Ted walked to the centre of the floor and, with that characteristic style, pointed to his own feet as if to say, as I had seen so many times in the past, "Like this!", or, more likely, "Pick the bones out of that one!"

All those that were privileged to see and hear him, be it in home, pub, club, festival or theatre, can honestly say that they had been party to something special.  I certainly was, and was always at great pains to tell others what they had missed!  Tales of learning the "seven Lancashire steps", dancing on a 12 inch board in competitions against other dancers "put up" by other communities of "my people", the almost unfulfilled promise made in his youth of dancing "on the stage in London", and the knowing look and twinkling eyes as he either broke into a dance or played the bones, two and four in hand, without flaw but with ever more complex rhythms.  I treasure them all.  I eternally live in hope, but doubt if we shall ever see his like again.

Dave Williams - 15.8.97

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