LONDON – Long before newspapers and cable TV, it was town screamers with their bells and screams of “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! “in village squares across Britain letting people know there was news – from plagues to wars to what had been done in the royal family.
But a clear ringing voice, an important quality for the screamers of the old days, will be of no use to those entering the British Town Crier Championships, which are being held for the first time in silence. Instead, participants will be judged on written proclamations of no more than 140 words, known as “screams”. Every scream must end with the words “God save the queen”.
“We can’t have a normal competition,” said Paul Gough, the current champion who helps organize the event and is the town shouter for Nuneaton and Bedworth counties. (Last year the competition was simply canceled.) This year’s format will give those without the strongest votes “the opportunity to insist on a level playing field”. Participants submitted their written cries earlier this month. A winner will be announced in mid-May.
In recent years, town criers from across the country have traveled to the town where the championship was held. Dressed in extravagant 18th century costumes, they represented their respective districts and cities by extolling their virtues and delivering screams on a specific theme. This year’s theme is nature and the environment.
Participants are usually judged on their performance – sustained volume, clarity, diction, accuracy – and the content of the shouting and presentation.
But this year the silence – and the written word – is golden. Mr Gough said the event will be a fundraiser for Shout, a mental health hotline that also depends on writing – it helps people text messages.
The participants stuck to the new rules with a good mood and a little disappointment.
“What if I’m not selected because you don’t like the way it reads?” Michael Wood, three-time East Riding of Yorkshire county town crier and national champion, said, “What a shame because I have no chance of selling it.” Much of the ability to cry in the city is using the physicality of body movements along with your voice to grab the audience’s attention.
Even so, this year’s revamped competition will get people to write better screams, Wood said. And it preserves one thing that has helped differentiate a winner in the past: “Always humor,” he said, which may be a prerequisite for becoming a town crier. “You’d have to have a sense of humor to even stand up there in period costume in modern times.”
Although the silent competition is a solid Plan B, Alistair Chisholm, a national champion from Dorchester, said he was disappointed in missing out on the social aspect of the competition. “We use this phrase, ‘We’ll go back to normal,” he said. “I’m not sure the world of the city screamers is too normal. We’re all a little weird and eccentric, but we’re very social people and we congregate us with pleasure. “
The position of the town shouter – in some form, from prophets to heralds – dates back to biblical times and Greek mythology. Town cries in Britain say the role was first recognized here as early as 1066 when two pages appeared on the Bayeux tapestry depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest. Men were also instructed to proclaim the authority of William the Conqueror after he invaded England.
“We were the original news network,” said Mr Gough. For many people who couldn’t read or write, screamers were the only way to know what was going on.
Mr. Wood said, “As long as there was a rock to stand on, or a pair of shoulders, or a tree to climb, there was always someone shouting an announcement in a village or town square.”
Other groups, like the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Town Criers, have also tried to adjust competitions during the Covid period – they held a virtual zoom competition last June. One participant from Australia attended at night although he was spared the ringing for fear of waking the household, said Jane Smith, the group’s secretary.
“You just scream at your computer screen in your backyard,” said Ms. Smith, a town scout for Bognor Regis. “It was definitely an interesting exercise.”
The spirit of the competition, however, remains the oral delivery of proclamations: Ms. Smith said she was sure she would return after the pandemic ended. “There will be a lot of people screaming and ringing bells and announcing that everything is going to end and we can go out and meet people again.”