Alex Helm


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One of the most important figures in the study of calendar custom and dance in post-war England. He served as a major in the Ordnance Corps, and spent the rest of his working life as a teacher. At the suggestion of Margaret Dean-Smith, Helm edited the papers of T. F. Ordish, the 19th-century collector of mummers plays, which revealed the wealth of untouched material on traditional drama, and, with characteristic energy and scholarship, he launched into compiling a comprehensive index of material, with colleagues Dr E. C. Cawte and Dr Norman Peacock, and the work on this index consumed his spare time for the rest of his tragically shortened life. Some of the fruits of the work were presented in: E. C. Cawte, Alex Helm, R. J. Marriott, and Norman Peacock, ‘A Geographical Index of the Ceremonial Dance in Great Britain’, JEFDSS 9:1 (1960), 1–41; English Ritual Drama (1967). E. C. Cawte, Ritual Animal Disguise (1978), and many later writers have also been indebted to the gathering and indexing work of Helm and his colleagues. Helm's work had enormous influence on the next generation of custom researchers in England, by demonstrating that the mummers' play was worth taking seriously, by advocating the geographical approach, and by showing that a great deal of information still remained to be discovered. His contention that the customs were best studied as ceremonies or rituals (rather than, for example, by the literary approach adopted by E. K. Chambers) became widely adopted and is still influential today, although it in turn has come under criticism from later writers.

Helm's early death prevented him from writing the projected works which would synthesize this wealth of material, although some of his writings have been published posthumously. His papers are held by University College London. Much of Helm's published output was thus in the form of articles, but he also produced a number of invaluable booklets which made texts and descriptions available to potential practitioners and folklore students alike, including: Five Mumming Plays for Schools (1965); Six Mummers' Acts (with E. C. Cawte) (1967); Cheshire Folk Drama (1968); The Chapbook Mummers' Plays (1969); Eight Mummers' Plays (1971); Staffordshire Folk Drama (1984).

Additional selected publications include ‘The Cheshire Soul-Caking Play’, JEFDSS 6: 2 (1950), 45–50; ‘The Rushcart and the North-Western Morris’, JEFDSS 7: 3 (1954), 172–9; ‘The Mummers’ Play’, Theatre Notebook 18 (Winter 1963/4); E. C. Cawte, Alex Helm, and N. Peacock, English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index (1967); The English Mummers' Play (1980).

Obituaries: Margaret Dean-Smith, Folklore 81 (1970), 63–4;E. C. Cawte, FMJ 2:1 (1970), 72–3.

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