“All Hail the Black Knight!” – In Loving and Respectful Memory of Geoff Winship

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Yesterday evening, I was enormously saddened to learn of the death of Geoff Winship, a man who had been known internationally as “The Black Knight” on account of the role he played in the world’s only touring mediaeval jousting tournament, which he’d set up in 1966. He had parallel careers as part of The Sensational Cherokees, a popular knife-throwing and fire-eating cabaret act in their day, while he also ran a Wild West Show for many years, but at the time I met him in the early summer of 1988, all his considerable energies and talents were directed towards his jousting tournament.

I’ve described how I came to meet and work for Geoff elsewhere in A Tale of Sound & Fury, so I’ll simply say that I’d been at the tournament in Breamore, just outside Salisbury, for less than a week when I broke my shoulder, before I’d even sat on one of the horses. This was one of the worst pains I’ve ever experienced, but I stayed on the tournament working as the Earl Marshall, or William of Pembroke. This was the principal speaking role, so I had to begin the tournament by addressing the crowds, then I introduced the knights, the armourers, the men-at-arms, the court jester and the ladies-in-waiting as they trooped onto the field and took their places.

For the next 90 minutes or 2 hours, depending on variables such as the weather, the size of the audience, the behaviour of the horses, hangovers and suchlike, I directed the tournament, but not as a mere mouthpiece or commentator. As the opening speech of my character made unmistakably clear, I was the Champion of All England, so I wasn’t going to tolerate dissent of any form from any of the other participants.

As the Black Knight, Geoff had the next most prominent speaking role, so his own irascible nature and that of the character he portrayed with such vigour brought us both into real conflict on a daily basis, on and off the field, before and after the performances. There were many reasons for this prolonged mutual antagonism, a notable one being that both Geoff and I had a marked propensity what for you might euphemistically describe as robust practical jokes, but to save time and space, I suppose it would be easiest to point out that Geoff was a Leo, whereas I’m a Scorpio, so make of this what you will.

Working on this tournament could be incredibly hard work – the hardest I’ve done in my life. I was the Marshall on Geoff’s touring unit and we traveled around Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Russia in an articulated lorry euphemistically known as “The Black Hotel” and not solely on account of its colour. There was a compartment for 6 horses, who were all comfortable enough and well-cared for, but as many as 9 of us traveled thousands of miles in the remaining space that we shared with equipment for when we came to set up our field of tourney. There was no toilet, no shower, no running water, no storage space and no ventilation aside from the upper half of a hinged door that opened at the back, while 20 hour days weren’t at all uncommon, especially when we were camped literally in the middle of nowhere for the night and the horses broke loose.

I could describe many other hardships in appalling detail, but they can wait until another time. The staff turnover was once 80% in a season, while some people who turned up lasted a day and a few others much less than that. Nonetheless, I worked for Geoff for 5 consecutive years from 1988 to 1992, despite solemnly vowing at the end of each and every season that I’d never return, so I’ll do my best to try to explain why.

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I once prompted Geoff towards a near religious conversion by hiding in the boot of a car in Helsinki and convincing him it was haunted. I saw him instantly sum up one of his knights who had long hair and a straggly beard by calling him “Three Nails”, while another with soft down on his cheeks was likewise christened “Cat’s Knackers”. He taught me how to play table chess with condiments and I was left speechless for one of the few times in my life when he casually dismissed me in public – as the Marshall – by calling me a feathered popinjay. I spent endless hours with him in the cab of the Black Hotel as we traveled through Europe listening to tales of his upbringing that left me mesmerised. He told me of the occasion when he was most frightened and it was one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard, involving his brother dressed as Kit Carson in the roughest pub the Gorbals had to offer, but there are many more jewels in the crown, one of which began with our crossing of the Severn Bridge in the late summer of 1989. I saw him poleaxe an antagonist by throwing his shoe 40 feet at a moving target, while I also saw him at the age of 60 holding himself out sideways from a rigid pole with his arms extended. I learned about his theory of flotsam and jetsam, and saw it applied many times to those who had been foolish enough to imagine they could mock him and get away with it. I heard him bemoan the fact his hand had been injured in a joust in a way that left me doubled-up with laughter and unable to deliver my lines for 5 minutes. I regularly saw him gulp down coffee that was so scalding hot that it was more like lava, an ability he’d acquired during his fire-eating days. I saw thousands of children in Britain and abroad who were entranced to sit with him on his horse and to have their photo taken with the Black Knight. He introduced me to the evening delights of gin and tonic, after a decade when I couldn’t bear to even mentally picture the stuff. I once found myself stood on a metal bench on a hillside in Finland during a massive electrical storm, wondering if the lightning would strike his lance or my podium first, but neither of us wanted to be the one to give in to the elements. During a parade through the centre of Vienna, he put me on a horse that I discovered had an aversion to walking over tram lines or lines painted on the road, meaning I went over the creature’s head 7 or 8 times before I gave up, dismounted and led the animal along as we lagged half a mile behind the rest of the troop. We had a hot curry eating contest in Hemel Hempstead and I twice witnessed some highly inventive uses for an electric fence, in Britain and in Germany, but all these severely curtailed accounts are just the tip of the iceberg of just a few of the tales that are fit to print, because there are hundreds of others that leave me white in the face just to recall them. In all the years I worked for Geoff, I don’t remember a single boring day, ever. Not a solitary one in 5 years. Not so much as a boring minute. And this is the main reason I kept going back, time and again, even though I knew how exhausting, debilitating and often dangerous life on the tournament could be.

The sad news of Geoff’s passing was broken to me by my friend Rowley Irlam, one of my fellow knights from a quarter of a century ago. We must have spoken for around 3 hours on the phone last night, although a good part of that time was spent convulsed in helpless laughter as we reminisced about the days we’d been so fortunate to share as touring knights, yet we didn’t manage to speak about more than a bare handful of the hundreds upon hundreds of  lurid, hilarious and shocking stories in our shared vaults.

Geoff Winship had been born and raised in a circus, spending his time as an acrobat, a trapeze artist, a clown and a trick rider, before going on to earn his living as a knife-thrower and fire-eater as part of the Sensational Cherokees. After this came the Wild West Show [I think], then the mediaeval jousting tournament, so it goes without saying that performing in public was literally in his blood.

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At the same time, he must have drawn at least some of his considerable vitality from the company of others who were often decades younger than him, because I’m as certain as I can he that he celebrated his 60th birthday with us somewhere in Germany in 1990, when I was 30. At that time, he was fitter, stronger and more agile than any of the rest of us and we were all virtually always together, not just on the tournament, but as we ate, travelled, celebrated, socialised and played increasingly traumatic practical jokes on each other.

Just about every occasion on every day I was there degenerated into minor riot or social disturbance of a greater or lesser magnitude, whether it was a meal time, a shower, a few drinks, setting up the tournament in a new location, travelling by ferry, crossing a border, a practise session, a parade, a media interview or the day’s performance, although we sometimes performed twice a day. Geoff patently thrived on all this, while some of the things he instigated left even me slack-jawed with disbelief, but the constant touring and endless tournaments also taught me a great deal as a performer.

I can’t have been the only one to have profited from my time with Geoff, because my friend Rowley has long been in huge demand as a stuntman and stunt coordinator; as I was happy to announce to the Four Winds at the time, Rowley recently won a coveted Emmy Award for his work on the incomparable Game of Thrones series. Another fellow knight from those days was Justin Pearson, who is still jousting with his own tournament The Knights of the Damned, as well as appearing on film and on television, while yet another is my friend Dominic Preece, stuntman and stunt coordinator.

Wayne Michaels also worked with Geoff Winship, as did Rob Inch, Richard Bonehill and Nick Gillard, while there are almost certainly others I’m unaware of, so if you care to look up the credits these men have collectively accrued, you’ll see that there have been few major films and television series over the last two decades or more in which someone who started their career working for Geoff Winship hasn’t appeared.

I could write for weeks on end about all this and one day, I intend to so so; for now, thanks to Geoff Winship, I toured Scandinavia sponsored by a brewery, something that only a tiny band of us can claim to have done. I slept in haunted castles, haunted mansions and in five star hotels, while I performed in front of massed audiences in other castles, in an Olympic stadium, at huge county shows and at manor houses, private and public. I appeared as a knight in Russia, where I had quite literally the time of my life, while I took part in parades past huge crowds in St Petersburg, Helsinki and Vienna.

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I knighted Scandinavia’s top rock star, I traveled in limousines and I was given a ride around Leningrad in 1990 on a WWII motorbike while wearing my armour and clutching a bottle of vodka, all thanks to Geoff. When my two grown children make the terrible mistake of assuming I might be shocked by hearing of what they’ve got up to on a night out, I can tell them stories to make their hair stand on end, so I sometimes do.

I appeared at the jazz festival in Pori in Finland and I performed in another Finnish city [whose name escapes me for now] at the same time as Chuck Berry. I met and socialised with hundreds of wonderful people in all the places I visited, I made friendships that have lasted to this day and by contrast, I encountered former members of the SS; I saw the world, I lived like a rock star, I was hailed as the second Rasputin in Russia, I was part of a touring riotous assembly and much, much else besides, but none of this would have happened had not Geoff Winship set up his jousting tournament all those years ago when I was just a child, then taken me on in 1988.

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You were a man among men; England will not see your like again and I’ll be eternally in your debt for all the sheer exhilaration I experienced in my years as a knight.

God bless you, Geoff Winship.

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32 Responses to “All Hail the Black Knight!” – In Loving and Respectful Memory of Geoff Winship

  1. Simon Stares says:

    I am extremely saddened to hear the news of the passing Geoff Winship, we have lost another legend to the big arena in the sky. I was lucky enough to of worked with Geoff, Val and the rest of the boys in 2005 & 2006 (i think). I will never forget the first time I spoke with Geoff on the phone, he asked, can you ride a horse? and I replied with a confident YES. Truth is, I hadn’t ridden a horse since I was eight years old but I had recently been made redundant and wanted to do something different for the summer, the thought of being a knight on horseback sounded like a lot of fun, I had NO idea what I was letting myself in for. So I packed my bag, jumped in my car and headed off to meet Geoff at Littlecote House for the beginning of the season. When I arrived I was greeted with the hustle & bustle of the guys setting up. After a quick chat with Geoff he put me on Anzac, one of the biggest horses I had ever seen (I find out later he is also one of the laziest) Geoff points up the hill and says “ride up there and back” trying to keep calm and bouncing all over the place but managing not to fall off. I return to where Geoff is standing and he says “right! you’re a jester”. So a few shows as a Jester under my belt, Geoff started teaching me how to ride, how to joust and how to fall (he really enjoyed teaching me to fall) He finally put me in the show as a knight, with Missprint (my trusty steed) I would enter the arena for my first nerve-racking 2hrs. I really enjoyed my time with Geoff & Vals tournament, it left me with some amazing life memories and story’s to tell. Rest In Peace Geoffrey and thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • eternalidol says:

      Thanks very much for writing in, Simon, while you can be sure that everyone was very saddened to hear of Geoff’s passing. I thought he’d be around forever, but of course, life’s not like that for anyone. I might add that hundreds of people have visited and viewed this post since I published it, but for some reason, hardly anyone leaves a mark of their passing, although another gentleman left a comment on the About Me section, which you might like to read, as it’s another fond farewell.

      It seems that my experience in 1988 was very similar to yours, one difference being that I’d only ever been ponytrekking with my little sister when I was a kid, so I took one morning’s riding lessons at Tintern before I showed up because I thought it would be a pushover. Luckily for me, I broke my shoulder in the first week before I had a chance to break my neck on a horse, but it all worked out for the best, because I did some time as an armourer and a jester, sometimes riding a horse in a parade, but 99% of my time was spent as the Marshall. Like you, I’ve got a few stories to tell and like you, I’m sorry about Geoff’s passing, so thank you again.

      Dennis

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      • Rick says:

        Dear Dennis
        Very sad news. I worked for Geoff also, must have been a few years before you. Chris Bruce and John Lyne Perkis where there at that time. I have to say the old guy was spot on with me 🙂 I did the shows and maintained transport. I went across the eu an ended up m Austria! I have the glass that was given to me by the (excuse spelling further) Burgermiester of Klagafurt! We jousted on the 13th century tournament fields ! How good is that 😀 Great two seasons til he found out Tanya was dating DOH ! Such is life 🙂 Hope I helped a bit to keep the Geoff Legend alive.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. John O'Mahoney says:

    Having learnt of the passing of Geoff Winship I would like to echo the sentiments above. He truly was a force of nature still running the tournament alongside Val and jousting 6 days a week into his seventies. He greatly enriched the lives of all of us fortunate enough to have known and worked for him beyond appreciable measure. We all have many tales hysterical, hair raising and sometimes quite unbelievable to tell of our time with him, surpassed only by those which he himself could regale you with. I count myself as extremely lucky that Geoff gave me the opportunity to be part of the tournament (2006/7) and am greatly saddened that he is no longer with us. We truly will not see his like again. Rest in peace Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Steve Ralph says:

    i had the good fortune to meet and work with Geoff when he did a stint at the Boathouse 7 in Pompey Dockyard Christmas parties some years back ( I was the DJ). A total professional and a joy to chat to.and hear his stories from his years in the business.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Christine Woodall says:

    I found this, quite by chance. It brought back so many memories. My late husband and I were on holiday near Powderham Castle quite a few years ago now. We saw an advertisement for Winships Joust and decided to go along. My husband must have had “amateur dramatics” on his forehead because he was rapidly “recruited” as a Man At Arms. It made an enjoyable afternoon all the more enjoyable and my moment came later when I was slung across the shoulder of a handsome young knight and carried into the arena – I probably also had “amateur dramatics” written on MY forehead! Since that time, we saw other Jousts at Breamore House and near Christchurch in Dorset when we introduced our Godsons to the joy of the Joust. They both had a ride with a Knight, something of a breakthrough for the younger one as he was not at all keen on horses until that moment. I am so sorry to hear of the passing of Geoff Winship – my condolences to his family. He and his Knights must have made a great number of people happy over the years and I am sure others have happy memories like mine. I still have treasured photographs, including one taken when I was in the “clutches” of the dastardly Black Knight. May he rest in peace until Arthur and his Knights ride again.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Janis Naylor says:

    Pure coincidence talking of stunt riders and horses this morning, I recalled to a friend seeing the Geoffrey Winship Show in Plymouth, Devon, many years ago – perhaps late 1960’s? What a sight that show was, and Mr. Winship riding at full gallop, all red and black, in armour with lance and shield, little sign of reins, and stopping the horse with a mighty “Whoa” to massive applause from the crowds. So sorry to hear that he is no longer with us, and how strange that I should mention him this morning before looking him up on the web to find that he had passed away earlier this year. As a 65 year old “tomboy” who loved watching any action movie with horses, stunts, battles etc., it was indeed an honour to have seen Mr. Winship and his knights just once. I am sure there are others in Plymouth will remember that day. Arise Sir Geffrey, The Black Knight.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pam Desmond says:

    I can’t believe I’m reading this, I didn’t know Geoff had died. I was only talking about him and Val today. I am shocked and very sad to read this news. I worked as his partner in the Cherokees for a short while in 1976/77. He was great fun to work with and a real professional. The last time I spoke to him was when he rang me in 2005 after my husband Con Chambers died. Con also had worked with Geoff many times. My thoughts are with Val now. Geoff and I were working at the Chelsea Roundhouse when he first met her, I had worked with Val years before in the chorus at Coventry Hippodrome. This has really saddened me and I just wish I had known at the time so that I could have paid my respects.
    Pam Desmond

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A Woods says:

    I was researching on something quite different on the internet today, when I saw this. Sorry to hear of Mr Winship’s passing. I have many great memories of his medieval jousting show on tour in Finland. I believe I witnessed every single show by Raseborg castle in the summer of 1990! Must have been a month or two? By the way, the name of the town where Chuck Berry performed is Tammisaari or Ekenäs in Swedish (most residents are Swedish speaking). Love that last picture, I have the exact same one somewhere 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. T Laasonen says:

    Sad to hear of Geoff´s passing.

    That last pic with the team in front of a castle is from Raseborg, in the south of Finland, just a few minutes´ drive from Ekenäs. I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of hosting your rowdy lot one summer back then. There actually is some video footage of your antics somewhere in a cupboard here… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. David Hazelden says:

    Wow, shocked.

    My father Richard Hazelden played the Red Knight in the late 80s/90s and did some Wild West Shows, he has incredible stories of the tours.

    I’ve got a full video of a show from the 90s and they were spectacular. My mum Sue played the lady in waiting and served customers over the summer in the gift shop.

    As a 5x year old I wanted to be part of the show, I stayed with the knights for a summer and I learned to fall off at that age from my shetland, and still remember it today like it was yesterday.

    I’ve still got memories of sitting next to Geoff eating spaghetti bolognese at the head of the table; I’m 30 now, but amazing what you remember.

    Thank you Geoff and Val for incredible memories.

    My thoughts are with you Val & Family, I’ll let Richard & Sue know he has passed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry i kept asking, i didn’t realise that replies took time show up.

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      • eternalidol says:

        It’s not a problem, because you can write pretty much what you like here. However, no comments appear on the site or are published unless I’m physically here to see the notification on my site, then to Approve them on my dashboard. This might happen the moment they’re sent in, if I happen to be sitting here at my laptop and I have a minute to spare, or otherwise it might be a few days before what you’ve sent in, depending on where I am and how busy I am. Anyway, thanks for writing in about Geoff and best wishes from Dennis [the owner of this site].

        Like

    • Joel says:

      David – I worked in the show as a child, during the original Littlecote years and again in Breamore, Thorpe Park and others – would love to get hold of a copy of the show for the sake of posterity. Is that a possibility?

      By some necromancy of Merlin…

      Joel

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Rick says:

    I’m sorry it’s so long ago now, that I did the jousting, walking down the the track to The lazy W ranch. I have to admit I have know idea how old Geoff was when he passed? Thanks.

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  11. Rick says:

    How old was Geoff when he passed?

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  12. He was from Hull same as, so i got a bit of lee way. I was using a little palomino pony that shyied like hell as you approuched the tilt rail, then Maty from Wales came up with a cardboard blinker, saved me from a few more busted noses 🙂 I have to ask how old was Geoff when he passed?

    Like

  13. Gary R says:

    Hi Richard I worked with you, Matt, Ron and Sooty. Had a great time. Sorry to hear of Geoff’s passing. I was the Brummy Gary.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hee hee fun times matey 🙂

    Like

  15. Samantha duran says:

    Sad news as my dad Terry Duran worked with Geoff back in the 70s. I have lovely memories of the events and trying unsuccessfully to bareback ride.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Vikki says:

    Really sad news. I think I saw my first joust at Breamore as a kid back in the 80s. And I have been in awe ever since. My 12 year old son and I now spend the summer following different tournaments around the country.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. John says:

    Uncle Geoff as I knew him was a very good friend of my dad. He once locked him up in cowboy city at Flamingo park. He also worked with Rober Brothers circus with aunty Babs m. I always remember as a six year old trying to pull the trigger on the six Gun he had. Sad news and a legend to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Steve says:

    Sad news , I had the privilege of being a jester in one of his shows in the new forest, he was a man of great knowledge and a true gentleman, remember the walks through camp sites and towns promoting the show, the old blue “hotel” which if I recall was asked to paint and completely messed it up and from that day was named as Artex the jester.
    Great memories, RIP Geoff
    Steve Newell

    Like

  19. John T Smith says:

    So sad to have just found out Jeff has died. He kinda saved my live in 1993 by having me as Centre Armourer at Breamore house for the season. A great guy who taught me a lot and treated me like a human after what I had been through. One of his films has my ex in it as the fat lady pulled from the audience at Breamore as well:). To those who were at Braemore then Christchurch, I am the Scots guy John 🙂

    Like

  20. Annette Smith says:

    Just found out yesterday that Geoff has died, really sad news. My Dad Henry Roberts, brothers Jonathan and Jeremy and myself used to ride in the Cowboy shows that Geoff also used to have as well as the Medieval ones. I used to love going to Lazy W back in the 70s and ride the horses bare back, so much fun and fond memories of the whole setting.

    Like

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