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.
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.
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.
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.
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.