The Chester blog

Mr Peewee: behind the Puppet

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Dave Southern, the man behind Mr Peewee the drumming puppet has been a street performer in Chester since 1987 and is much loved by residents and tourists alike. He spoke to us about his career on the streets from Cardiff, to Covent Garden, Chester and beyond. 

“I’m from Cardiff originally, please dont tell everyone that I’m a Welshman living in Chester!” says Dave, who describes himself as an “extrovert kid” but not academic. “I was into theatre and amateur dramatics and bicycles. My dad was the bloke in the street that used to fix everybody’s bike. By 12-13 I had inherited that mantle.

“My parents were teachers and there was a summer school in a very working class area of Cardiff that offered circus skills.  1978. “To have circus skills back in thou them days you had to be from a traditional circus family it was a new thing. Unicycling was on the menu so I spent a summer cycling to this school and met a lot of people. It changed my life, I was hanging around with people that did this for a living!” After another course that Christmas, Dave was offered a job with the Fossett Family Circus.  However Dave didn’t take up the offer, instead he completed his education before taking up theatre training  via an apprenticeship with a theatre company.

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Young Dave on his Unicycle 

In the early 1980s, Dave started doing street shows on Queen Street, Cardiff. “I used to do some fire eating, I’d smash a milk bottle then I’d lie on it, I’d ride round on my unicycle. ” I made a few pounds per show , that’s how I started to learn the craft.”  After this he became part of the emerging street performance scene in London’s Covent Garden. ” I moved in London, lived in a squat with a friend in South London and worked Covent garden every day, also making pence!  I picked up theatre work and other occasional jobs”

Dave says that London was “new and inspiring with a huge variety of acts. There was a guy who used to do a human jukebox in a cardboard box, another guy would do a Shakespeare themed show. There was a lot more physical theatre, street performing has become a bit formulaic now in terms of, you shout at the crowd, have something dangerous, spend a long time looking like you’re going to do the something dangerous, tell people how much money you want, do the thing that’s dangerous and then collect the money ! I’m not knocking that because I have done that formula myself for a long time, but there was flexibility then and the ability to improvise. Anything can happen and the skill that you hone is being able to deal with anything when it happens!” It was during these years that Dave met Eddie Izzard for the first time. Eddie was a street performer at the time :

He did a double act with a guy doing sword fighting, then he did a solo show where he rode a unicycle and escaped out of handcuffs.   He’s in a different stratosphere now but he always remembers street performers. If he does a gig at the 02 area he puts out an open invite to the Covent Garden street performers association  , he comps them all in and then hangs out with them because he loves street performing.” 

The 1984 garden festival in Liverpool offered more performance opportunities for Dave and he built on this by establishing himself as resident street entertainer at the newly opened Albert Dock.  Resident there for 6 years, Dave did a variety of things including standing in a shop window.  “I used to dress as a shop dummy in a suit and tails in one of the shop windows and absolutely scare the pants off people as they walked past. I got on the 9 o clock news with that actually!

“They were great days. As each pavilion opened I got more work and I was there for the opening of the Tate. I used to do a lot of stilt walking , but the security guard used to hold me back because This Morning used to broadcast from there , with a window looking out on the dock. He’d hold me back so I didn’t stilt walk past the window while they were on air!  I did a charity stilt walk from Liverpool to Glasgow to promote the  Liverpool Festival of Comedy. I literally still have the scars”

Dave’s association with Chester came later. ” I was going out in Liverpool with a girl from Chester. I had some work in America and came back without any more work, so I came to Chester to busk.  Dave performed on Eastgate street, his unique show featuring a Unicycle made out of a ladder.” It was a big show in its day! I used to draw crowds and it was a lot of fun. I would leave the space for interaction, for me that’s what street performing is all about.

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“There wasn’t many buskers at that time, there was the odd guitar player, there was the legendary John Jenkins, who played bagpipes. I got on really well with him. He had been in the Royal Engineers, and when he retired his philosophy was he didn’t want to just sit and home doing nothing. He knew how to play the bagpipes and he would say “I’ll keep going until I’ve paid for  the telly!”  There was a guy called Damian who used to come from Manchester with an upright piano. He would play the piano all day on Eastgate street. He was fantastic.

“There was a group of young people that used to stand above Moss Bros on the rows, and if I was struggling to get a crowd, they would say “Dave do you want rent a crowd?!” and they would come down and be the front row for me and the crowd would build up from that. I remember this because it was one of my early routes into youth work, which was another career I had.”

Dave ended up living in Mid Wales where he had found employment as a community arts worker.  ” I met a girl who became my wife and we started having a family. I used to get up early on a Saturday morning, drive to Chester, do 2 or 3 shows, then drive back to mid wales and spend the evening with my wife. We’d put the kids to bed then I’d drive to Bath, sleep in the car and do 2- shows on the Sunday. There was nobody in Chester on a Sunday, because there were no Sunday trading laws. Chester was dead.”

By the time his third child was born, Dave had been teaching circus workshops in mid Wales and had also trained as a drug and alcohol worker. “I had made the leap to promoting the use of circus in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. I worked in drop in centres and needle exchanges.  Me and a colleague put together a project in North Wales and that led us to Chester. ” In 1997 Dave made Chester his home.

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Dave performs on Eastgate street in the 1990s

“Chester is fantastic, Chester is unique! The thing that’s always got me about Chester is its location. It has a catchment into North Wales, the Wirral, Shropshire. People will come to Chester because theres always something happening. Its not one single thing, its not the shop brands or restaurants, its everything. Street performing has a role to play in it. We are part of the ambiance of the city and the unique draw that it has.”

In the 90s Dave was working full time as a youth worker, citing the pressures of a buskers life he commented that “the thing with being self employed is when you have irregular income and regular outgoings, its just pressure. I ran Lache young peoples centre for a while, and I did some work in Ellesmere Port and Vale Royal.”  Dave ended up taking redundancy and returning to the streets where he spent a summer juggling.

“My wife and I had separated by that time and I wasn’t sure I could go back to riding the unicycle and juggling fire all the time. . There are two different types of street performers, the walk by and the circle show.  The circle show, you do a performance and you take the money at the end. A walk by is where you set up to do something and people just walk by and hopefully put something in. When you’re a circle show you always look at walk bys and think how much simpler they look.” Dave’s simple idea was based around the only instrument he played, the drums. Searching for a way of making drumming visual, the puppet was what he came up with.

“Over the first winter, I made a booth to sit in and it evolved.  I’m really quite proud of it, its given me a new lease of street performing life without having to expend as much energy as I used to.  Its without language and it works everywhere. I love the interaction. I go out and play on a Saturday night, and drunk people are childlike! Its great fun. I’ve worked in Germany, Holland, Bahrain….  I’ve been as successful as I want to be. I have no ambition. My ambition would just be to be happy in what I’m doing, and healthy, and that is a luxury in this day and age. My overheads are low which helps , I spend a lot of time on the road in a motorhome, seeing places which is lovely.”

Dave is also known for his work with the Chester Busker’s Association. “I’ve always had a great sense of injustice. Theres a lot of judgement attached to street performing. People look at buskers as if they’re trying to get away with something.  I understand the complexities of running a business, with rents and business rates. Every busker should be looked on as a small business, because that’s what they are. They’re out there contributing to society, the money they earn is going back into the economy. In times of economic stress when businesses are under pressure or not making sales they tend to look around at what they can blame. Buskers are the first in line.”

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Dave Southern, 2019 

Dave says he understands the tension with businesses in the city.  “I’m not denying that some buskers are too loud. I admit that. I spend a lot of time talking to buskers saying “I’m really sorry can you turn it down a bit” because I know what happens, other buskers will have to turn their volume up, and then that business and that business are gonna ring the council.

“I got into this in 1987 when Chester City Council wrote the first Code of Practice. Every few years headlines will appear in the paper about a busker crackdown. But then the council announced they were going down the PSPO vote in 2015. ” The controversial measures to licence and control buskers and were defeated after a campaign led by the late Keep Streets Live campaigner Johnny Walker.

“Johnny Walker saved us. I am a mediator , I probably would have negotiated with the council to find a middle ground. I probably would have conceded too much.  Johnny came in very experienced having done this in Liverpool and other places , saying “these are the laws we aren’t doing anything wrong.”  He taught me so much about the rights and responsibilities… its public speech. Businesses can’t control the streets and they shouldn’t. Its freedom of speech and freedom of expression. But it is not freedom to do whatever you want, for as long as you want, as loud as you want.  If something that you are doing is having a great impact on somebody else, you have to find ways of monitoring that. That’s what the Code of Practice does, it limits the impact.

Dave says he continues to strive to break down the “us and  them” barrier between performers and businesses.  “I think most of the problem is repetition.  if you work in the city centre, you are going to see buskers. Sometimes there are noise complaints from people who have moved into businesses and are complaining about noise outside.  There have been buskers on Eastgate street since pedestrianisation, and possibly for 100s of years because the origins of theatre started on the street.  Historically during the Civil War the minstrels came out on the side of the King and were given the freedom of the city, so we have a Royal Charter for people to do this in Chester!

“I dont think its fair if a business moves into a place where something already happens and then they try and stop that happening. The Musicians Union is right on this… its happening everywhere. People move into apartments complain about the noise and get music venues shut down.  Music venues and street performers are where we grow our talent. Ed Sheeran started as a busker, there are so many…!”

 

Currently the Council and the Buskers association are reviewing the code. ” We’ll bring the Musicians Union in” says Dave , “but we’ll just see if theres things that can be tweaked in it. We’ll see what comes out of the review.  I would like to see buskers more accepted by businesses and I would like to see more buskers playing at an acceptable volume. I don’t know what the level of complaint about me is… I hope that people will come and talk to me! If its a reasonable complaint then I’ll be reasonable and understand, that’s part of being in a community.”

To prospective buskers, Dave offers the following advice: ” Only 30% of what I do is ability, the other 70% is managing relationships, with audiences, other buskers, officials in the street. If you get that right you’ll create a good atmosphere around you. If someone wants to come out and perform, I’d say find half a dozen of their best songs, but learn them. If you sing them off an iPad or a music stand you’re looking at the iPad, you need to look at people and find a way of talking to them.”

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Offering a glimpse into a buskers mindset Dave says that the best thing about busking is that “unique thing at the end of the day you look in your hat and think “people like me”.  These are hard working people, doing jobs that I couldn’t do, they have enjoyed what I’ve done and they chose to put their hand in their pocket. As performers,  we’re all self centred and egotistical and theres that element of wanted to be liked. 

“I worked the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain, I’ve worked Istanbul, Dubai, but I’ll always consider Chester as my home!” In parting Dave offers his thanks to the people of Chester. “The only other thing that’s missing is my humble gratitude to people in Chester for supporting me when I was ill with skin Cancer earlier this year. Strangers still come up and ask me how I am and check I’m better. It’s all part of what makes Chester unique and such a special place for me.”

 

 

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