Almost 20 years have passed since Jemma Cooper and Wendy Watkins stepped in and not only saved Portishead Carnival from extinction but returned it to its rightful position as one of the town’s most popular events. Given the current situation, question marks may hang over this year’s edition, but we thought, what better time than while we’re all relaxing at home than to take a trip down memory lane with the dynamic duo…
How did you become involved with Portishead Carnival and what do you remember about the first event you organised 20 years ago?
Jemma: We are both local Portishead girls who grew up and went to school here and the carnival was massive part of our childhoods. I’d lived away for several years but moved back home in early 2000. That summer was my first carnival in years and I shocked to see it had gone downhill. The procession didn’t have many floats and there wasn’t the same buzz it had when I was young. Right then, I vowed to do something about it. The universe must have been listening because a few months later, an appeal went out by the organisers Gordano Round Table to find volunteers to run it as they were stepping down. I went along to the meeting at the Folk Hall, saw Wendy who I hadn’t seen for years, and we were the only people to put our hands up to take it on! We were full of enthusiasm and had the unshakeable confidence of youth. Plus, we couldn’t bear the thought of it not continuing.
For me, the first year was a mixture of stress, worry, elation, pride and relief! It’s all a bit of a blur now, but I remember blitzing the high street with posters, raising the event’s profile in the local press and working hard to create a real buzz. It definitely worked because the community really got behind it and we saw lots of entries in the procession. My most vivid memory is getting old carnival queens of all ages on a float. It worked brilliantly and looked amazing. We are reviving that idea this year as it’s a great reminder of the carnival’s long and proud tradition. We also got The Wurzels and they were fantastic. Seeing everyone singing along to their songs in the sunshine on the carnival field was a definite highlight of that first year.
Wendy: I remember taking my nephew to watch the procession in 2000 and being disappointed in it. A friend of mine said we should do something to help. When the council called a meeting to appoint new organisers, I can remember thinking that if somebody local doesn’t do it, who will? So I went along and the rest is history. I believe in contributing to the place where you live, and I guess, this has been my contribution. Like Jemma, I remember being a child and, after Christmas, the carnival being the best day of the year – I was passionate about seeing that continue. I can remember being nervous about our first year however. During the procession, my cousin was actually getting married at St Peter’s and I remember running out of church after the service and just seeing the last float going past. It was the Osment Family and it was great to see them and get a wave from them all!
How has the carnival evolved over the years?
Jemma: It sounds weird to say, but it actually hasn’t evolved that much. We have tried to stick to the traditional formula of a procession through the high street and then attractions on the show field. It’s simple but very effective. In 2005 and 2012 we brought the Red Arrows to the town which had never happened before but apart from that we’ve kept it simple. Of course, the procession has got bigger and better and we’ve had some big-name bands on the field; plus we brought in a proper bar in the beer tent and we’ve had some great bands and DJs in there. But the actual structure of the event has stayed the same. We used to have fundraising parties every spring for a few years at the start but that was too much extra work, so we stopped. We also used to have after-parties at the Somerset Hall but stopped those in 2011 as it was becoming a really long day for us. Plus, the pubs are great at putting on music in the evening and carrying on the party atmosphere.
Wendy: It has obviously got bigger and it’s been great to see both regular and new entries in the procession every year. There’s more focus on health and safety as it’s become more detailed and is very time-consuming, but it’s a massive legal requirement and has to be done. It’s always a huge pleasure for me to travel in the fire engine at the head of the procession every year. As we come around the corner from the cabstand and into ‘The Village’, it really takes my breath away to see the crowds of people lining the streets. I usually get very emotional and shed a few tears, as the crowds have definitely got bigger with each passing year.
Why do you think it has remained such a popular event, given how much else is happening in and around town?
Jemma: The carnival is one of the town’s oldest events and goes back generations. Lots of people have been involved over the years and lots of people have memories they want to build on. I think it’s popular because everyone has ownership of it. It’s Portishead Carnival, not the Jemma and Wendy carnival, not the council carnival, not a corporate carnival or a branded event; it belongs to the community and it’s successful because so many people are involved, either in the procession, on the day, or as part of our volunteer team. There are a lot of brilliant people, organisations and businesses in this town and they all play a part. That’s what makes it what it is. You can’t fail to have a sense of pride as you watch the procession and see the effort everyone has made and how everyone is working together. It’s everyone’s day. Plus, it’s held in the summer and generally we’ve been blessed with the weather, so it’s a combination of things. Oh, and it’s brilliantly organised!
Wendy: I can only echo Jemma’s sentiments here. It’s Portishead’s very own event, held dear by a great many people who have been here for generations and exciting for people new to the town. It’s our annual party, a day for everyone to let their hair down. There’s lots of fun and laughter and anything goes!
Looking back, what have been the main highs/highlights that will stay with you once you step down?
Jemma: Oh my – there are many to mention! Getting the Red Arrows twice was massive for us as no one had ever done that. We know we really created a bit of Portishead history with those flying displays and it really put the town on the map. That was very emotional. For me, getting one of my very favourite bands from America to play our 10th anniversary was also a huge deal. They were called the Grand Slambovians and I discovered them at Glastonbury Festival a few years earlier. They were touring the UK in 2012 so I asked if they would play and they said yes. I ended up on stage singing with them thinking to myself: ‘Is this actually happening?’ That was a proper moment for me. The real highlight though is just knowing that we did it. Two young Portishead women with a bit of fire and passion who took an event that was on its last legs and turned it around. We did it and we did it well.
Wendy: Wow, that’s a hard one! For me, it’s been seeing a sea of smiling, happy faces that makes all the hard work so worth it. Seeing the enjoyment of all those who enter the procession and who make so much effort. Introducing my little boy Alfie to the carnival – he was born two weeks after the event in 2012. Dancing on the stage at our after-parties and seeing everyone party the night away. But one of my most special memories is taking Red 10 and two other Red Arrows to their helicopter on Battery Point after the first display in 2005. I was stood on my own, taking it all in, with the crowds behind the barriers as the helicopter took off. It went up the Bristol Channel, turned around and with its headlights on came towards me. It stopped above me, dipped its nose and took a bow, then flew off into the sunset. That was incredibly special.
And your all-time favourite floats?
Jemma: I never get to see the procession as I am always running around the field making sure everything is ready and complying with health and safety before the crowds arrive. I’ve managed to sneak a couple of peaks over the years and there are a couple of entries that stand out for me. One was from the Co-op when it had a store where Aldi now is. I can’t remember the year, but they’d done the Roman Empire. It was AMAZING. I remember thinking it surely must win, but the judges thought otherwise! I felt really bad for them as it was a spectacular entry. I still think about it now. The other entry that sticks in my mind is the late Mandy Blake and her Best-behaved Dog School doing 101 Dalmatians. A huge walking entry of dogs and owners all in costume. It was really brilliant. It won loads. The Osment Family has also done some totally amazing themes over the years and their names are on lots of trophies. Oh, and I think one year someone did a float dressed as the two of us!
Wendy: All the floats and entries have been amazing and it would be really difficult for me to pick actual floats out. The thing I remember most is always seeing everyone all dressed up and having the best time. The Phoenix Bar, the Osment Family, Mark’s Barber Shop and Future Mastics, have all been excellent. The Black Horse did Dad’s Army once which was so funny. Obviously, all the schools are brilliant and all the animals that have entered too. The music has always been great and more recently, the samba bands have given us a real ‘carnival spirit’. There are so many things to mention about the procession, but huge, huge thanks go to every single entry we’ve ever had for their tremendous efforts in making the carnival what it is!
Worst year weather-wise?
Jemma: 2012. It was our 10th anniversary and it hammered down all day. The procession got soaked, the fairground had to be moved because it was sinking into the field, everyone kept asking if we were going to cancel, and one of the bands almost refused to go on stage because they were worried about getting electrocuted. It was still a great year though. The beer tent was packed and took the most money ever, and everyone pulled together as always. What can you do? We just surrendered to it. We’d had the Red Arrows the night before so the town was already buzzing and it just made another memory for everyone: ‘The year it chucked it down and we still had a great time’.
Wendy: I don’t remember the years, they all seem to blend into one. However, every year the weather is a worry. I’ve learned not to fret as much as I used to because it’s something that, no matter how much we’d like to, we just can’t control! The town has always been out in force whatever the weather, though, and it has never dampened the spirits. I’m sure 2020 is going to be a scorcher!
Any plans that you can share with us for making your final edition extra-special?
Jemma: Let’s just say you’ll be seeing me and Wendy like you’ve never seen us before….
Wendy: As above!
What do you hope new organisers will bring to the event?
Jemma: A positive attitude, plus the understanding that Portishead Carnival doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the town. You’re just safeguarding it for future generations. I’m personally very much looking forward to seeing what new organisers will do. It’s time for the next generation.
Wendy: We already have everything in place so the first part should be just a handover. But fresh and continued enthusiasm must be there, so it remains in good hands for future years.
This year’s Portishead Carnival is scheduled to take place on Saturday June 20th. To take part in the procession please call Wendy on: 07816 050181
If you are a former Carnival King, Queen or Princess please TEXT Debs Charman on 07855 944764