KING John’s Morris Men based in Southampton have put online what is probably the first virtual performance of a traditional entertainment that goes back hundreds of years.

This is a mummers’ play, which can now be viewed on YouTube. It marks the 40th year in which the group have put on a Christmas performance and features standard characters with a traditional script, but laced with topical references.

As in previous years, there will be collection for a local charity, this time via a Just Giving page for the Society of St James, based in Southampton, which aids the homeless and vulnerable.

Father Christmas character John Miller, who says he is typecast, appears decked with holly and dressed in green, said: “Three or four weeks ago we saw that a group in Gloucester had made their May Day dancing this year using Lego. It was fantastic, but we thought it would be better to make a video. All the mummers or ‘guisers’ have filmed themselves on their phones and Dick Gurney, who plays a Passer-By, has spliced them together in a 20-minute video.

“Some years ago when we started we used the scripts of mummers’ plays recorded for Tichborne, and then Bursledon. But then I noticed the line: ‘I come in lately back from the Lucy Wars’ and found out it meant the Treaty of Lausanne between Turkey and the Allies at the end of WWI. So I thought we could concoct our own script with topical references. In fact, our plays are based fairly and squarely on the tradition, with the same characters, and is really a template.”

Other characters in the folk play are Johnny Jack, played by John Connell, the Turkish Knight by Richie Phipps, St George (or King George!) by Harry Mason, the Bold Soldier by John Wilson and Jon Gale the Quack Doctor. The plot is predictable: there is a fight, someone dies, and then is brought back to life.

Ingenious screenplay gives the illusion of action between characters separately filmed, with noises patched in – Thunk! Bom! Bash! Clang! In one scene the Quack Doctor handles a huge green pill with a table tennis bat and finally brings the Turkish Knight to life with a giant syringe.

Traditionally, the characters wear masks or hanging strips of cloth to disguise themselves (hence ‘guisers’), and King John’s Morris Men follow that tradition.

The King John’s ‘side’ – as a Morris group is called – was founded in 1975 by dancers who had previously been with the Red Stags, based at the University of Southampton. They included John Burke, who is currently Foreman of King John’s, which means he teaches the dances. Other officers include the Squire, Bagman and Treasurer. For many years John took the part of Turkish Knight but retired “after too many cracked ribs”.

John has taken part in mummers’ plays since the age of 9, when his father, the headmaster of a primary school in Weston, Staffordshire, collected a play that had last been performed in 1913, just before the outbreak of the First World War. He said: “He got it from the remnants of the local guising ‘gang’, many of whom never came back from the war, and he wrote it down.

“Hampshire is extremely rich in mummers’ plays and probably has more than any other county. Many are very similar, but there are subtle differences. As you proceed, say, down the Waterside – from Totton to Dibden to Fawley – they change, on the way, little by little.”

Much has been written on the subject, as meticulously recorded in Mumming Plays in Hampshire, a source list, last revised in 1991. This was the work of folklore expert Steve Roud and the late Paul Marsh, who 45 years ago revived the Otterbourne Mummers, inspired by tales of the mumming of his great-uncle Tom Goodchild. Until his sudden death two years ago Paul and his gang performed locally every Christmas in Park Lane, in front of the house of Sylvia Warne, whose grandfather had been a mummer in the 19th century.

Steve is in the process of preserving the huge amount of material collected by Paul for deposit in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House, Primrose Hill, London.

The Hampshire Record Office also has a large number of documents and audiovisual material on mumming in many places, including Whitehill, Bordon, Dogmersfield, Tichborne, North Waltham, Highclere, Longparish, Yateley, Selborne, Andover, Sherfield English, Overton, Chawton, Minstead and elsewhere in the New forest.

The origins of mummer’s plays are obscure, but probably in some form they go back hundreds of years. They were once thought to be fertility rituals, though this idea has been discredited. They were performed on festivals, usually at Christmas but also on Plough Monday (the first Monday after the Twelfth Day).

They involve rhymed texts and in various parts of the country have different plots, though they all involve a Quack Doctor. The types include the Recruiting Sergeant and the Sword Dance, but all plays in Hampshire are in the Hero/Combat tradition.

Performers in the past have been described as “glorified travelling beggars”, since they were often unemployed men in search of money, especially agricultural workers stood down in the winter.

“By its very nature mumming was a ‘visiting’ custom and most gangs covered a lot of ground each season. Round trips of 30 to 50 miles in a day were common and although most gangs had their particular territory, some overlapping was inevitable”, according to Roud and Marsh.

The first known description of mumming was in Exeter in 1737. It is famously depicted in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, which Peter Robson of the University of Sheffield has studied in depth. The earliest known script from the mid-eighteenth century was published in Newcastle upon Tyne under the title Alexander and the King of Egypt, though there are probably links with many other cultural memes, including pantomime, Punch and Judy, Commedia dell’Arte and even Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The King John’s Morris Men video can be seen at: . For more on Hampshire visit: www.hampshirearchives