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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 August 2005, 22:47 GMT 23:47 UK
Playing the fool
By Georgina Pattinson
BBC News

This week the BBC News website is looking at people who do unusual jobs. In the fourth of the series we speak to a court jester.

Surely there are easier ways of making a living than donning a padded costume and walking on stilts to entertain a bunch of heckling children?

Jester on stilts
Dan has only fallen off his stilts three times, he says

There may be, but Dan Osbaldeston has rejected the nine-to-five existence in favour of life as a court jester.

His job is to make historic sites - such as Warwick Castle where he is working over the summer - understandable for the modern visitor, bringing the life of the castle up to date.

"I enhance people's understanding and enjoyment of a site - you can see either the smiles on their faces or the light of understanding in their eyes," he says.

In fact, the role of jester - or Thomas Fool - is one of many he performs. He is a professional live interpreter, with a degree in history and drama. He began work as a Roman soldier in Chester.

"I thought, 'This is a great way to teach, it's really good fun and I'm very good at it' - and that's what I've ended up making my career in," he says.


But it's a nomadic existence. "My mother and sister keep saying 'When are you going to get a proper job?'

"What they actually mean is 'When are you going to get a mortgage?' " he says.

Dan in stocks
The hardest one is visitors who are so astonishingly misinformed and... won't hear when you actually try to explain this is what it was really like
Dan Osbaldeston

And only after 10 years of making his name in the job is the 34-year-old now earning a decent living, although some months are quieter than others.

He works at castles, museums and towns around the country, using his skills to bring various characters to life.

Being a jester, though, seems to bring out his flamboyant persona - he certainly connects with children, who have no qualms about approaching him.

He plays the many pipes he carries around with him, juggles and walks on stilts, but says the first talent he needs is a quick wit.

The role of jester or fool is well established in history and literature - it used to be an important part of a court.

Historically, there were several different disciplines of fool, Dan explains. There were the "natural" fools - people who we now call mentally disabled - and the wise fools, who would essentially provide satire.

Visitors to Warwick Castle want a bit of a modern comedian. "There has to be an element of providing what modern people expect to be a fool," he says.

"So you do have the stories, you do make people laugh, you do make people laugh at themselves as well.

Dan entertaining the crowd
The children are mesmerised by the story of Chanticleer

"That was the important thing of the historical fool: the satire, holding up the mirror to the people who people wouldn't normally dare to criticise."

In Dan's show, which is repeated three times a day, his first task is to tell the story of Chanticleer - the fable of the cockerel snatched by the fox, immortalised in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The whole story is performed in rhyme, as he clucks and howls his way through the crowd. The children are wide-eyed.

Then he asks for volunteers from the audience. There is no shyness, particularly from a group of girls who heckle and shout.

As Thomas Fool, he is perfect at controlling them and turning their comments to his own advantage. And the jokes are rumbustious (lots of quips about flatulence) which have the children laughing in glee.

'Absolute delight'

Tolerance, good humour and a ready wit are required - as well as enthusiasm and patience. "I don't think this is the kind of job to get into if you don't enjoy it," Dan says.

"What's very interesting is that children with families behave very differently to children in school groups. Children with families are an absolute delight.

"Many school groups are as well - however, occasionally there are difficult children.

"The hardest one is visitors who are so astonishingly misinformed and they're quite convinced they've seen something in a Hollywood movie and therefore that's the way it is and won't hear when you actually try to explain this is what it was really like."

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