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Bill Bailey astounded everybody, not least himself, when his nifty footwork earned him the coveted Strictly Come Dancing
glitterball trophy. Becoming the oldest- ever winner of the BBC contest gave hope to dad dancers everywhere and a much-needed lift to the nation in the bleakest of winters.
However, the ‘Fred Astaire of Middle Earth’ was by no means the first comedian to boost his profile by tripping the light fantastic.
Exactly 400 years before Bill’s triumph, the funnyman renowned as Shakespeare’s favourite clown decided to launch his solo career by accepting multiple wagers to Morris dance all the way from London to Norwich via much of West Suffolk. Will Kemp, sometimes known as Kempe, dubbed the marathon his ‘Nine Daies [Days] Wonder’ as that was the amount of time he hoped to take. In the end the trek took almost four weeks, but it was still regarded as a success as he only counted the time he was actually on his feet and not his resting periods.
Kemp’s name isn’t instantly recognisable today, but fans of the Ben Elton sitcom Upstart Crow will know him as the actor who constantly dripped sarcasm off his tongue in the style of Ricky Gervais’s David Brent. The real Kemp, who met Shakespeare around 1594 when both were members of noted Elizabethan theatre troupe The Lord Chamberlain's Men, was a huge
draw for audiences and the Bard is said to have written comical roles especially for him, notably donkey-headed Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Capulet servant Peter in Romeo and Juliet and bumbling policeman Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. He was so popular, in fact, he was initially better known than Stratford-upon-Avon’s celebrated son.
Not surprisingly, Kemp’s ego was inflated and that led to him improvising at will. This annoyed his fellow players and he left the troupe in 1599. It is suspected he may have been sacked. Shakespeare took his revenge with a line in Hamlet: “And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.” Out on his own, Kemp looked for another lucrative way to entertain and came up with the Nine Daies Wonder.
Not a writer himself, he nevertheless published an entertaining account of his journey a few months later. Penned in 17th century English it can be hard to follow, so we have summarised the West Suffolk section in modern day parlance for the delectation of readers.
Having set off from the Lord Mayor of London’s residence with great ceremony in February 1600 – many of the onlookers throwing their small change at him to wish him luck – he reached Romford on the first night. By Wednesday of the second week, his fifth day of dancing, he finally crossed the Essex border into Suffolk. The initial part of his trek did not pass without
Kim Smith hotfoots it through the tale of a dancing legend. Artwork: Sherry Tolputt
   Bill Bailey on Strictly Come Dancing with Oti Mabuse and, left, the Ricky Gervais- inspired Will Kemp in Upstart Crow (played by Spencer Jones). Below, a Norwich street named after Kemp

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