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Tripping hither, tripping thither

When I went to the bar as a very young man, it was often enough in the company of the Oxford University Gilbert & Sullivan Society.

My relationship with G&S had started early, specifically the argument in Three Men in a Boat over which song Harris is trying to sing (I remain confused to this day). Block-booked family cheap-seats at the ENO fed this enthusiasm through my adolescence, until at secondary school I played the part of Nanki Poo in a local girls’ concert performance of The Mikado (fitting punishment for any teenager who think he’s an heroic tenor). During my A Levels, I sang ‘He who shies’ from Iolanthe with two fellow 6th-formers – at which point I realised I was not a tenor and made us all swap roles before we went on stage.

At Oxford, I found the collegiate choral life a little stultifying, and a turn as Florian in Princess Ida provided one way out.

They were a weird and wonderful bunch, the G&S Society – from the otherworldly to the decidedly worldly. A dapper junior law lecturer rubbed shoulders with a chap who worked behind the counter at the local Barclays. Young ladies with evident social prospects duetted with slightly-less-young ladies on 10-year PhD courses. The Fellow of All Souls who’d performed with the Kazakh National Opera (or somesuch) could routinely be found wolfing down a fry-up in St Giles beside the first-year undergrad who’d turned up once for Cox & Box to turn the pages, in a yellow tracksuit.

Sometimes there was even the odd (‘Tzing! Boom!’) musician.

The OUGSS get through about three shows a year, and so it was with many of these fine folks I found myself performing Iolanthe at the Holywell Music Room, in Michaelmas (that’s autumn) term, 2002.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourth consecutive smash hit, premiered simultaneously in the UK and the US in 1882 (the first new show to do this, in an effort to prevent piracy), was also the first production to open at D’Oyly Carte’s purpose-built Savoy Theatre, and the first therefore to be lit entirely by electric lighting.

In every other respect, though, it was a formulaic G&S gig. Iolanthe is a fairy banished from Fairyland for marrying a mortal. She has a son, Strephon – ‘an Arcadian shepherd’ – who is in love with Phyllis, which would be fine except that a) he’s a bit of a fairy himself, and b) Phyllis is a Ward of Chancery, and not only the Lord Chancellor but also every other member of the House of Lords had been rather hoping to marry her himself. Still, everything is going swimmingly until young Strephon is caught embracing his suspiciously attractive mother who, for reasons too theologically complicated to go into here, is eight years younger than him (‘Oh, fie! Our Strephon is a rogue!’). The fairies go to war against the upper house, returning Strephon to Parliament ‘carrying every bill he may wish’ and opening the peerage to – gasp! – ‘competitive examination.’

I was cast as George, Earl of Mountararat (Wikipedia: ‘See also: “Mount Ararat” and “Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act 1907”’), a peer who barely has a line before the second act. (Wikipedia also has the Lord Chancellor down as ‘comic baritone’, where Mountararat is staunchly ‘baritone’. Hear, hear.)

I remember learning my lines in a single late-night bus trip back from London – almost successfully. But that’s about the only thing I do remember. This was a ‘busy’ time for me (‘Faint heart never won fair lady,’ and all that). The flyer in my copy says we did a night in Bletchingdon Church. Well, I suppose it must have happened.

But I do know G&S is not as easy to pull off as one might think. Gilbert’s trademark (and bestselling) socio-political satire – ‘If you ask us distinctly to say / What Party we claim to belong to, / We reply, without doubt or delay, / The Party we’re singing this song to!’ – and panto ribaldry – ‘I heard the minx remark / she’d meet him after dark / inside St James’s Park / and give him one!’ – are often finely balanced. Sullivan’s music, meanwhile, treads a thin line between pastiche (of Wagner, e.g.) and a desperate desire to be taken seriously. (He was going to break it off with Gilbert after Iolanthe, until his finances went down the drain.)

The sorry-not-sorry paeans to duty (as was pointed out in an early West Wing episode, “they’re all about dooty”) and the mock-ponderous ‘Blue blood’ and guardsman’s songs are tricky to get right when you’re a callow 20-something. We laughed too easily at ‘vulgar plebs’ and roared ‘Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!’ more than was entirely genteel. And while the call-and-response ‘One Latin word, one Greek remark, / And one that’s French!’ is audaciously witty and self-deprecating, I always thought ‘as the ancient Romans said, festina lente’ was just plain bad – at least until I heard of Jacob Rees-Mogg. A lot of Iolanthe now seems glumly prescient for our bull-headed times. ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’ is the perfect piss-take Brexit anthem.

I came back hard in my (positively) finals term, as a snarling Lord High Executioner. And then, of course, we went our ways. The law, academia, journalism, post-modernist French clown school. Phyllis is now a high-flying mathematical analyst. Lord Tolloller experiments with ketamine, while working on a novel about rescue donkeys. Private Willis, the embodiment of stolid manly virtue, is now called Sally.

Another alumna spent the Saturday before last assuring teenagers at a schools’ workshop that ENO had not concocted most of the entendres in their new production. True, director Cal McCrystal has missed no opportunity for smut; but nothing could (or need!) be dirtier than these two lines from the original: ‘Why did five-and-twenty Liberal peers come down to shoot over your grass-plot last autumn? … Why did five-and-twenty Conservative peers come down to fish in your pond?’ As undergraduates, we gave these full attention.

G&S is not admitted as the peak of anybody’s musical ambition, and my G. Schirmer scores have lain untouched for 15 years. Flipping through them now, though, I find with pleased relief that I still chuckle at the cheek of the librettos, and my feet tap ingenuously through the finales.

For The Oldie, in a different version

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