In all the heavier-duty excitement of Liszt’s anniversary I had failed to register that W.S.Gilbert expired a hundred years ago; and, perhaps just as significant, the copyright of the D’Oyly Carte opera company expired fifty years ago. I am old enough to remember the fuss which that moment provoked – the high-brows hoping to kill off the whole dreadful phenomenon there and then; the not so high, including Harold Wilson and Spike Milligan, trying to extend it. The company muddled through to 1982, but finally the Arts Council had had enough, and a lot of well-educated people heaved a sigh of relief that the Savoy Operas had finally passed into history.
They were premature in their heaving. For a few years the tradition indeed seemed to be down and out. Concerned parties continued to find, more noisily now, politically unacceptable references in Gilbert’s librettos to jingoistic behaviour, racial stereotyping and the degrading of women and gays. Of course if everything Gilbert wrote were taken seriously there would be no end to how incorrect he was, but by the mid-80s post-colonial angst was waning and the Savoy canon was offered some respite by people who argued that the bad things in Gilbert were of such a puerile kind that no-one could take them seriously. In John Pemble’s wonderful phrase ‘Gilbert, like his characters, was found to inhabit a pre-genital universe somewhere between fairyland and nightmare.’
Since then the English-speaking world has gone mad for G and S. Whether it has been serious artists letting their hair down or amateur dramatic societies having a good time, there has been no shortage of productions of almost all of their collaborations. From Jonathan Miller and Ken Russell in the theatre, to Mike Leigh’s Topsy-turvy on the big screen, the interest has held up beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Gilbert and Sullivan
Societies are flourishing all over the world, headlined by the annual International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in the Buxton Opera House.
It is now clear that the duo’s particular genius for clever rhyming and memorable tunes has influenced many subsequent performers, not least Tom Lehrer who adapted the Modern Major-General’s patter song to encompass the entire periodic table (it ends with the characteristically outrageous rhyme ‘discovered’ and ‘Harvard’, which Gilbert would have greatly enjoyed). Like Lehrer and Danny Kaye in the US, Flanders and Swann also quickly grasped that if the marriage of words and music could be got right, they would produce songs which everyone would want to quote – remembering the tunes or the texts but rarely both – a genuinely popular, cross-discipline and cross-class art-form. Why Sullivan wanted to knuckle down to Gilbert’s fantastical librettos, which regularly infuriated him, when he was still the great hope for British composition, is not clear. Perhaps it was the money. However he took to heart Queen Victoria’s invitation to write a grand opera, which he did while also writing The Gondoliers. After initial success, Ivanhoe quickly disappeared from sight.
How many times have you launched into one of the great G and S choruses, hoping to carry the company with you? You could as well have tried out Lehrer’s Vatican Rag, or Flanders and Swann on the amorous habits of the hippopotamus: they all share the same irresistible qualities. Not long ago the annual G and S production was a staple of many schools, providing children with the only experience of disciplined singing some of them would ever have. Much is made of the choirschools and the opportunities they present now, but for the non-religious there is precious little differenc between singing in HMS Pinafore and singing in Stanford in C. The musical language, and the Victorian-ness of it all, is almost identical. Sullivan was clearly the equal of anybody at that time: it was just that he chose to set ‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one’ instead of ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’.
It is often said about G and S that one can only take them seriously when they are not being serious themselves. The moment they start preaching in direct terms they become unbearable, yet the kind of parody they purveyed of some of our most venerable institutions was and still is astonishingly acceptable. Is it a peculiarly British trait to mock in such an innocuous, fun-filled way that others might miss that we are mocking at all? Well, there a G and S Society in Basel, as well as Gettysburg, PA, and one need only look at the history of Aesop’s Fables to realise that everyone likes to lampoon the rich and the powerful, even the rich and the powerful themselves. The trick is not to be caught. But in the end the success of G and S comes down to nothing more than the sheer quality of the words and the music.
This article was published in The Spectator, dated 15th October 2011.