The Grand & Secret Pleasures Of Being Deeply Unfashionable

Media, Observatory


Never be fashionable – it has no future.

It’s true that I once wrote zeitgeist novels. They were out of date within hours of publication. After I’d got over this absurd idea of reflecting fashion (remembering that books take a year to appear, at least, two if they’re in hardback first) I discovered my unfashionable inner self and channeled it into the Bryant & May novels. Being unfashionable doesn’t mean you can’t love new and exciting things – I love hard house, rap, street art, movies, some new TV shows – but I have no tolerance or interest for the latest crop of celebritwerps.

Once you embrace your Inner Unfashionable, you’re free to enjoy yourself without any peer pressure. It strikes me that this is the real difference between New York and London. New York demands that you think it’s important, and London really doesn’t give a monkey’s. In this spirit, I have embraced the deeply unfashionable, from Norman Wisdom films, virtually all monochrome movies made in Britain after the war, GK Chesterton, JB Priestley, the terrible musicals of the 1960’s, including the ghastly ‘Half A Sixpence'(there’s a great book about the collapse of unfashionable films called ‘Road Show!’), jazz-funk, Gilbert & Sullivan, the Pre-Raphaelites and God knows what else.

Whereas Offenbach was sexy, Gilbert & Sullivan were all about being clever and barbed and topical. The language thrills and is almost mystically impenetrable now, but the Gilbert & Sullivan so beloved by Arthur Bryant have entirely vanished from theatrical life because its topicality makes it too much of a bother to fathom. ‘The Mikado’ was created because of the first imports from Japan via Liberty’s department store caused a fashion in London, inspiring Japonaise housewares in every smart home. So, one G&S production I saw (at the Mermaid Theatre, now sadly defunct) set the play in a Victorian sitting room, and the characters stepped out of Wedgwood plates on a mantlepiece. I saw ‘The Gondoliers’ relocated to involve Caribbean politics and ‘HMS Pinafore’ set in outer space, while ‘Iolanthe’ was restaged to reflect the London Poll Tax Riots.

So where have the original biting satires gone? They were partly slaughtered by the dead hand of the D’Oyly Carte’s dying days, when the stage directions were writ in stone and the plays became laboured parodies of themselves. And now, just when it needs them most, the West End, swamped as it is by 10th-rate versions of old movies, won’t find space for something that requires deciphering through a Victorian mindset. Funnily, as ‘Sherlock’ sweeps across TV screens, we find that this, too, has required a revamp so that we don’t have to be troubled with anything as unfashionable as the past – unless it’s the super-rich soap opera ‘Downton Abbey’.

G&S can’t ever come back now. But leave us not forget the words.

‘I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.’

And hurrah to the fact that 99% of today’s youth will not be able to understand any of that. This is where mere unfashionability shades into the arcane. What history discards becomes arcana, and that’s where such things have slipped too, to await rediscovery by those who have a mind for such things.

Can something be rediscovered after it has died? It would take a very brave team indeed to recreate the pleasures of such plays. In the same way that Offenbach is hardly ever staged anymore (opera snobs being the most censorious people on Earth) G&S have been stamped with a label that damns them to Unfashionable Hell.

And that’s where I most want to be. So here’s a clip of Rex Smith in the wonderfully bizarre reinterpretation of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ in which he channels Elvis (I love the caption ‘Elvis-Style Warble’).

10 comments on “The Grand & Secret Pleasures Of Being Deeply Unfashionable”

  1. Stephen Groves says:

    Hi Chris,

    Daily Mail review by Sally Morris of Film Freak in the paper today!

    all best

  2. John says:

    Isn’t this another way of saying you are an individual? I have never understood group think and clone behavior. It’s seems to be a very superficial way to live one’s life and choose one’s friends. I’m not sure I agree with the sweeping generalization of the difference between New York and London either. You’re talking about a very small subset of the elite of Manhattan, aren’t you? All my friends from the East Coast (not just the mystical NYC) don’t give a damn for what’s “fashionable”.

  3. pheeny says:

    Nothing so unfashionable as something that has only just fallen out of fashion.I live in dread of my type of painting becoming fashionable 🙁

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    G&S have always been a favorite of mine. Ever since my Mother took us kids into NY City to see several 50’s D’Oyly Carte productions. How clever the word play, how sprightly the tunes, how expressly delivered the word play. How rewarding a trip to the dictionary afterwards.
    I owe a great deal to unfashionable reading, listening, and viewing. Bach in particular. Bedrock.
    On bedrock you can build a stable, sustaining framework for a life. On shifting fashion not so much. Fashion is like – go with me here – a plastic shopping bag carried off by the breeze, snagged on a tree branch and quickly faded, shredded and unsightly.
    I had a friend, since passed way, you used to say: “Unto thy own self be true and let the rest of the world go off and scr..”

  5. snowy says:

    Fashion a frightful swizz to make peoople buy new ‘stuff’ before their old ‘stuff’ has worn out.

    And it follows a dreadfully predictable round, some item will be ‘edgy’ worn only by freaks and weirdos. Some vapid media darling will be seen wearing one and it will become the new ‘thing’.

    Designers will put it into their ‘collection’ of other recycled old ideas stolen from vintage editions of ‘Vogue’. Chain stores will ‘take inspiration’ from this and produce ‘value for money’ copies, using Third World sweatshops [even while denying it].

    Everyone and their Granny is wearing it, this is like “totes uncool” and “minging”. The ‘object’ is retired to a cupboard to languish for a spell, before being consigned to a Charity shop where only a freak or weirdo would buy it.

    Satires come and go, but they have a very short shelf life, which translates to “zero chance of getting any repeat fees out of them”. And so ther is a tendancy to milk the idea for as long as possible, [see “The Thick of It”]. And by the time the horse carcass has had the final public flogging everybody has forgotten just how good it once was.

    If Gilbert came back today he would be baffled by what people are doing with his stuff. And set about writing new words immediately. He is scarcely short of material. Bent polititions, a Mayor with all the sentience of a stuffed toy, Bankers selling schemes that make the ‘Tulip Crisis’ look like a sound idea and a media industry so bereft of stories they turn on each other in a cannibalistic orgy.

    [I had a point when I started typing this, but I’ll be jiggered if I can remember what it was!]

    PS. Bags caught in trees are known locally as ‘Witches knickers’, it being presumed the unfortunate owner having had one too many ‘herbal’ infusions flew so low as to lose them to a leafy grip.

    Not very likely I know, most of the local candidates after some ‘recreational chemistry’ are more likely found with them either on their heads or round their ankles.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I can remember someone planning on singing On a tree by a River until a teacher pointed out that the other students, not being familiar with G&S might use the refrain as a term of mockery. A later opinion declared G&S to be old hat, silly & boring until required to learn a piece as an audition number. Suddenly it was incredibly convoluted, tricky to learn and difficult to perform, which at least made it a challenge. We have had some very effective transpositions of the plays. The trick is to make the jokey bits fit the local situation because that was what they were written for.

  7. snowy says:

    The Mikado by
    Oz Opera Co. [see ☝]
    Is rather jolly.

  8. Cynthia says:

    Happily unfashionable and also slightly cranky.

  9. snowy says:

    This makes reference to ‘Sherlock’ but there are no spoilers.

    Those remaking ‘classics’ face a new problem. Previous incarnations have been digitised and are available [to many] at the touch of a button. Any straight adaptation is always going to be compared with the previous version, and possibly unfavorably.

    If having seen the first episode of the ‘Benny and Bilbo’ show, everybody disappeared off to watch the Granada versions on ITVPlayer it would have been a very expensive failure.

    The only slight sticking point for some viewers might be the 4:3 presentation, but in time even that might be fixed, [imagine as sort of ‘pan and scan’ but in reverse].

    [Before any body tells me off for being rude about ‘Sherlock’, I think it is a lot of fun, delivered as a pastiche/fan fic. The escalation of violence as a counterpoint to the quality of the dining ‘experience’ was a particular joy.]

  10. Helen Martin says:

    (Rats, lost the whole thing while watching G&S) Sherlock is not a re-editing or re-filming of the stories but a whole modern writing of them. There’s really only a nod to the original stories. (How would Doyle feel about the new Mrs. Hudson, I wonder.) The minute you put a modern woman into the stories you have a totally different situation because modern women don’t respond like Victorian ones as a general rule.
    Watched “I’ve got a Little List”, Snowy, and that’s exactly what I mean. I loved the i-pad at the end and that scenery is gorgeous, all those beautiful jars. You have to let the pieces serve their original function in a modern context or you have to provide Coles notes.

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