The Grand & Secret Pleasures Of Being Deeply Unfashionable
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 They were out of date within hours of publication.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’).