Why Mr Bryant Loves Gilbert & Sullivan
Is there anything more unfashionable than admitting to liking Gilbert & Sullivan? In this day and age, who would still listen to the work of two fusty gentlemen who lived over a century ago, who are routinely dismissed by classical music lovers as being of no interest or importance? And what’s their attraction for my hero Mr Bryant?
First you have to strip away the history that came after them; too many creaky old productions of their work tarnished their reputation around the world as they came out of copyright. So, a quick bit of history, just from y recall this morning; the prolific Jacques Offenbach became the superstar of opera bouffe, or what we came to call operetta, that is to say, opera with dialogue bits between the singing. His ideas were saucy, daring and hugely successful – in France. So Sullivan and Gilbert (who was a bit further up the class scale to Sullivan) began writing English equivalents that ignored the sexiness and relied on wordplay and satire. Their first, ‘Thespis’ was lost, and their last, ‘The Grand Duke’, was a flop (unjustly so), but in between was a run of eight incredible hits.
The tense Gilbert was often confrontational and thin-skinned though prone to acts of extraordinary kindness, while the louche, affable Sullivan avoided conflict. Gilbert loved topsy-turvy situations in which the social order was turned upside down. This was at odds with Sullivan’s desire for realism and emotional content. They fell out over a bill for a carpet at the Savoy. They influenced the English language to the present day. Sullivan wrote ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and felt his work with Gilbert was beneath him, but it’s what the world remembers. His one grand opera, ‘Ivanhoe’, is dead boring, and bombed. As I said, that’s off the top of my head; there are millions of books on the subject, a few of them excellent.
So, why put Gilbert & Sullivan in crime novels? Well, first they mirror Bryant & May’s behaviour. Second, as passion was left to the very Parisian Offenbach, Gilbert concentrated words which are complex and great fun. You need ‘The Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan’ to follow all the references, but it’s worth it. Arthur likes the abstract and unfashionable. QED.
Next, Sullivan completed the picture by offering up some sublime music to fit around those difficult words; especially the parody-madrigals and quartets. And when they’re well performed (a rarity now) they’re not only very funny, they have a sting in them if you get what they’re about, which is why Sullivan was knighted and Gilbert was not.
But there’s another reason why I chose to have Arthur Bryant love them; the operas are filled with paradoxes, which is why the word crops up so frequently in the Bryant & May books. And they can be messed about with to produce even whackier results. The Gilbert & Sullivan Society meets in Harrogate every year, and productions occur which bring out the beautiful absurdity of the works.
Suggested viewing; The film version of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ which pits Kevin Kline against Linda Ronstadt. Here the paradox is that a boy indentured to be a pirate until his 21st birthday was born on Leap Year Day so the pirates plan to keep him four times longer. In ‘The Mikado’ the paradox concerns the hero being charged with beheading himself. The Eric Idle ENO version on DVD is fun. The hard-to-find movie ‘The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan’ is a real charmer. Avoid the Brent Walker-financed shot-on-video productions you find on Amazon. By staying true to their source they become dull; a paradox G&S would have loved.