The Bad Boys Are Back



There’s a running gag in the Bryant & May books about Bryant and Gilbert & Sullivan that reaches its head in the the new novel out next week, ‘Wild Chamber’.

I’m drawn to partnerships, the push and pull of people who can’t live with or without each other, and whatever one thinks of their music, Gilbert & Sullivan were a fascinating mismatch; one a difficult bad-boy, the other a much-loved classicist. But these days both are deeply, deeply unfashionable.

I know an American bad-boy theatre director, famous for shocking audiences with his outrageous ideas, and quite like his work but don’t particularly find it shocking (it’s London, you get used to school parties in theatre at matinees watching sex on stage). Sometimes, though, my friend is too intent on being daring to the detriment of the piece. In the rush to reinvent old works in outlandish new ways, Gilbert & Sullivan have all but vanished, apart from one hoary old production of ‘The Mikado’. But for me, the joke about Bryant adoring them is that he perfectly understands why he adores them. He sees all investigations as Gilbertian paradoxes, and he likes the music, so to hell with what anyone else thinks.

I think as you age you become more confident in your own choices and less interested in what you’re meant to like. And I still love Gilbert & Sullivan (at least, the Sir Malcolm Sargent recordings). But it was while researching something else entirely that I stumbled across an old volume quoting Igor Stravinsky, of all people, on the subject. Stravinsky, you need no reminding, was every bit the bad boy of his day, so to find him writing this is fascinating. I scanned the appropriate section for you, should anyone be as interested as I was.

Scan 14 Mar 2017, 7.36 pmScan 14 Mar 2017, 7.37 pm

If opera is on the ropes today, written off as an elitist pastime, operetta is doubly hated as it also incurs the displeasure of opera purists. There’s also a tendency in play revivals to pepper everything with busy bits of action to prevent ADD-afflicted audiences from fidgeting, but G&S took care of that. You require the same attention level you’d reserve for a Tom Stoppard play to follow Gilbert’s dazzling (and occasionally awful) wordplay.

After yesterday’s post about overlapping timelines, I should add that Sullivan was a good friend of Dickens (unsurprising) but also Rossini (more surprising as he was very old by then).

For my money, Caryl Brahms wrote the best G&S biography explaining not just their good but their bad points. It helps explain why I’ve done what I’ve done in ‘Wild Chamber’.

16 comments on “The Bad Boys Are Back”

  1. Laura Humphrey says:

    Absolutely love G&S and always have done, I became emthralled after one of my regular non school days (1970’s no one chased working class children to go to school) there was a cartoon of Ruddigore on the morning television and I was smitten. All through my punky teens etc I loved them and played them on a cassette I had, probably selected overtures type thing. I converted my OH when we were young. I loved the satire the word play etc. I have no shame is saying they are my favourite music, and still love Ruddigore

  2. agatha hamilton says:

    Love the idea of Diaghilev and Stravinsky at G & S! What a surprising piece that was! And his preferring G & S to Rosenkavalier! I love G & S too, think ‘Patience’ is my favourite – ‘when I walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or lily in my medieval hand’. (Is it really ‘poppy’? Doesn’t sound quite effect enough). Someone here will know.

  3. SteveB says:

    That’s fascinating completely new to me and much appreciated

  4. agatha hamilton says:

    Spellcheck changed ‘effete’ into ‘effect’.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Have been meaning to seek out G and S. Must get a move on!

  6. SteveB says:

    Vivienne, Topsy Turvy is a great introduction imo

  7. Vivienne says:

    SteveB, have seen Topsy Turvy. My son (working as an extra in university hols) should have been in it, but got cut. He was just an audience member. They were filming at Richmond Theatre and we went to see him – a beautifully sunny day and all the cast were out on the green, Sumptuous costumes.

  8. Crprod says:

    My English grandmother, who was born in 1881 in Kingston, would visit us for a week when I was in elementary school. We would prepare for her visit by checking out a library book of piano arrangements of HMS Pinafore. She would play them on the old piano that had belonged to my other grandmother, and we would sing together.
    The other musical thing I remember was her story of dancing to Sousa’s Washington Post March when it came to England.

  9. Ken Mann says:

    Colin Welland wrote a very good play set in an amateur group putting on Yeoman of the Guard. It was called “Jack Point” and broadcast on the BBC in 1973. I hope it still exists. Gerard Ryder was very good as the young singer not allowed to shine because of an immovable old stager.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    When my son was in elementary school students were putting together performance pieces and he offered to sing Tit Willow from the Mikado. One of the teachers took him aside to explain gently why it was not a good choice for a school audience unfamiliar with G&S. It was the teacher who told me about the incident. Later in his life he did the Major General’s song from Penzance and told me that he now had a greater appreciation for the brave souls who took on G&S. I put learning those songs as a reason for whatever clear diction I have.

  11. SteveB says:

    Ken – It still exists. Nearly all the play for todays were kept.

  12. Jo W says:

    My favourite line from G&S – She can almost pass for forty three in the dark with the light behind her! A line I often use about my age and an excellent way for me to pose for a photograph. 😉

  13. Jo W says:

    Oops another thought, it should read – she could very well pass for..etc

  14. SteveB says:

    I keep coming back to this page because I love both G&S and Firebird. I can listen to Firebird over and over but what I live the most is the opening, you don’t know where it’s going it could be a Black Sabbath album.
    So it’s really fascinating to read this and about Diaghilev too. The comments on the music are so perceptive. I wish I knew more about music history.

  15. Ken Mann says:

    Good to know SteveB, thanks. I understand that the BFI has a copy of “Roads to Freedom”, so maybe I’ll see that again before I die as well.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    As an alto I always have a fellow feeling for Katisha and am now well past the “very well pass for…” age. Aye, me!

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