Partners in Rhyme

Henrietta Bredin discovers a grand revival of the work of Gilbert and Sullivan

The Lady, 16 March 2010

James Naughtie: Talking to you, Lord Mandelson, is like talking to Pooh-Bah because you've got so many titles ...
Mandelson (interrupting): Who is Pooh-Bah?

This exchange on BBC Radio 4's Today programme at the end of last year provoked something of a middle-class, middle-England outcry. What was Peter Mandelson playing at? Not heard of Pooh-Bah? How ridiculous! Surely, as Rupert Christiansen said in the Daily Telegraph, while 'spluttering over my Corn Flakes', he's 'as much part of the common currency as Mr Micawber or Sir John Falstaff?' Pooh-Bah is a character from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, the 'Lord High Everything Else' who introduces himself as 'First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buckhounds, Groom of the Back Stairs, Archbishop of Titipu and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect, all rolled into one.' You can see where Naughtie was going with that one.

While Mandelson was probably feigning ignorance in order to wrong-foot his interlocutor, does his answer reflect a waning in popularity of that long-cherished pair, Gilbert and Sullivan? Michael Simkins, actor, singer, writer, cricket-obsessive and paid-up G&S fan (while still at school he formed his own singing group called the Wandering Minstrels) certainly hopes not. We spoke at the beginning of a week when he was preparing to perform in a G&S extravaganza for BBC Radio 2's Friday Night is Music Night. 'One of my numbers is the Little List song from The Mikado,' he says, 'and I'm adding a few topical references, as Gilbert would have expected. But what's so terrific is that the writing is still so fresh and relevant. Brilliant lines like 'the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone / all centuries but this and every country but his own' and references to 'apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind' - those are instantly recognisable types.'

Gilbert's affectionate but needle-sharp lampooning of the political and social stereotypes of his day transfers remarkably well to the current day and is always matched by the delectable melodies of Arthur Sullivan. Their partnership was a triumphant union of opposites. Gilbert was a lawyer turned writer whose surreal instinct for ingenious wordplay was combined with legal precision and exactness. He insisted on his words being respected and would rehearse actors to the point of exasperation. As Michael Simkins points out, 'He was not to be trifled with. When one frustrated performer snapped 'I won't be bullied, Mr Gilbert - I know my lines!' the author retorted 'That may be so, but you don't know mine.' Sullivan on the other hand was possessed of an easy charm that made him a great favourite of socially ambitious Victorian hostesses. In addition to the string of wildly successful operas he created with Gilbert, he wrote the music for Onward Christian Soldiers and The Lost Chord, neatly reflecting the tastes of the age, both moral and sentimental. His greatest skill was in shaping melody around the rhythm and sense of words.

The catalyst that brought, and kept, these two together, was the brilliant and emolliently diplomatic entrepeneur, Richard D'Oyly Carte. The three men set up in business together and were so successful that Carte became convinced that he should establish a theatre exclusively for the performance of works by Gilbert and Sullivan. He built the Savoy Theatre, which opened in 1861, lavishly decorated, acoustically excellent, supremely comfortable and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electric light. The smash hits just kept coming, one after another. Profits from The Mikado alone enabled Carte to extend his business interests by building an hotel next to the theatre. The Savoy Hotel became a by-word for luxury and eventually generated rather more income than the opera company. Carte went on to add to his portfolio Claridge's, Simpson's-in-the-Strand and the Berkeley.

The operas are not only hugely entertaining to watch and listen to but enormous fun to sing. There are Gilbert and Sullivan societies all over the UK, and more in America and Australia. In Abbot's Langley they're busy brushing up their Princess Ida, in Edinburgh they had a sell-out run of HMS Pinafore and Patience last year and are preparing Utopia Limited for March 2010, in Matlock it's the turn of The Gondoliers. While it's easy to think that the average age of performers and audiences might be pushing 50, that does not appear to be universally the case - practically every university in the country has a thriving G&S society. The one at Manchester has a popular Facebook page and from the photographs posted there its members certainly don't seem to let their operatic enthusiasms get in the way of more typical student pursuits.

A couple of years ago, Michael Simkins paid a visit to the annual international Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton, wondering, as he put it, 'whether there was anything left of that great sprawling haphazard network of amateur G&S devotees who were once my second family'. He needn't have worried. This extraordinary gathering lasts for three weeks, attracts thousands of visitors, hosts performing companies from Birmingham and Hull to as far afield as New York, Melbourne and Cape Town, has its own fringe, like any self-respecting festival these days, and includes talks, concerts, demonstrations and masterclasses.

As I write, Opera North in Leeds is halfway through a run of performances of a new production of Ruddigore ('Wonderful stuff,' says Simkins,) and director Jo Davies has been revelling in what she refers to as 'its fabulously theatrical style and its deftness and precision of wit'. The critics have rolled over like puppies they've enjoyed it so much - 'operetta bliss' said The Daily Telegraph; 'a ruddy good job' said The Times. Characters include Rose Maybud, the daft heroine who bases her conduct on the impractical precepts printed in a book of etiquette found with her when she was abandoned as a baby; Dick Dauntless, a sailor with a roving eye; a family with a curse that obliges them to behave villainously whether they want to or not - and there's a scene in which the subjects of an array of family portraits come to life and step out of their frames for a major song and dance number.

Completely irresistible.