My name is Brian Ewart and I now live in Yoevil. But in a former life I was heavily involved with my parents in the production of amateur operatics and dramatics. As such I became quite enamoured with the works of and to appreciate Gilbert & Sullivan, to such an extent that I now look upon myself as a bit of an expert.
I first got involved with Gilbert & Sullivan because my mother and father were both involved in an operatic society. My father was the director of the dramatic side and he always used to play the ‘heavies’, until he moved over to the operatic section, where he played all the heavy roles in Gilbert & Sullivan.
Now when I was a small boy of five or six I would stand by the sink whilst my father was humming the tune, and I would hum along with him. And if he was cleaning his teeth he would stop humming to gargle, and I would carry the tune on in my head, until he spat and we would both start humming again at exactly the same place! So I got to learn all the music and songs and really came to appreciate Gilbert and Sullivan.
My mother always played the lead contralto parts and she had a voice that could be heard in a force 8 gale! She used to call me from the bedroom upstairs whilst I was playing in the park two streets way. This voice would say ‘Bri-an’ and everyone around would say ‘Your mother’s calling – it must be tea time!’
So I grew up surrounded by Gilbert & Sullivan, and amateur dramatics and operatics. As I got older I played parts in the Gilbert & Sullivan shows, and roles in the drama productions and American musicals.
Eventually, I stood in and helped with some of the staging. On one occasion, working with the Windsor and Eton operatic society, I trained up the Dragoon Guards for the show, using my military skills and knowledge. I decided it would be a good idea to march them through Windsor as a publicity stunt for the show in order to sell more tickets.
I had trained them so well that none of the public noticed them - they just assumed they were regular soldiers parading through the town as on any other day! The only people who noticed them were Japanese tourists who took loads of photos. Although the sentry on duty at the castle actually saluted the Colonel of my guard. As time went on I took on direction at the Theatre Royal in Bath and the Theatre Royal Windsor.
I built a model stage.
Later when I moved to Aylesbury I formed, with the local U3A, those who appreciate Gilbert & Sullivan into a group. In order to achieve our aims, which were the promotion of Gilbert & Sullivan, I had a model stage built of about 2 feet by 2 feet 6 inches, by 1 foot 6 inches, and it was lit by electric light with dimmers. I then made from thick card, and painted with acrylic paints, all the sets of all the G&S operettas.
Now for the purpose of the exercise we can say that there are 12 operettas, including Trial By Jury, but excluding Grand Duke [very rarely played] and Cox and Box [Sullivan and Bernard].
What you do is this...
Now what happens is this. The members of your group arrive at your house, knowing beforehand which operetta they are going to explore in detail.
Each person comes armed with a libretto of the operetta, which they have either bought or borrowed from the library. You will have already allocated the parts you would like them to read. Then at the beginning of the meeting you briefly talk about the operetta, shall we say, The Mikado.
This operetta was brought about, so it is said, when Gilbert noticed a samurai sword fall of the wall of his study which stimulated his thoughts about the exhibition of Japanese art and culture which was going on in Knightsbridge at the time. And he needed a story that would get away from the magic potions that Sullivan had been complaining about. He wrote an operetta which basically is all about life in England, but which is set in Japan.
The Mikado has nothing to do with Japan.
The Mikado is nothing to do with Japan at all, except that the characters all have Japanese names and it is set in the town of Titipu. The operetta opens in the Courtyard of Ko-Ko's Official Residence with Act II in Ko-Ko’s garden, but it could be anywhere. It was set in Japan because at that time anything Japanese was top of the shop in London.
So having told the assembled company about The Mikado, you then play the overture. Most of the operettas last the same time – Act I lasts for about 1 hour 15 minutes and Act II lasts for 1 hour 30 minutes, with a short interval in the middle.
Most operettas have only two Acts, except for Princess Ida which has three. So the meetings last about three hours – we normally start promptly at 2pm, have a short interval for tea and biscuits after Act I, and finish at about 5pm, or slightly before.
So having got the overture out of the way you set the scene. I have all the ‘Players’ cigarette postcards of the costumes of the players, so people can see what they would be wearing if they were on stage in the production.
The curtain goes up on the model stage and the men are discovered in their collective minds eye on stage – ‘If you want to know who we are we’re the gentlemen of Japan...’ and the music is taken straight from the appropriate CD.
When you get to the end of the opening number the dialogue starts and this is where the company come in. They now read their parts from the libretto, in character. When you get to another song you play the appropriate track from the CD. This is made easy because all the music on a CD is recorded in the order in which it appears on the stage so it doesn't jump about. And so you go through the dialogue, the music and the singing.
When you reach the interval you break for tea and discuss the first Act. You change the scene on the model stage, from the courtyard of Ko-Ko’s house to his garden. Then off you go for the second Act, using the same formula as before. You go through the process until you reach the finale – no need for curtain calls!
And when it’s all over people genuinely feel they have done the show thoroughly and explored it in some detail. People do say that, although they may have seen The Mikado four five times in their lifetime, they have never really understood the story. Having read it, and followed the plot from the libretto, they feel they know it intimately.
And so you go on throughout the year, and it enables the group to explore all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, interspersed with say the film of the Gilbert and Sullivan story, or Topsy-Turvy, the story of the 15-month period in 1884 and 1885 leading up to the première of The Mikado.
So after twelve months you have pretty well covered all the works. You can then repeat the process for the following year using the music and songs from another production company, For example, the Australian production of HMS Pinafore or Trial by Jury in modern dress, which gives you a different slant on it.
And by the end of the second years they will have forgotten what they did in the first year, so you can start the whole process over again!
Since my wife died I moved to Yoevil and I have started a new group who appreciate Gilbert & Sullivan.
The appeal of Gilbert & Sullivan is simply that it reflects the English way of life – which hasn't changed all that much since the operettas were originally written. The politicians are still as incompetent as they originally were and the stuffed shirts are still as stuffed!
The level of support I get varies from time to time. You can’t expect everyone to be as enthusiastic as I am. Many come along because they enjoyed it at school and it wears off on some people very quickly. But in my current group of 15 I have say 8 who are very enthusiastic.
I hope this has interested you and perhaps inspired some people to consider starting an appreciation group of their own.
Please contact me if you think I can help in any way. My address is Prompt Corner, 9 Thornton Road, Yoevil, BA21 3LD and my telephone number is 01 935 429 021.
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