Gilbert and Sullivan's London

Gilbert and Sullivan's London

by Goodman

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Here is a guide book with a difference, for the Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast as well as the general reader. By moving in and around London, backwards and forwards in time, Andrew Goodman unfolds the story of the most astonishing partnership in the history of British musical entertainment against the authentic background of the era in which it


Here is a guide book with a difference, for the Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast as well as the general reader. By moving in and around London, backwards and forwards in time, Andrew Goodman unfolds the story of the most astonishing partnership in the history of British musical entertainment against the authentic background of the era in which it flourished.

With much original research and many hitherto unpublished illustrations, Andrew Goodman makes an invaluable contribution to our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Gilbert and Sullivan in this handsome volume, which is already a classic of its kind. The book summons up a bygone era in a predominantly celebratory tone, recalling the lost grandeur of the city's great entertainment palaces, its atmospheric streetlife and nightlife, its splendour and its squalor.

Acclaimed film-maker Mike Leigh, director of Topsy Turvy the new film about Gilbert and Sullivan set during their collaboration on The Mikado, provides a new Foreword.

EXCERPT: Introduction

London is still a Victorian city. Glass, steel and concrete may now encase its heart, but within a radius of ten miles from Charing Cross there are many houses, schools, churches and other public buildings that reveal their mid-19th century origin. Some would say that they are not the only survivals and that many of London's institutions, notably the Bar, the Church, the Civil Service and central government itself, remain essentially Victorian in outlook.

Such considerations are beyond the scope of this book, the main purpose of which is to provide the general reader and the Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast with a travelling companion, a volume which the Victorians themselves, being much better classicists than we are, would undoubtedly have called a vade mecum, to be dipped into and consulted before setting out on a Savoyard quest. By moving from place to place, and backwards and forwards in time, it is hoped to unfold the story of the greatest partnership in the history of British musical theatre in its proper setting, against an authentic background of the period in which it flourished and came so thoroughly to represent.

It is also part of our purpose to celebrate Gilbert and Sullivan's London; its lost grandeur and forgotten theatres; the great centres of popular entertainment such as Crystal Palace, the Royal Aquarium and Rosherville Gardens; its swirling fog and spluttering gas lamps; its horses and four-wheelers with their irascible cabbies. The London of the high-born, the nobility and the nouveaux riches, the clubmen and the courtiers. The London of contrasts, from the languid elegance of Regent Street to the shoeless squalor of Seven Dials.

The lives of Gilbert and Sullivan span the astonishing transformation of London from a small, albeit commercially important, centre to the largest and most important city in the world, heart of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. 1836, the year before the young Princess Victoria came to the throne, was the year of Gilbert's birth. At that time, the capital consisted of little more than the square mile of the ancient city of London and its attendant satellite., the city of Westminster, the royal palaces between the two, with their mews and yards and barracks, together with a few elegant Georgian squares and some handsome Nash terraces. Across the river lay the historic boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. Beyond, deep in the surrounding countryside, were a number of villages with strange-sounding names, such as Peckham and Tooting.

By 1862, when Stanford published his Library Map of London and its Suburbs, without doubt the most useful and detailed commercial map of Victorian London, the basic shape of the nation's capital had remained unchanged despite the rapid growth of the railway system and the construction of large termini in or near the city centre. There were, of course, major projects afoot. From Thomas Helmore's house at 6 Cheyne Walk, Sullivan in his teens would have watched the building of Chelsea Bridge, along with the Prince Albert's great project to drain the Battersea marshes and turn them into London's first formal landscape gardens. But also across the river he would have seen fields stretching towards Battersea Rise and Lavender Hill. Chelsea itself was still a rural market garden from which fresh supplies of fruit and vegetables were sent to Mayfair and Belgravia. And in those newly fashionable areas gipsy girls sold lavender during the season, freshly gathered from the fields of Mitcham. Kensington and Knightsbridge, Hampstead and Highgate, Homerton and Bow, Clapham and Wandsworth were small villages, each with its own character, detached from the city by open countryside.

Then the housing explosion occurred, and within a few years all was changed. In 1875 Gilbert got a rueful laugh from his audience in Trial by Jury when he described Camberwell as a 'bower', and Peckham as that 'Arcadian vale'. By 1888 London had achieved the population and the status of a separate county. Between the 1841 census and that taken 50 years later in 1891 the population had gone up from just under 2 million to just over 4 million in inner London, and to nearly 6 million in outer London, which included districts such as Acton, Finchley and Walthamstow to the north of the Thames, and Dulwich to the south. It is not at all surprising that the huge demand for new housing created by this increase in population resulted in a land grab by mid-Victorian developers and builders on an unprecedented scale. The miracle is that in those days of unbridled free enterprise the open commons of Streatham, Wandsworth, Tooting Bec, Clapham and the like, remained intact.

At the peak of all this development Gilbert wrote a short story in 1869 entitled Foggerty's Fairy, which he dramatised for the Criterion Theatre in December 1881. Foggerty was a confectioner in the Borough Road whose surname clearly fascinated Gilbert, for we find him mentioned also in the Bab Ballad, Bishop of Rumd-Foo. In Foggerty's Fairy he is a young surgeon, much in need of a practice, who in Act III tries desperately to escape the unwanted attentions of one Miss Malvina de Vere. He leads her on a merry dance throughout London and in doing so gives us a very clear idea of the boundaries of the metropolitan area at that time:

'I have given her the slip at last. When I left the house I bolted up Harley Street. Malvina followed. I got into a cab; she got into another. I said "drive anywhere." He drove everywhere. I told him to drive like the devil. He drove like the devil. So did Malvina. Regent's Park, Primrose Hill, Kentish Town, Holloway, Ball's Pond, Dalston, Hackney, Old Ford, Bow, Whitechapel, London Bridge, Southwark. At Southwark my horse fainted; so did Malvina's. I jumped out - got another cab. So did Malvina. Off again, Old Kent Road, Peckham, Camberwell, Walworth, Kennington, Brixton, Clapham, Battersea, Wandsworth. At Wandsworth my horse fainted. So did Malvina's. jumped out, but no cab to be found. Bolted, on foot, followed by Malvina; ran through Putney, Barnes, Mortlake, Kew, Chiswick, Turnham Green, Shepherd's Bush, Kensal Green, Malvina after me. At Kensal Green I fainted; so did Malvina. Off again, through Westbourne Park. At Westbourne Park I found a cab; so did Malvina. Off again; Maida Hill, Edgware Road, St. John's Wood, New Road, Harley Street. As I passed the door, jumped out unobserved, and left my empty cab tearing on ten miles an hour, and Malvina after it.'

With the development of London on so massive a scale it was inevitable that social change would quickly follow. Not revolutionary upheaval as Marx had predicted, but a series of much smaller changes in the pattern of the lives of ordinary people which, taken together, were no less significant. The place and the nature of their employment, for example. The standard of housing and of basic amenities such as running water and mains drainage. The spread of elementary education and the development of social and welfare services. The rapid growth of cheap public transport and the greater mobility which resulted. The fundamental change in the distribution and sale of goods and services. And changes, too, in the patterns of worship and in the use of leisure time.

Within that final entry in the long catalogue of change comes popular entertainment, with which so much of this book is concerned and in which music played so prominent a part. In the shops there was a very wide choice of musical instruments to be had, some manufactured in the north of England, others imported from abroad. But it was the upright piano which dominated the domestic scene: no Victorian household was complete without one. Behind the net lace curtains and the carefully-tended aspidistras a piano occupied pride of place in the parlours of all but the most impoverished families. They gathered round to hear the daughter of the house pick her way through arrangements of the popular classics, or to hear Uncle Bertie, recently-returned from India, sing O Fair Dove, O Fond Dove, before moving on to the latest narrative ballad, or a rousing, patriotic song more appropriate to his military calling. It is easy to poke fun at the Victorians at their leisure -- much too easy, in fact. What will our grandchildren have to say of us, each shut away in a private world, lost before a flickering, inanimate screen in the corner of the room?

Music in the home formed part of the very fabric of Victorian life, and one of the consequences was an enormous sale of sheet music of all kinds, the publication of which became very big business and provided a major source of income to successful composers such as Arthur Sullivan.

Profound changes were also taking place in public entertainment in theatres and in concert halls, once the preserve of the idle rich and their hangers-on. Now the rising middle classes had money to spend, and they demanded entertainment which conformed to their ideas of what was, and what was not, proper for their families to see and to hear. Even the lower orders of society could afford the occasional 'night out' if they so chose, and shrewd managers offered a wide range of seats at prices most people could afford. During the latter part of the 19th century social legislation was introduced to ensure some leisure time for the new working classes. By today's standards the provisions were meagre in the extreme, but the creation of bank holidays and some guarantee of free time at weekends made their impact on the entertainment industry, as did the expansion of public transport and the growth in the number of restaurants and eating houses of all kinds. And so, theatre outings became for many people living in London and other major cities part of the regular pattern of family life.

Theatres and concert halls were becoming safer, pleasanter places. Electric lights were replacing the old gas lamps and flares; queues for the pit and the gallery were being encouraged so that it was no longer necessary to scramble and fight for the cheaper tickets; new and more comfortable seating was being installed, and strict rules were being enforced to keep gangways clear and to reduce the fire hazard in all places of public entertainment.

Spectacular as it was, the success of Richard D'Oyly Carte and his Savoy operas did not burst upon the London scene entirely without precedent. To a limited extent the ground had already been prepared to take the seed. By the early 1850s Thomas German Reed and his wife, at their Gallery of Illustration, had successfully steered a middle course between insipid, churchified drawing-room entertainments on the one hand and coarse, vulgar burlesques on the other hand, later to be perpetuated by the music halls. The new audiences flocked to see the German Reed productions, and it was their style of entertainment the Savoy triumvirate followed and developed beyond recognition. They created a new theatrical genre which became enormously popular, yet which still held its appeal for people of fashion; a form which was entirely musical, but not at the expense of the witty, topical libretti; plots which were most amusing, without being in any way indelicate, and all produced to a new, dazzling standard, the like of which had not been seen before on the British stage or, indeed, anywhere else in the world.

By the turn of the century, as Queen Victoria's reign neared its end, London had become the centre of an empire which ruled one quarter of the world's land mass and one-third of its population. By a judicious blend of enterprise and ingenuity, high courage and low cunning, determination and good fortune, dedication and opportunism, administrative skills and political bluff, one small nation on the edge of Europe contrived to dominate the conduct of the world's affairs and its trade. The value of the legacy left behind including, as it does, the English language, is beyond calculation.

But what of the legacy left by Gilbert and Sullivan themselves? Many of the theatres Gilbert knew have been swept away. The Opera Comique and its rickety twin, the Globe: the Gaiety, the Olympic and the Royal Strand -- all fell victim to the development of Aldwych and Kingsway from 1900 to 1905.

Memorials to the great men are to be found by Hungerford Bridge, in the Embankment Gardens, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Savoy Chapel and in a number of houses and churches at various places in the suburbs. Their portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery, the Garrick Club and elsewhere. There is a bust of Sir Arthur Sullivan in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy of Music. But surely none of these will prove as enduring as their own unique compositions?

In the early days before the Savoy Theatre was built, D'Oyly Carte mounted the original productions wherever he could find a theatre in central London and from the 1880s onwards he sent out touring companies to take the repertoire to the widest possible audience. Their tours make fascinating reading today: Kennington, Wood Green, Camden Town, Bishopsgate and Richmond. The Brixton Theatre, the Coronet at Notting Hill Gate, the Chiswick Empire, the Croydon Empire, the Croydon Grand, the Lewisham Hippodrome, the Royal Artillery Theatre at Woolwich, the Borough Theatre at Stratford, the Streatham Hill Theatre and the Wimbledon Theatre. Rupert D'Oyly Carte died in September 1948, but, commencing a year later, after the main circuit had closed down, Bridget D'Oyly Carte kept her grandfather's tradition alive right up to the 1960s by taking the touring company to such well-known venues as the People's Palace in Mile End Road, the King's Theatre at Hammersmith and the Golders Green Hippodrome.

During the past 100 years the principal company has mounted many revivals of the Savoy operas at many different venues in central London. From the Savoy Theatre the company moved to the Prince's Theatre (now the Shaftesbury) in 1924, and thereafter was based at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, apart from occasional seasons at the Scala Theatre. For many years the expiry of copyright in the published operas in January 1962 hung as a threat over the D'Oyly Carte Company. It was forecast that a large number of new and 'unauthentic' productions would invade the London stage. But in the event, this threat proved to be greatly exaggerated and it was not until the closure of the company some twenty years later that new productions, as well as the original, classical versions, appeared side by side. A rejuvenated Pirates of Penzance from America, and a Mikado from Canada have been staged with great success at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and at the Old Vic respectively. Parodies of Io1anthe and of The Mikado were presented during the campaign against the abolition of the Greater London Council. The English National Opera have taken both Patience and The Mikado into their repertoire at the Coliseum. And many other pieces written by Gilbert and Sullivan independently, outside their partnership, have been revived by professional and amateur companies in recent years. Despite a long struggle and considerable financial sponsorship, the original D'Oyly Carte Company eventually collapsed under the commercial burdens involved in producing Gilbert and Sullivan operas in repertory on the professional stage. Its successor company has experienced similar difficulties. However, there are many amateur groups all over the country -- indeed, all over the English-speaking world -- very well placed to sustain and enhance an honourable tradition which began on 30 April 1879. For it was on that date, in a drill hall at Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, that the Harmonists Choral Society presented the very first amateur production of a Savoy opera -- H.M.S. Pinafore.

Wherever the English language is spoken, wherever English music is played and wherever the English sense of humour is understood and enjoyed, Gilbert and Sullivan operas will continue to be performed. That is their true legacy to us, and the delight and applause of audiences over the years is our true tribute to them. It is one which both these men of genius would have been more than happy to accept.

Copyright � 2000 Andrew Goodman

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Faber and Faber
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7.46(w) x 9.66(h) x 0.50(d)

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