I rather fear that if you did not recognise the allusion in the title, the rest of this post may not be for you. As a result, I shall not be explaining it – though I believe a range of internet search engines are available.
The only “going-out” culture I can remember from my childhood, excluding events arranged via school, was an occasional visit to see a Gilbert and Sullivan production in my local town. A seem to recall that such was our keenness, that we once arrived a week early for a performance – but that may be the memory playing tricks on me. As a result of this early indoctrination, I retain a fondness for the operettas of Messrs G & S: though find it wise not to listen too closely to some of the lyrics in our more liberal age. Some of the plots also sit a little uncomfortably with the 21st century audience member: but would probably go down a storm in some of the more scarily fundamentalist portions of the US.
So it was that this past Saturday, I found myself partaking of a double bill of G&S: and observed a few of today’s kids being indoctrinated by the elders as I had been forty years previous. In the afternoon, I saw the Southampton Operatic Society‘s production of The Mikado which was really rather good. The odd stumble here-and-there perhaps, but some excellent and, to me, original business ensured a smile stayed plastered across my face throughout. I think that The Mikado may be the greatest of the partnership’s work and the SOS did it proud: it ran Jonathan Miller’s production at the ENO a very respectable second! I may be biased about The Mikado as it has several splendid roles for the bass soloist: and I did find myself sitting in the audience thinking “I could do that!”.
The world (and I) did not have long to wait for an unequivocal demonstration that my self-belief may exceed my ability. In the evening, I went over to Salisbury to see a performance of HMS Pinafore in which we, the audience, were to play the role of the chorus: i.e. sailors, sisters, cousins (reckoned up by dozens) and aunts. A friend had suggested I might like to accompany her and, on the basis that one should try everything once except incest and country dancing, I agreed. Actually, if I’m honest, that boat sailed long ago: while I was still at primary school. I should perhaps make clear at this stage that it was country dancing I tried (was forced into) and not incest (it may have been the seventies, but things weren’t that bad): my Circassian Circle and Cumberland Reel were a joy to behold.
On arrival, the audience were separated by vocal range so that ladies were on the left and gents the right, with the smattering of self-confessed tenors placed near the front. The first half (prior to the interval) was given over to a rehearsal of our parts and, importantly, the cues. I was surprised to discover that not only were we expected to reproduce some approximation to both the words and tune (the full G and S) but were also expected to perform various actions, e.g. marching, saluting, handle polishing etc. Given that my ability in this field starts and ends with YMCA, and even then I can give the impression of one suffering from dyslexia, this was quite the challenge. I suppose one might describe the performance as semi-staged, if one were very generous.
After the interval (an opportunity for a stiff drink or, in my case, ice cream) we then ran through both acts of HMS Pinafore with six professionals playing the leads. Fortunately, the operetta was somewhat abridged, or I’d probably still be there now. I have to say that the evening was enormous fun. To add to the general air of bonhomie, we were all issued with (plastic) Union Flags to wave at suitable moments in the action. What larks! All that flag-waving did give the slightly uncomfortable impression of a UKIP (or worse) rally – surely we leave that sort of uncouth nationalism to the Americans? I do worry that were some charismatic, nationalist demagogue to arise in these sceptred Isles, she might find it all too easy to use a G&S sing-a-long for ends nefarious.
All that flag waving and lyrical stress on the importance of being an Englishman did remind me that we are supposed to be picking a national song for England. I’m not quite sure why, as we seem to have survived without one for a millennium or so. Despite sterling work by Michael Flanders debunking it as an option, people do seem oddly keen on Jerusalem. I think we can pretty sure that, no, it was not “builded” here. I feel Flanders and Swann’s own output offers an option far more in keeping with government policy in The English Are Best. A strong alternative contender, sure to go down well with Eurosceptics everywhere, would be Mitch Benn’s Song for Europe: though I will admit that this would only be usable after the watershed. Thinking of a Song for Europe, I really don’t think we should let the general public anywhere near the selection of a national song given the dross they’ve chosen to represent us at the Eurovision Song Contest. Equaly, if we turn our gaze to the hit parade (as I believe the young folk call it), the musical standards on offer are nothing to boast about. Does the Queen not have a Master of Her Music who might be expected to ‘knock something out’? I’m sure Judith Weir must have a few spare moments in her busy schedule…