Why it’s curtains for Gilbert and Sullivan

Image of Robert Shrimsley

I could have spent Saturday at the football with the boy, eating bad food, freezing on the terraces and discovering new and obscene things one could do to a referee. Instead I was at the English National Opera with the girl, watching Gilbert and Sullivan. This was a more civilised affair; the beverages are better, the seats more comfortable and no one sings, “Who’s the moron in the robes?” at The Mikado.

The visit was part of a long-established routine which came about after it occurred to me that while I frequently took the boy to football, I had no equivalent arrangement for the girl. In the first place, she does not like football, and in the second, has not yet acquired the full lexicon of obscenities that are de rigueur for a serious fan. She does, however, like ballet, so I began putting aside my own reservations about this particular art form and taking her to The Royal Ballet – an outing I enjoyed for everything except the dancing.

This winter, however, the offering looked a bit more challenging. The girl was probably up for The Firebird, but you can’t expect a grown man to sit still through it. So when I noticed that the ENO was putting on The Mikado this seemed an ideal opportunity to begin the spawn’s education in Gilbert and Sullivan. They are often dismissed as the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber of their day but, heaven knows, the girl loved Joseph. Sullivan may have been one of Britain’s finest composers and Gilbert unquestionably our greatest lyricist, but they were simply far too middle-brow to ever secure the affection of the nation’s cultural elite, who see in the frivolous plots and comic songs none of the high art you get from a girl dying of tuberculosis.

My father passed on his enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan, and now it was my turn to pass on the secrets of the twisted lyrics, tortured plot lines and hummable tunes to the spawn. The boy, alas, took one listen to “Three Little Maids”, concluded it was never likely to be performed by the Swedish House Mafia and opted out. But the girl embraced it, absorbed the plot and songs. The neighbours will not soon forget the day she learnt the lyrics of “Here’s a How-De-Do”.

Thus we ended up at the Coliseum and yet, while she seemed to enjoy the show, I found myself noticing how very old-fashioned it was – all the more so for being updated by Jonathan Miller and performed in more modern costume. The executioner’s song (“I’ve Got a Little List”) was thoroughly sprinkled with swipes at Alex Salmond, David Cameron and Pippa Middleton, but the modernity somehow emphasised its antiquity. It was joyful and well-performed, but for the first time the one-dimensional plots, which were really only ever a binding for the songs, seemed to overshadow the music. I’d always thought of G&S as timeless, but actually it is desperately dated – part of that lost “little England” that also includes Brief Encounter, Flanders and Swann and the Ronco Buttoneer. Civility, understatement and gentle mockery of authority now seem hopelessly old-fashioned in a way they didn’t only a few decades ago.

How many of my generation will pass on their work to their children and even if they do, how many of those children will be grateful for the bequest? How many will still see the wit in the First Lord’s song from HMS Pinafore or laugh at The Pirates of Penzance bellowing out “with cat-like tread” as they stamp across the stage? How many will even detect the delicious digs at the careerism, social climbing and rigidities of the class system? It has moved from popular culture without ever securing a foothold in high art.

It’s a shame because Gilbert was quite the satirist, the Armando Iannucci of his day. But while the skill is still there to admire, like Charlie Chaplin films, it just doesn’t seem that funny any more. Today, Gilbert would be writing about bankers or journalists, or maybe the coalition government – perhaps in a story in which Clegg and Cameron are swapped at birth, go on to lead each other’s parties but no one ever spots the mistake, such is the similarity between all the main parties. Hang on, wasn’t that Iolanthe?


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