|> Recollections of the D'Oyly Carte
I, like many Savoynetters, never saw the (old) D'Oyly Carte perform. Would any of those who did be good enough to share any specific recollections of productions (or to do with productions) they have seen in the theatre.
My Grandad often tells the story of Kenneth Sandford playing Despard in the seventies and getting a huge laugh by simply allowing the walking stick he was leaning on slip very slightly during Margaret's "mad" moments in the second act.
It need not be to do with business like this — anything at all would, I'm sure make interesting reading for those of us who never saw them in action!
Replies came in from other subscribers, as follows:
Ian Bond :
It really is so hard to explain to anyone who wasn't there just exactly what it was like. A huge part of the whole experience was the atmosphere — it didn't matter where you were — one of the London Theatres, Bristol, Torquay, Leeds, wherever — there was this immense atmosphere of a huge family. You may not have known anyone else at all, but we all talked to each other and exchanged notes and so on and so forth.
David mentioning Ruddigore reminds me that (I think) every time I saw a performance of that opera (and I saw a good few as it was always my favourite), dear Ken would get tumultuous applause for his speech in Act One ending "No one shall ever look upon their faces again".
But specific recollections are so hard. The productions (no matter what critics in the past may have said) were so polished, so tight — and yet at the same time so fresh — no matter how many performances of a particular production one witnessed, it was as if you were coming to it for the first time. Ruddigore was as fresh to me when I last saw it in 1982 as when I first saw it in 1967. None of those productions ever palled! There was never any question of allowing your "attention to wander", because for those few hours, no matter what was going on in the outside world, that was forgotten whilst you and a 1000 or so other people entered a totally fascinating world where only those 1000+ people mattered.
One abiding memory is of interaction between the cast and their audience — you lived the action with them — most especially in the case of John Reed who seemed to be speaking personally to you. No matter how far from the stage you were sitting, those expressive eyes could hold your gaze, almost Svengali-like, but in a really friendly, comfortable way. His Lord Chancellor was almost that favourite uncle that you just adored.
The actual moments that really stick out though, certainly for me, were those unexpected moments on London Season last nights. The arrival of the Mikado one year on horse-back, when the horse decided to deposit a pile of manure centre stage, requiring Jon Ellison (dressed as the police sergeant) to rush on stage with a fire bucket and a shovel. The night when Act Two of Ruddigore opened with the ancestors already alive in their frames, proceeding to comment on the action right up until their entrance. That was also the year that "The battle's roar is over" and the original Act Two Finale returned to performance. The cheers that greeted that finale must have been audible in the street outside. And the year when they played Act One of Pinafore and at the point of "A British tar", we heard the Bo'sun declare, "Let us sing the song that Sir Arthur" etc.; Ralph and the men then launched into a magnificent choral version of "The Lost Chord". And the year when "'Tho men of rank" popped up in Patience.
As to personalities, John Reed and Kenneth Sandford of course — whenever they were on stage together it was pure magic. But often forgotten today was dear, dear Peggy Ann Jones. Her Mad Margaret was stunning, the duet and subsequent dialogue with Ken Sandford in Act Two never failed to bring the house down. She could steal the scene with her 'mirror' pantomime in "Braid the raven hair", her Phoebe was enchanting with just the right balance of humour vs pathos, and she could certainly bring tears to the eyes as Iolanthe in "He loves".
I am so thankful that I was born early enough to have had the privilege of witnessing the old DCOC and I so wish that the many on Savoynet who never had that opportunity, could have seen them. I can't go back as far as Peter Parker, he too will have witnessed and known some remarkable performers in this unique company, and I guess to him and to me and to many others, the DCOC 'Golden' age is a very personal matter and falls at a very different time for each and every, but to me the age of John Reed, Kenneth Sandford, Donald Adams, Thomas Round, Philip Potter, Valerie Masterson, Gillian Knight, Peggy Ann Jones and others of the 60's through I suppose to the centenary season of 1975 — well, that was my golden age — and on wet days, dismal days, dark days when nothing seems to be going right, I just have to cast my mind back to those wonderful times — and things just don't look so bleak anymore.
A few random recollections of the D'Oyly Carte of my youth in the 1960s and 70s:
The way John Reed as Ko-Ko and his Pitti-Sing would peer in surprise into the orchestra pit when the bassoon gave out a loud long and low note (C sharp, I think) during Pooh-Bah's verse of 'The criminal cried'
The dance of the Lord Chancellor and Mountararat and Tolloller in the Act 2 trio of Iolanthe — clearly from Victorian drawings — a faithful continuation of the original Gilbert/D'Auban choreography.
Isidore Godfrey's hypnotic stare at the audience to command total silence before turning and launching into the overture.
The deafening offstage crashing and banging before Kenneth Sandford's deadpan 'But soft, someone comes' in Ruddigore.
Three Ko-Kos onstage at once during an encore of 'Here's a how de do' during one of the Last Night of the Season frolics at Sadler's Wells.
The authenticity of the costumes. One didn't realise it at the time, but since the days of the D'Oyly Carte company one sees now how magnificent their costumes were for the peers in Iolanthe, the dragoons in Patience, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Joseph Porter — every detail spot on, unlike the embarrassing attempts of many latter-day designers.
Charles Ricketts's matchless costumes for The Mikado.
I first saw the D'Oyly Carte at the age of four at the Savoy during the Festival of Britain Season. I saw Patience, Pinafore and Pirates. Even at that age I knew the operas as I had been brought up with them. We had several of the L.P.s at home plus many 78s. The only thing I can remember about the 1951 season was that as the overture to Patience was being played I suddenly recognised "So Go To Him and Say To Him" and I said in a very loud whisper, "Patience", which reverberated around the whole theatre and caused a ripple of laughter everywhere. If you were there that performance you might remember it. In 1955 we saw the Pirates at Sadler's Wells and had to stand as there were no seats.
From then I went as often as I could, the high point being the 1973/74 London season at Sadler's Wells when I saw every opera (they performed) at least once. During this season I often went straight from work and had dinner in a café just round the corner. I was amazed one evening when I walked in and saw several members of the company in there eating as well. I went over and sat down with them. I don't know what they must have thought of this perfect stranger just going and sitting with them, but they took it all in their stride and were so friendly as we chatted about G&S and the company. I continued going until they folded not just in London but at various other venues around the country. It is hard to explain to anyone who never saw them the absolute thrill of seeing G&S performed by the consummate professionals who managed to wring out every subtlety, every nuance, every high spot, all the comedy. all the pathos with such fine acting and such wonderful singing.
Over the years I had my favourites. Jon Ellison was certainly one. He put every ounce of enthusiasm into his roles, although only a minor part player. His "creep" as Old Adam Goodheart was something else. As far as the principals go, it's impossible to say who was the best. They all had their own way of performing, bringing something different to the role each time. Names like John Reed, Kenneth Sandford, Thomas Round, Donald Adams, Alan Styler, Peggy Ann Jones, Anne Drummond Grant, Mary Sansom all bring back such wonderful memories. But I think my two all-time favourites were Valerie Masterson and Ralph Mason. Valerie Masterson had such a wonderful voice and to see her in Princess Ida as Ida and to hear her singing "Minerva" and "I Built Upon a Rock" was just an awe-inspiring experience. Although also blessed with a wonderful voice, it was really Ralph Mason's on stage charisma that made him stand out. Whenever he was on stage his presence was magnetic. To see them both in the same production of Princess Ida was something I shall never forget and feel so privileged to have seen.
My fondest memory is of the first time I saw the D'Oyly Carte perform. I was in teacher's college in Toronto and took my girl friend (now my wife) to see Iolanthe. We went on spec and at the Royal Alexandra box office they had two returned tickets in the fourth row. I remember it was a total of $12, which seemed incredibly expensive to me. We were rather casually dressed, everyone around us was dressed to the nines.
The first laugh was when the fairies came gaily tripping — thumping in like a gaggle of overweight teenagers — but of course the singing was perfect. The advancing and retreating by the peers and the fairies during the incredible first act finale was a treat — and of course they encored some of the finale — the only encore I believe of the evening. John Reed was the Lord Chancellor and was perfection.
Donald Adams was Mountararat and had an upper class lisp that was delightful. The dialogue between Adams and Palmer (Tolloller) was incredibly well done. I can see why people complain about the recording dialogue as opposed to that of a performance — the timing for laughs is not there. I distinctly remember the line, "Well, well — perhaps you are!" Delightful.
It was only many years later that I realized just who it was I had seen — Masterson, Reed, Adams, Sandford, Skitch, Knight, Humphreys. The effect must have rubbed off — my wife has directed our church G&S of 16 or 17 years now.
My first visit to a DOC performance was in the mid-1960s, and I saw them regularly after that. Their visits to my neck of the woods — Birmingham and Wolverhampton — were a highlight of the year, and we always booked the tickets as soon as we knew they were coming to make sure of getting seats. Audiences most certainly weren't dwindling — far from it. And the performers (with a punishing schedule, which I was quite unaware of at the time) were full of enthusiasm and energy, and made every performance seem fresh and sparkling.
I saw all of the performers listed by Ian [Bond] (some of them not only with the DOC but with the equally enjoyable G & S For All), and I would add to the list Ralph Mason — an extremely effective and attractive performer on stage who seems to be sadly overlooked these days.
Ian Bond (again):
One of my favourite London Theatres for DCOC seasons was Sadler's Wells. I was living in Sevenoaks, Kent between 1967 and 1973 and the rail link came into Charing Cross. It was then a matter of catching the underground to Angel (Islington). This was a particularly dismal, cavernous station with the platform placed between the two tracks. Very dimly lit, a little like the Mines of Moria in 'Lord of the Rings'. There was a single flight of steps at one end of the platform that led to some rather rickety lifts. I, and a good many others however, would head for the spiral staircase and sprint up the steps to the surface, drawn inexorably to the theatre — we just couldn't wait to get there — it was like going home!!
On one particular night — 24th January 1970 — I found in the little shop within the theatre, a vocal score of The Zoo, newly published by Terence Rees. It was hand-written in those days — but I still have it.
That evening I, and a friend from Sevenoaks (Ivan Leigh who went on to become quite a name in amateur and semi-professional circles in the south-east as an operatic bass-baritone) saw Gondoliers with Reed, Potter, Sandford, Mason, Lawlor, Williamson, Mackenzie, Jackson, Palmer, Goss, Guthrie, Wales, Gregory, Hadfield, Parker and Lloyd-Jones. Musical Director was James Walker. As I remember we thoroughly enjoyed the performance except for the spaghetti, and neither of us liked the update from 1750 to late Victorian.
I also saw Kenneth Sandford play Despard in the seventies.
One bit of business I remember enjoying: when John Reed sang "My name is John Wellington Wells," and got to "gibberings grim and ghastly," Aline fainted in Alexis's arms. In the first encore, on that line, Alexis fainted in Aline's arms. In the second encore, J.W. Wells fainted.
Yes, we saw the same productions year in and year out, but it was always nice when they came to your town with a new production or one which the folk in that town had never seen before.
Always remember speaking to Herbert Newby at the Opera House, Blackpool and told him that we had not seen Cox and Box in Blackpool before. He must have put it on his list for it was presented with Pirates the following year (1970). The new Sorcerer, the 75th anniversary productions, the new Gondoliers were always special. New artistes, new chorus members, new MD's, new settings. They always added something to a G & S enthusiasts notebook! It was like train spotting. Not that I was a train spotter!
Quirky bits of business that John Reed was particularly good at. As Sir JP when he came on stage for the first time (to full applause) and just before he sang "I am the monarch" he would give a slight shake of the head. (More laughs)
Not forgetting timing in delivery of dialogue and how it could change to suit the occasion. When the unions were particularly strong in the UK, JR as Robin used to say, "Foiled and by a Union, Jack."
Simple, I know but you wouldn't appreciate that if you only saw the company perform Ruddigore just once. Of course we knew every single piece of dialogue and we loved it if just one piece was away from the norm. All that was lost with the new D'C company and subsequent G & S companies.
And finally, autograph hunting at the end of the show. Got John Reed's signature many times — looked like Joe Reed!
Happiest days of my life seeing the old D'Oyly Carte.
I'm very sorry but at present I just don't have the time to write much about the old D'Oyly Carte — a company which meant a huge amount to me as it did to many others here. A few fairly random thoughts. To have seen John Reed's performances as Jack Point or Bunthorne or to experience Ken Sandford as Shadbolt, Grosvenor or Sir Despard or Donald Adams as The Mikado or Peggy Anne Jones as Mad Margaret or Phoebe was to know what perfection in Gilbert and Sullivan performance meant. Fine singing combined with quite superb character acting, perfect timing and an understanding of exactly how to give Gilbert's dialogue as well as Sullivan's music it's full measure. To hear Michael Rayner's superb, rich voice in Pish-Tush's 'Our Great Mikado' or Valerie Masterson's supreme soprano in 'I Built Upon A Rock' or Pat Leonard's 'O Foolish Fay' was to witness musical perfection. IMHO nobody in my lifetime has ever conducted the operas as well as Fraser Goulding when he first joined the company. So many people I would like to mention, if time allowed.
To conclude with a couple of observations. Based on my own experience combined with recorded evidence I would say that the company had two golden ages. The first in that wonderful 1929/30 Savoy season with a company including Winifred Lawson, Derek Oldham, Darrell Fancourt, Leo Sheffield, Henry Lytton and Bertha Lewis then the mid to late 'sixties line-up of Reed, Sandford, Masterson, Potter, Adams and Styler.
Finally two favourites. Of all the tenors during my years watching the old DOC since my parents first took me as a child to the Savoy in 1962 to see The Mikado my favourite was Geoff Shovelton who was a fine singer as well as an excellent actor with real stage presence, while I am surprised that nobody has mentioned John Ayldon who lifted every performance in which he took part. His Pirate King was quite superb and dominated the stage through sheer force of personality. Magnificent. How can I express the debt I owe to these wonderful artists for having left me with so many happy memories of a company which was unique in the annals of the British theatre. One always came out of the theatre with the wonderful feeling that those on stage has enjoyed themselves as much as those in the audience and that's a sign of true professionalism. As already observed the family feeling was as present in the audience as it was within the company. As Ian Smith said at the last old company reunion at Buxton — we shall never see its like again.
I first saw the D'Oyly Carte on their tours to Toronto in the mid-sixties, and I can only echo the comments of others here — they were wonderful. Anyone who says they were stodgy or hidebound can never have seen them in person.
Besides that, they were wonderful people. The Toronto G&S Society always entertained the company on their visits, and as a young enthusiast I was quite awestruck by how friendly they all were. Buxton attendees have been able to see this for themselves in recent years, but unfortunately they did not get to hear Donald Adams' great booming laugh. I hear it still.
I saw the company again on my first visit to England, in Oxford in 1966. I went round after Ruddigore to meet the cast, and was astonished to find that Donald Adams immediately recognized me and asked after friends in Toronto. Not only that, Peggy Ann Jones, whom I had never met, ended up giving me a lift back to my accommodations! When I met her many years later in Buxton she had no recollection of the incident, but we became friends all the same.
I saw the D'Oyly Carte New York series in the 1969 season at City Center and a few years later at — I think? — Lincoln Center.
The most memorable thing for me from all of it was John Reed as the Lord Chancellor, handing out the (imaginary) girls to thou, thee, you, ye, all and sundry except himself. This is the kind of thing that is not preserved in the recordings because it was wholly visual. He was fairly far downstage at the center, and he was assigning them to members of the audience, with his often-imitated but still inimitable twinkly-eyed smile. Part of the genius of Dear John's art was that he knew exactly how to make every member of the audience convinced that he was looking right at you (yes, you in the second row of the mezzanine, or the next-to-last row of left orchestra) and sharing a moment. His very nimble friskings-about in that role were also memorable, especially in the "If you go in" trio, which had multiple encores. And the "affidavit from a thunderstorm" dialogue with Strephon. Some LC's merely become dismissively pedantic at this point, but when he said, "It's a nice point. I don't know that I've ever met it before," the dryness was there, and the requisite inherent flatness needed for the proper contrast to the florid gibberings of the over-the-top young romantic — but there was still an underlying twinkle to it, the LC amused by the exchange, and not in a mean-spirited way. I always found him one of the most "connected" performers I've ever seen, in the sense of connecting with both the other performers onstage with him and with the audience. Onstage with him or in the house watching him, you were involved.
Every year I wish more profoundly that more of the DOC performances had been preserved on tape/film not only for the interpretations per se but for the manner and carriage of the performers, which is too often what is lacking in performances in an era when younger people have not been drilled in such things as a matter of course. The young ladies and dowager figures in particular suffer from the lack. Those who remember that the women were corseted think it made them move or stand stiffly, which is not at all the case with a properly fitted corset; and at the other end of the spectrum, there is much too little sense of how a lady does stand, sit, move, gesture, even giggle. The principals and choristers of DOC always had this perfectly. Those who've been fortunate enough to see Valerie Masterson in more recent years will know exactly what I'm talking about — quintessentially ladylike in a graceful and unselfconscious manner that adds inestimably to the impression of the characters.
I saw the old company close to 200 times and loved them always. It was like being part of an extended family — the inner circle of fans became firm friends and most of us became friendly with a few of the company.
The Australian tour in 1979 coincided with the 100th anniversary of the company taking the name of D'Oyly Carte (previously it had been The Comedy Opera Company). A note was pinned to the stage door notice board informing the company of this and inviting them for a "quick" drink in the bar after the performance. Someone put an exclamation mark after the "quick" and it was then crossed out and initialled by the manager. As I was backstage after the show I was also invited along for a drink. Most of the company did not realise that the bar had been named after Federicci, who created the role of the Pirate King in Paignton and later toured the UK and USA in G&S for years. He eventually came to Australia in The Mikado and stayed on. On the opening night of Faust he suffered a heart attack and died on stage and is said to linger as the theatre ghost. I wonder what he thought of the company in 1979.
Page modified 5 July, 2011 Copyright © 2011 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.