Do you have memories of appearing in the G & S operas? Did you have a major part or were you a chorus "girl"?
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Postby Henrybecket » Wed Feb 22, 2017 9:41 pm

Day 1 of my admittance to this website and Post 2: I vouchsafe that this rate will tail off.

I WAS Iolanthe. Obviously not because I could act (I couldn't...The Cambridge Evening News called me the University's most wooden actor) but because I could sing. But however winsome I looked as a shepherdess, I must have been terrible. My parents hid the review of my performance in the Bucks Free Press for years, fearing the possible damage to my ego. Apparently I galumphed about in substantial plimsolls with not a trace of elegance or believability.

Which probably explains why much of my career has been spent writing and directing TV commercials....

Henry Becket

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John Saunders
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Re: Iolanthe

Postby John Saunders » Tue Mar 07, 2017 3:21 pm

Welcome aboard, Henry. Three splendid debut posts in this rather underpopulated forum. (I sometimes wonder whether my masquerading as 'forum headmaster' ERT puts people off.)

The Iolanthe performance to which you refer happened in December 1965 and is documented here and on Tony Hare's RGS site. The programme is here. It suggests that you were Phyllis, an Arcadian shepherdess, with Richard Simons taking on the title role. There is a photo of some of the male roles but, regrettably, not of the female ones.

Elsewhere on this website is the May 1966 Wycombiensian, which has an article about the production by Andrew MacTavish. As with all writings by MacT, it is very amusing and worth quoting in full. None of the cast are named and shamed...

Andrew MacTavish, May 1966 Wycombiensian wrote:As soon as I was asked to write the report on the School’s production of 'Iolanthe’, I did the obvious thing in running to the back files of the ‘Wycombiensian’ to find how others had tackled the business in the past. The first thing I realized was that the critic has to be self-conscious : thus I have adopted the first person immediately in the knowledge that I am doing THE RIGHT THING. I suppose this self-consciousness is only proper. The opera critic is a member of the school, he sees the production grow from its inception, he hears the notices about practices, he is affected by the growing air of excitement as the opening day approaches: just as a member of a family is concerned with what another member is doing, so he is very much concerned for the success of the School’s largest co­operative venture of the year. For the opera demands the united efforts not only of the cast (who are seen and applauded), not only of the electricians, stagehands, musicians, and box office staff (whose names are glanced at during the interval) but also of a host of people who never receive any real credit for the small but important parts they play in making the show a success —people who look after coats, who sell programmes, who supply tea, who make up the cast. One count at Christmas put the number involved as high as 150 : nothing else in the year ap­proaches the magnitude of this venture. Thus the critic cannot speak from the traditional lofty, detached and disinterested position : he is one of the school, speaking of the school, and he gets a little embarrassed by it. Hence the self-consciousness.

But the position is yet more difficult. His report appears in the magazine five months after the performance. It is not as if he is informing a potential audience whether or not they should make the effort to come and see the show. The last strains have long died away and the vestiges of “5 and 9” dis­appeared from behind the ears of the chorus months ago. The greater proportion of readers, who have the interests of the school at heart, came to see the show : the few who did not, have missed it, nor are they likely to be enthralled by a potted 5-line version of the plot here. Similarly those who saw “Iolanthe” have their own memories of the principals, and those who did not are not going to be absorbed by a long discussion of how people they have never heard of played parts which mean nothing to them. So who pays attention to detailed individual criticisms ? Only the principals themselves who read this report with trepida­tion to see what is recorded for ever in the annals of the school. They need not worry for I am mentioning no names. I heard them rehearse for hours, I saw them leaving the school week after week as the clock came up to 6 p.m., I watched them cramped with nerves behind the curtains and I admired as they went on the stage—I admired them all, especially those small boys, walking out there alone and singing in front of that audience. I could not have done it at their age, of this I am sure. Further­more I am not prepared to discuss their individual abilities, especially at a distance of five months. Nor am I prepared to do what I think is worse—to list everybody and say that they were “splendid” in ten or fifteen different ways.

Thus having spent a long time in refusing to do what is expected, let me make a few positive criticisms of “Iolanthe” . While I thoroughly enjoyed it, one or two points did come to my notice and I am sure that, if acted upon, they would lead to an even better production in the future.

The first point concerns the fairies’ feet (and any fairy reading this will jump at the pun). In the past, people have said the the junior (female) chorus have looked a little odd wearing plimsolls. This was certainly true but I doubt if it warranted the drastic measure of sending them on barefoot. The stagehands did their best : they swept the stage and the wings ceaselessly, but the number of nails, screws and drawing pins recovered by the fairies during the four performances was incredible. What was also incredible was the splendid way in which they suffered these injuries without any bitterness, and even ran some sort of a competition on it. “Please sir, Molesworth in the chorus can’t go on ‘cos they’re still getting something out of his toe”. My heart bled in sympathy. We cannot do this again : it is either back to plimsolls or we shall have to get them dancing pumps. Then and only then will the fairy chorus look really happy and trip round happily . . .

. . . and “trip” is the word. The musical and dramatic aspects of Gilbert and Sullivan can be covered from within the school : the dancing which is demanded cannot. This was not bad in “ Iolanthe” but it could have been better. We have not got dancing masters on the staff—the days of the weekly lessons with the High School are regrettably past—and we would probably make it much easier for ourselves if we were to contact a proper teacher for those important sequences. This used to happen years ago : there may well be difficulties in arranging this of which I know nothing but I do think it would help.

Another thing which ought to receive more attention is the seating in the Hall. At the moment, this tends to be forgotten : the chairs are spaced out an inch or two, and someone checks that there are 30 in a row. To start with, have you ever sat in A1 or A30 ? You are so close to the stage and so far to one side that you see only half the play. The Dramatic Society attacked this problem at Easter by cutting down the number of seats in the first 3 rows by 6, 4 and 2, but it would only seem fair to take off a few more. Our audience must be able to see and it is a little off-putting for the actors to see A30 desperately asking his neighbour if he knows what is going on just out of sight. More­over it is also disconcerting playing to a small house. Our Queen’s Hall holds upwards of 800 people : on the less popular earlier nights of the production, the actors are conscious of rows of empty chairs at the back and the audience has some strange feeling of agoraphobia. Would it not be possible to cut down our audi­torium by procuring some sort of screening ? The audience would thus feel a little more cosy and the actors would get the sense of playing to a packed house, which always brings out the best in them. It should be noted, too, that this is a problem which must be dealt with before the tickets are printed and not the day before the first audience arrives.

Having written the words “High School” above, I am reminded of one old chestnut which appears from time to time in these pages—“Why don’t we get some girls for the female parts” ? It is noticeable in passing that this is not heard so much from the cast as from those who are not connected with the production, and others who are well-intentioned but who do not appreciate what the opera represents and what difficulties are involved in staging it.

At the moment, the school opera is entirely the school’s work : it is a product of the Royal Grammar School and no one else. Through the opera, a large number of very young boys gain stage experience in taking the parts of fairies, daughters, maidens, etc. For most it is the first time they have ever been part of a big co-operative effort. They give up hours of their time, and they learn the satisfaction to be had in belonging to a voluntary group working to a definite end. They realize that they have to depend on others, and others on them if the show is to be a success. They take part in the most important public event in the school calendar, from which they would be debarred until their voices broke were girls to be brought in. Above all, they thoroughly enjoy the whole proceeding as anyone who has looked into their dressing room knows, and they add a great deal to the audience’s amusement by the very fact that they are small boys and they are so convincing, and even angelic, as small girls.

But whether you accept this or not, the difficulties of organ­ising and rehearsing a mixed cast are almost insurmountable. As it is, much practice is done in lunch hours : with girls in the cast this would be impossible. After-school rehearsals would have to start half-an-hour late too. Transport and communication would add further difficulties. We can change rehearsals by giving out a notice in Prayers : it would be far more difficult to get notices through to the other side of Wycombe. There is no need for me to continue : the difficulties increase the more you think about them. Mr. Dawes and Mr. Newling spent hours of their own time organizing and rehearsing “Iolanthe” : this would have to be doubled if a joint effort was put on, and we arrive at a point where there are just not enough hours in the day.

So I have had my say though I am sure that some people will never be convinced until they actually try to run a play on this basis. I know I shall not change the view of one critic who was prepared to see a boy take Lady Macbeth’s part—because it was written for a boy presumably—but not to see a boy take a female Gilbert and Sullivan lead—despite the evidence of his own ears and eyes. I enjoy the opera as it is and, as I heard an old lady say in the audience, “Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it
John Saunders
RGS 1963-70 (personal website

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