Jon Ellison talks to David and Elaine Stevenson

Accidents happen in even the best-run Companies. One year "Cox and Box" was being played at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, when Bouncer failed to receive the customary call. On-stage in unscheduled solitary splendour Jon Ellison, who was understudying Cox, found the task of sustaining the plot single-handed uncommonly exacting, and it was some time before he felt able to include it among funny stories gathered in more than twenty years' service with the Company! Other favourite anecdotes similarly rise from the ashes of erstwhile calamity. Christmas 1962 found the Company playing "The Mikado" in Chicago, when one evening by some mischance the curtain rose unheralded at the onset of the overture to reveal Jon perusing his latest mailing of Christmas cards, having arrived on stage in good time for the opening chorus. Nothing daunted, though intuitively avoiding the eye of the conductor, he hastily removed the offending cards from view and bowed deeply to the audience, who applauded vigorously, having evidently perceived in this affecting piece of business profundities of which its perpetrators were wholly unaware. Mercifully the curtain promptly fell, while normality was restored by the soothingly familiar strains of the overture.

Several years earlier, during the 'fifties revival of "Princess Ida", Jon had been among the ill-starred chorus charged to make their Act II entrance over the ramparts of Castle Adamant lustily singing "Walls and fences scaling, promptly we appear" and in the event doing neither, thanks to the collapse of the ramp which was to have assisted their mise-en-scene. The only chorister to transcend the holocaust that night was a promising young performer by the name of John Reed, who was rewarded for his intrepidity by having to portray a one-man storming-party until survivors could re-form ranks. Jon Ellison completed the performance with a substantial portion of flesh bulging from his costume, though happily not in such a manner as to offer gratuitous offence to persons of sensibility!

Jon has an excellent memory for faces, places, and events, recalling past experience with remarkable clarity of detail. Not least he remembers moments of fleeting forgetfulness - inevitable occasions in the throes of performance when firmly-memorised lines have obstinately eluded his grasp; when he has been rescued from the horns of a dilemma by the conductor or by a colleague on stage; and even once when he had the misfortune to come in on the wrong note and ultimately in sheer desperation exceeded his effective range by half an octave! Chilling indeed is the sudden discovery that one's impending lines are briefly but seemingly irrevocably forgotten. Jon's personal remedy is with superhuman resolve to dismiss the realisation from his mind and to rely on instinct to bring him in on cue. In-grained habit he finds will usually succeed where frenzied cerebration is foredoomed to failure. The astonishing fact, of course, is not that there were so many mistakes but that there were so few - that only a handful of adverse incidents, their memory sharpened by infrequency, should have emerged from thousands of performances in the busy life of a touring company, and these surmounted in best professional tradition.

Not all his memories are of cataclysmic proportions. He remembers staying with Pearl Pink, a celebrated Edinburgh landlady, during the Company's 1954 tour, when a young lady named Joy Mornay, who was then appearing in a show at the Empire Theatre, called to use the telephone. He remembered her a few months later when she auditioned for, and joined, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and at the outset of the 1955 North American tour he remembered her still more vividly when they announced their engagement on board the 'Queen Mary' at Southampton. The engagement made a somewhat inauspicious start as the liner fell victim to strike action and refused to set sail, but the journey was resumed by air, and the happy couple were later married in San Francisco.

Jon's musical career began at the age of nine, when he joined the Parish Church choir of his native Whitchurch in Shropshire. The years in which he sang solos as a boy soprano were overshadowed by the menace of German bombers lumbering across the sky in the direction of Merseyside, but despite the perils and uncertainties of those days there were local people with perception enough to recognise and encourage his ability. So began a life of dedication in which long hours of practice left little time for recreation or the cultivation of friendships.

After his voice had broken he began taking lessons in earnest, and won a prize in the open baritone solo class at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. To become a professional singer was his unswerving ambition, but prudently he set himself to acquire alternative qualifications. His family were builders, and after leaving school he decided to study building construction at Crewe Technical College; he still has an eye for a good or an indifferent piece of work, but concedes that aspects of his technical knowledge may now be outdated.

College gave place to National Service, which he opted to undertake in the Army, finding time in off-duty hours to continue his musical studies, and giving performances before appreciative mess audiences. So favourably impressed was the adjutant that he urged him to audition for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, of whose prestigious reputation Jon claims never previously to have heard!

He presented himself for audition at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, in uniform - giving rise to interesting speculation about the most appropriate choice of piece - and rather to his surprise was promptly accepted, joining the Company as soon as the safety of the nation permitted.

1st September 1953 was a sad day for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, being the occasion of the funeral of Darrell Fancourt, but as though in consolation it gained one of its most faithful servants on the same day in the person of Jon Ellison.

His service was temporarily interrupted when he and Joy left the Company at Christmas 1956, Jon going to work in Glasgow pantomime for George Mitchell and subsequently appearing regularly on television under the Mitchell baton. Television was a trifle primitive in those days, he recalls, with shows going out live in the evening after an afternoon rehearsal. At the Radio and Television Show at Earls Court he appeared in the prototype "Black and White Minstrel Show" -originally styled "The Television Minstrels" - leading to a successful season at the London Palladium.

In April 1958 he answered a press advertisement for an unspecified opera and found himself once again in the bosom of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, his wife also rejoining in the following year. Working together professionally was an experience which he and Joy both thoroughly enjoyed, though it was not without moments of difficulty. Wisely Jon took the view that they had been engaged as two individual artists, and, as far as the job was concerned, tried not to mix marriage and the theatre. At times this involved a conscious effort to avoid taking sides where he was not directly concerned. During this period the Ellisons bought a house in Whitchurch, working hard at week-ends to get it to their liking, and eventually Joy left the Company to face the daunting task of 'settling down'.

His view of the theatre is essentially pragmatic, refusing to regard it as an esoteric projection of the soul of the artist. For him the stage is a job of work, but a job unlike any other. He loved his work, honestly enjoying it all the more as years went by and deriving enormous entertainment and satisfaction from it, which of course was delightfully obvious from the auditorium. He does not pretend that his duties were easy; often he was so absorbed by the demands of performance that it was only in retrospect that the pleasure which it gave was fully appreciated. He regretted the intangible nature of his work, the creation of a swiftly fading illusion with even the most memorable impression blurring with the passage of time. Though the moments quickly die, it is true that recordings help in some measure to revive them, but he quips that he never seems to sound as good on record as he had led himself to expect.

Short and slim-built he is a man of cheerful friendliness and well-mannered sincerity. Shyness and exuberance, common sense and enthusiasm, blend in a warm and balanced personality. His line in "H. M.S. Pinafore", "Ah! Sir Joseph's a true gentleman, courteous and considerate to the very humblest", holds more than a hint of autobiography. Resolution and tenacity find a place in his character, together with a humility never to be confused with false modesty. He tends to think of himself not so much as a performer of exceptional talent as one who does his best, generally accepting praise with reservation because he sets his sights on perfection. For him, personal dissatisfaction is an indispensable part of the artist's anatomy. Without approaching complacency, he has achieved a high degree of fulfillment and the contentment of one who has discovered and come to terms with his own limitations, accepting the value of ambition whilst conscious of its destructive potential. He vented his energies in a formidable list of roles: Samuel, Bosun, Old Adam (his favourite), Go-To, Judge (not easy to work from the back of the stage), Solicitor, Second Citizen, Waiter, Scynthius, Tarara, and Ben Hashbaz, for good measuring understudied Cox, Notary, Major, Antonio, and Annibale. In "Iolanthe" alone were his duties confined exclusively to the chorus.

Having worked his way up from basic chorus to small understudies, to small parts, to larger understudies, to larger parts, he acquired along the way a sympathetic knowledge of problems encountered at all levels of the performing Company, understanding the frustrations of ambitious choristers as well as the exposure and nervous strain consistently suffered by principals. Mostly he played supporting roles, pleased to have assumed the mantle of characters he once understudied, and sensibly aimed to do himself justice as a performer without detracting from the impact of the leading roles. He felt a particular sympathy for the understudy, who must work hard to keep permanently abreast of the parts he covers, seldom if ever making an appearance, yet never knowing when his services may be required without notice, perhaps even having to take over in the middle of a show. Scant recognition tends to be accorded the task of perpetual standby, and besides having to overcome audience disappointment at the absence of the principal the understudy does not share the principal's great advantage of being able to mature into a role through regular public performance.

Jon has a genuine enthusiasm for Savoy opera, and equally takes pride in the reputation of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Performing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan is a specialist skill with a certain style about it, as detractors sometimes discover to their cost.

Recalling his days with the Minstrels, he describes with admiring affection the work of an old pro. who influenced him profoundly at a formative phase of his career. Face lighting up as he stepped on stage, as though into a new dimension, the old man would grow visibly in stature, radiating an unmistakable star quality as he wove a spell of pure magic. Not the least appealing of Jon's attributes is that he tells the story with sublime unconsciousness that he himself awakened similar observations in younger colleagues.

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