The Ones That I Like

(James Marsland talks to John Watt about his Favourite Parts)

Jimmy, as assistant producer you must have had one of the most responsible jobs in the whole of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - that of getting every newcomer in the chorus on stage and certainly quite a few of the principals as well I'd be interested to learn exactly what your job entailed.

Well, of course in those days we had so many new people all coming into the company at the same time. In the old days when I came we had just three months' notice, so people thought twice about it. Because they hadn't another job to go to. Well, they thought, I'll wait a bit longer. So we had people joining the company one at a time. Well, that took a long time to get them on.

When I joined in 1949 at Hull into the Christmas season (four weeks at Hull) I came down from another show on the Sunday and started on the Monday and it took a long time. I got fitted up I more or less under the stairs in the wardrobe, but it took longer to get us on because when any understudies (or principals) were ill the rehearsal time was spent on them and the new person was just left to struggle on a bit. In my job I might get ten new people at the same time. I think each year I had 8, 7, 9, 10. Except for one year when we had five which was the smallest number. That was the year John Webley came as a young boy along with four or five girls. But gradually the numbers grew and there were new understudies as well.

You, taught them absolutely everything really, didn't you?

No, I didn't do the music, but I knew when it was wrong and then I'd stop and say "That's not right, can you go round the piano - would you get Peter just to check that, get that right?"

You did every bit of stage movement?

Yes, including all the dances. I liked to start off with "The Mikado", because the girls' opening chorus is simple. I'd give them all positions by size and voice then fit them in. I'd do the men's opening and then I'd do the ladies', and then I'd break to go and look at it. And then we'd do the Act I finale - ladies and then the men. Because they go opposite ways. I'd do about the first day and a half and if it was going well I leave that and start another one - maybe "H.M.S. Pinafore" next and then I'd do that for a day and a half or two days probably, then I'd leave that and I'd do "The Mikado" again. Then I'd go on to another, could be "The Pirates of Penzance", and take the men first and then the ladies and fit them both together, and so it went on. And I'd do all the bits in between to keep the continuity going. I knew them so well that I could just do those bits of dialogue and the singing bits in between, which they said helps them because they didn't have the full score, they had abbreviated versions excluding the principal parts, so I'd fill it in as we went along and they knew exactly what was going to happen before the next thing they did. It probably sounded like a long-playing record at times. I did all the bits, Antonio, Giulia, Gianetta, as it comes and they filled in and it worked, you see, and the two Gondoliers - I'd do both things, and move around and they knew exactly what was going to happen when the time came. I'd say "Does this help or does it not?" and they'd say it does, so I'd think that's good. So when the company came back and I fitted them in they already knew how long they're going to wait, and it worked much better I think.

You joined the company on 19th December 1949.

Yes, I was in a show called "Waltzes from Vienna" where I met two D'Oyly Carte people - Ann Drummond-Grant and Thomas Round. I left "The Dancing Years" to join "Waltzes from Vienna" and we rehearsed in the Coliseum and Thomas Round I discovered, I'd seen as Nanki-Poo. I didn't know Ann Drummond-Grant-a most charming lady.

We started in June and Tom was leaving the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company so I auditioned at Newcastle in 1949, got free of "Waltzes from Vienna" and got the contract. I thought 'They may not want me until after Christmas', so I said, "I'm free of Waltzes on 17th December" so they sent me the contract for the 19th, and I travelled from Sunderland down to Hull and we did a four-week Christmas season there. I've been seven times to America. It was marvellous - a wonderful experience. I'm not a one for going abroad much. . .I like England. But the job took me so I went, and really enjoyed it - especially Central City Colorado. The entertainment for us was fabulous - you'd go into these gorgeous homes with swimming pools, everything laid on. They really did give us a good time in the States. I wish we'd gone more often, but there it is!

I first came to know about G. & S. when I was a boy of 9 or 10 and joined the local church choir. The town society started at my church school long before I ever knew anything about G. & S. I was at school in Hyde near Manchester. They had a very good society there - they started before the first world war, and in 1914 they did "The Mikado" - the boys were in khaki ready to go off to the war. And then after the war they started again and went to the local theatre then. They did "The Gondoliers" twice and then "The Yeomen of the Guard" and I remember I joined the church choir. One night after choir practice, which was early, I remember coming past the school and hearing this rehearsal going on and I crept in there and sat in a corner. I started to do this time after time going to rehearsals and of course I began to get to know all the words and all the things they did and so that started it off for me. Oh . . . and my mother and father took me to see a G. & S. opera and sat me high up where I could see and then at night - we had tram cars in those days - and the tram car used to go past the theatre and we had some very lovely ladies who used to run out from the theatre at night with all their things and their makeup on and get on the tram and I used to say "That's for me - I must do this". So when I was older I got into the society there, I was 15 I think, and two others from the choir went in, and to make us look old they put moustaches on us which made us look younger actually. And of course by then they had gone off G. & S. on to things like "No No Nanette" and "The Chocolate Soldier". I played Tom in "No No Nanette" and parts like that.

I was just going to make a start when the war came. I couldn't go into the theatre then. I had to stay and that put me off. When I went into the army I went into the army concert parties and then into "Stars in Battle Dress" for a while. When I got demobbed I was constantly on tour with only a short break between shows and pantomime before I joined D'Oyly Carte. And there I loved it. I enjoyed what I was doing. As long as I was doing it I did it with a will and this is what I tried to tell the young ones - to enjoy it and give something. It's no use standing there - you've got to perform. I realised when I left the army that I wasn't going to get up into the principal line in anything because I didn't have a big voice and I had to work at it, but I made up for it, I think, by performance because I enjoyed it. I think that's why I was there so long. I used to have people come along and say, 'Oh we remember when you used to lead the chorus. You did a good job.' I tried to tell the young people this, that they must do it and enjoy it. Because if you don't enjoy it you might as well not be there and you can't all be a star in a year . . . or ever!

I doubt, therefore if anyone from the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is more fitted than you to sum up the last 3 decades of D'Oyly Carte artistes and their performances. Would you like to tell me about your favourite performers of that time and the performances that remain with you?

I can in fact go back more than three decades. The first performance I remember was as a child when I was taken to see the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at Manchester Opera House; and the one I did remember was Evelyn Gardiner as the Fairy Queen. She struck me - she was such a large person and I adored her - I always look for somebody like that now

Then I saw Ella Halman and I thought 'It's not quite the same'. But by the time I came into the company she was the one who was doing it and I thought she was a very charming person and she did it quite well. And then, of course, when "Waltzes from Vienna" finished, Miss Ann Drummond-Grant came into the company and we went to America, and then she took over in 1951. We had a lot of people leave - Darrell Fancourt, Martyn Green, Ella, Radley Flynn her husband, and Margaret Mitchell - a charming young girl - lovely voice. I used to love to hear her sing Phyllis. Jean Hindmarsh, gorgeous voice, lovely Ida. Of course Leonard Osborn was an excellent artist, I think his Richard Dauntless was the best ever. Philip Potter was very good, he was charming. Leonard had charm. I think, in a way, his performances didn't vary. He really was extremely good, but so was Tom Round, but they were totally different people. I always remember Leonard's Dauntless and Tolloller.

Those are some of the outstanding performances you remember?

Yes. The old Gondoliers was much more fun. The new production was pretty with lovely costumes, but everybody was so busy moving about they didn't seem to enjoy it so much. Of course you have to move on. You can't just stand still - although I think Gilbert knew what he wanted.

Whom do you remember in the old 'Gondoliers'?

Muriel Harding's voice was a beautiful voice, and Leonard Osborn was Marco when I joined the company and he and Alan Styler together were very good then and Muriel Harding - Joan Gillingham was Tessa then. And then after that Joyce Wright did it. We had very few Tessas actually since the old days. Joan Gillingham left in 1951, she couldn't start the season - she was ill and Joyce took on the job - very sweet she was. I like "The Gondoliers" in a way but all the boys say 'Oh marvellous, no beards, no nothing', but you feel you have to be very upright and very lively all day and it seems a lot of hard work for very little. There's something about Gondoliers that makes it hard going. On Saturday night maybe it gets hilarious with a marvellous house, but I think it's the title that draws people. They say "The Gondoliers" - let's go - "Ruddigore", Oh I don't know about that... but "Ruddigore" has all the charm - I love "Ruddigore" and "Iolanthe".

What is it in "Ruddigore" that appeals to you most?

I think its charm, it's just all the fun of the bridesmaids doing their little ditty and you get a lot of this odd character and that coming on and that puts people off a bit but if you get to know it and what it's all about . . . There's Rose Maybud, having been an orphan and brought up by her book of etiquette, has to do everything exactly by it. There's she and Robin in love with each other but much too shy to tell each other, and he gets the sailor to do the chatting for him instead of doing it himself, and when you understand what's going on you really enjoy it.

Rose and Robin - which ones did you enjoy?

Margaret Mitchell was a lovely Rose Maybud, and there was Shirley Hall. She did it afterwards - because Shirley was an actress and she'd been at York Rep. It's an actress's part, Rose Maybud - I think it's a lovely part. I think that's one of my favourite parts. Julia Goss did it very well.

And Phyllis?

I always liked Phyllis. Alan Styler was a great character too - it's a pity he died so young. Alan wasn't old as stars go today - he was 43 when he died - sang very well. So was John Webley - he had a great future.

What about "Iolanthe"?

I like "Iolanthe", I always did. I tell you, I liked it on first seeing it in preference to "The Gondoliers", and when I got into it I found that when you went down in Act I you worked right through to the end of Act I. You didn't go up again and then you had a break in Act II and then you went down again to finish it. I would much rather be down on the stage than sitting about in the dressing-room. That's what at first used to worry me about when we did "Princess Ida". I was asked to do this extra little character with no dialogue, but appearing in a particular costume and of course there was a costume designed which never appeared and then I got a long garment and I thought 'Oh good gracious' and I had to stand about in this. But once I did it I began to get interested in it and made the most of it and even after I started doing this job I still carried on in "Princess Ida" as the old man, with the beard and the pole. I like Ida too, it's a pity we couldn't do it more often.

Whom do you remember in "Iolanthe"?

Leonard Osborn was an excellent Tolloller and Margaret Mitchell was a marvellous Phyllis. Her voice used to soar. I think Phyllis has nice music. Darrell was good as Lord Mountararat. When I started he was an old man of 63 or he was 65 when he died - and I saw him maybe from 63 on and he still roared - this big voice came out. He was a great character. Martyn was excellent. He had a small voice but placed it so that you could always hear every single word - his diction was perfect.

What was Martyn Green's greatest asset, do you think?

The way he did it, the dancing, the charm. I think he had some of the qualities Harry Lytton had. I only saw Sir Henry Lytton twice and he was getting on then- he must have been in his 60's. He didn't sing all the notes - neither did Martyn. John Reed does sing the notes you see. I think John is as good as anything that's ever been. I think John Reed is marvellous. He is really. These things take time - you can't do any of this in five minutes. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was a place where young people could start in the theatre and they learnt the trade. From having done singing only, they learnt to walk on the stage, they danced, they moved, they got the chance to speak lines and there, when you had done ten operas for two or three years, you learnt how to use the stage. You could go anywhere. Look how many people have gone from D'Oyly Carte to Sadler's Wells.

Talking about John Reed, which are your favourites amongst his performances?

Ko-Ko especially I think. Ko-Ko's fabulous. I like Robin Oakapple. I think he and Ken Sandford in their two roles are as good as anything that's been. I mean Sydney Granville was a marvellous Pooh-Bah and he played those roles until he must have been 70. And then he left and came back in the war and stayed on until just before I joined and then he went to Australia and did them until he was between 70 and 80, I believe. He and his wife - she produced, she was producing just before I came. Of course Billy Morgan taught me when I started. He was 32 years with the company and I took over when Billy gave up. I always felt that D'Oyly Carte was all-important. There was an atmosphere about the company when I joined that it was sort of a hallowed thing and you felt this atmosphere when you joined. I think a lot of young people have changed now, they're different. They don't want to do any one thing for any time.

What other principals of former days would you like to mention?

Peter Pratt had a problem because he was a bass. He had a heavy voice but he was a very good character. I liked his Sir Joseph Porter.

You are a firm believer in the basically traditional productions of G. & S. and Gilbert's original notes?

I firmly believe they were the only traditionally English productions we had left in the theatre. Nowadays even Shakespeare has a new producer, a new production, new designs, new costumes all the time. Nobody else in the world had a repertory of ten operas. And there's nobody else who had four weeks' holiday and lost 10 people, half the understudies, and had all sorts of changes - at least a hundred costume changes, shoes, gloves, hats. and it all had to be done in 4 or 5 weeks. And we'd open the next tour as if nothing had happened. It's a great tribute to the teamwork of the whole company - and everyone connected with it.

James, to go into the productions in greater depth, I know you are a great believer in the 'Pattern' of G. & S. productions. Would you like to expand on that for me?

Well, take "The Pirates of Penzance" for instance. It had a different 'pattern' when any one of the chorus was off. I think everyone must stick to the pattern. The whole success of productions, every step and every bit of business depended on it. Let me explain it by referring to Mr. Besch's production of "The Gondoliers". It took four months of rehearsal and he spent days and days on small groups and then fitted them all together. It started in Liverpool and we would rehearse all day and do a show at night. When we went to London we went day after day to the rehearsal rooms. It was up to such a pitch that when we opened in London, everyone knew exactly what he or she had to do. Mr. Reed and Mr. Sandford never varied from where they moved, they never upset other artists, they never varied their moves from those in which they had originally been produced. This makes it easier for new people to fit into the pattern. The pattern is disrupted or goes wrong when people don't think where they're going to be next, and other people have to move out of their positions for everyone to cope. Of course, what we really needed was more spare time - more time for rehearsal, especially for the newcomers to the company.

Finally, Jimmy, if you had to choose a 'Top Ten' among performers and their performances in your time (and I appreciate what a limiting number that is) - whom would you name?

Well, in no particular order of time or merit - here goes: Of the ladies . Margaret Mitchell - I've extolled the virtues of that voice already. Ann Drummond-Grant, of course. Valerie Masterson was and is outstanding. Muriel Harding and Jean Hindmarsh - both with glorious voices.

And of the men - John Reed - we never had anyone better than John in my opinion. Ken Sandford - for similar all-round excellence. Leonard Osborn - an artist of great talent. Darrell Fancourt - what a voice. Philip Potter - Philip had such charm, that's what you need on stage - and Tom Round.

I know that's eleven-call it producer's licence!

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