Now what is my very first memory of anything Gilbert or Sullivan? I was taken by my brother to the Blackburn Theatre Royal to "The Mikado" when 1 was about seven years old. I distinctly remember the tenor had a lisp. That must have been the beginning of my interest in tenors and their diction "A Wandering Minstrel I, a thing of threads and patches."
I was found to have a soprano voice. Mother used to say: "Listen to that child. Something ought to be done about him." In those days there was no radio and one had to rely on music in the home; and my home, I'm eternally grateful to say, was Sullivan-minded full of music. My brother George, eleven years older than I, was a fine professional pianist, and was very fond of Schubert. The first song I ever learnt was the "Wohin" of Schubert.
At eight years old I sang "Braid the Raven Hair" from "The Mikado" as a duet with my sister. Eventually I developed into a boy soprano - you know. one of those dreadful children the women want to kiss and the men want to kick. For five years or more I went round Lancashire singing the soprano songs in oratorio - "Samson", "Judas Maccabeus", "Messiah", the Jewel Song from "Faust", and "Neath my Lattice" from "The Rose of Persia". At nine years old I was singing "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" in a Liverpool pantomime. with Vesta Tilley as principal boy.
I came to know much of the oratorio side of Sullivan - "The Golden Legend", "The Prodigal Son" - you don't hear them sung these days, but they are lovely. I sang in my brother's choir Sullivan's "The Long Day Closes" and "Oh Gladsome Light". I sang amongst the sopranos, then amongst the baritones, and at last amongst the tenors. And when I was married I insisted on Sullivan's "Oh Gladsome Light" being sung in church at my wedding.
When I was sixteen I became junior clerk in the Accrington branch of the Union Bank of Manchester Ltd., now Barclays. When I was nineteen I joined the local amateur operatic society, and was in the chorus of "The Mikado" opening chorus, front row - and I ruined it because I was so nervous that I got out of rhythm in those up-and-down bits. I was a baritone in those days, and when the society played "Princess Ida" I was chosen for Cyril, which vocally is higher than Hilarion, so I had to have the kissing song written down a third. Years later, when my audition came with Rupert D'Oyly Carte, I was wily enough not to sing "Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes", which everybody sang. Oh no, I sang Cyril's kissing song. and they were so surprised they engaged me on the spot.
One day at 2.30 the Daniel Mayer Company rang through to say I was to take some music and go down to the Savoy Theatre and sing for Mr. Rupert D'Oyly Carte that afternoon at 5 o'clock. And I went to the Savoy, and I sang to Mr. Carte and Richard Collet and Miss Dawe on that tenth day of August 1919, and I sang "Kiss Me" from "Princess Ida" amongst other things. Mr. Carte had a talk with me and said that he would like his producer, Mr. J. M. Gordon, to hear me, but that Mr. Gordon was with the company and would be back in London in three days' time, and would I come down then and sing the same songs to "our Mr. Gordon". And I said "Yes, please." I sang to Mr. Gordon; I read a scene for Mr. Gordon - it was a scene from Act II of "The Yeomen of the Guard", and our Mr. Gordon played Elsie Maynard; and I was engaged as principal tenor for the coming London season at the Princes Theatre in September 1919. And then Mr. Carte said: "Now you have a lot of hard work ahead of you. Many operas to learn in a short time: you must be fit: we can do nothing with you for about two weeks, so I want you to go out of London now and be quiet and build up until we send for you, and I expect we shall want you to join the company in about two weeks."
I couldn't believe my good fortune. My family couldn't either. Principal tenor of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, Princes Theatre, London! My stepmother's stepmother was sure there was a snag in it, and when she read the list of characters in "The Gondoliers" in the Sunday papers:
she exclaimed with a sniff: "I thought you said your John was a principal! Why, he's only a gondolier!"
And so I became a fully-fledged member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. What a first night that was at the Princes Theatre in September 1919! There had been no performance of the operas in London for twelve years.
And now I'm sure you want to hear a little bit about the Company itself as far as I knew it as it was in my time. It has always kept its own individual quality; it is quite unlike any other company in theatre-land. I remember one Sunday morning signing the landlady's autograph album before catching the train, and idly looking through it I came across this: "Three months ago I left the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and have now rejoined the profession." The difference is that the routine member is not, or certainly was not, of a theatrical type-- and a very good thing too.
The beloved Ellen Terry once wrote to George Bernard Shaw asking advice for a young lady friend - a lady in the best sense who was alone, had some vocal talent, was rather shy, and yet must earn her living. Bernard Shaw replied in these words: "Do you know Mr. D'Oyly Carte, or Mrs. D'Oyly Carte, who was Miss Lenoir? They always have several Companies touring in a small way with their Savoy repertory, and they are the only people in the comic opera line in London, as far as I know, with whom the Signorina's niceness would not be a disadvantage." That was in 1892, seventy years ago, and in my time the same spirit applied, and probably still does today.
Let me recall a few of the principal members of the Company at that time. After paying tribute to Bertha Lewis and Sydney Granville he goes on:
LEO SHEFFIELD. The old dear. Most beloved of all the members of the Company, both with us and with the audience. Why he left is ever a mystery to me. There was ten years' wonderful work for the operas still in him - he should never have been allowed to leave.
DARRELL FANCOURT. Joined the Company at Easter-time 1920, just six months after I joined. He took the place of dear Freddy Hobbs, given leave of absence to play the operas in New Zealand and Australia. And Darrell stayed with the operas for the next thirty-three years. I saw him play the Pirate King in his last year, and he gave the most vivid and virile performance on the stage; he played as though it were the first time, and I think rather showed up a lot of the younger ones.
Darrell came to the Company with a most beautiful young wife, Eleanor Evans. Oh, she was so beautiful, was Snookie! We all fell for her, and we gave Darrell a busy time keeping us "off".
He was my best friend in the Company, and I vividly remember his first performance; it was as the Mikado at a matinee at the Opera House, Blackpool. Now Darrell had come to us from the Beecham Opera Company; he'd just sung Prince Igor at Covent Garden, and had never said dialogue on the stage. He entered with that great song, "A more humane Mikado", and was triumphant - encore, then double encore. Ko-Ko's speech of welcome then follows, leading up to the Mikado's first line: "Oh, you've had an execution, have you?"; but Darrell was not used to the spoken word, and it just wasn't there. Silence reigned. He'd dried up. Mr. Gordon called out the line from the prompt corner; Henry Lytton and Bertha Lewis gave it to him under their breath. The chorus whispered it under their breath. You never heard such a row. But poor Darrell was dumb. He couldn't get it - paralysed! And then, clear as a bell, a voice rang out from the gallery; a member of the audience shouted out his line! Darrell got it, and said' "Oh, you've had an execution, have you?"
The hidden power behind the productions of my time was "our Mr. Gordon". The world owes much to old J. M. Gordon. He was in control of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company productions during all my time - in Great Britain, that is, not the two spells in the States. He died in retirement in 1944, aged eighty-seven, but had given up all real work with the Company, I believe, a few years before that. He was a small spare man, "a Scotsman frae Aberdeen", and when I first joined in 1919 would be about sixty years old.
Absolutely in his prime as a producer, and a very jealous man for the traditions of the operas. Traditions in the broad sense, meaning "spirit". He had been with them practically all his life - from 1883 to 1936: fifty-three years. He had stage-managed at the Savoy under W. S. Gilbert himself, and I believe that in a Savoy revival of "Patience" he had played the Major.
A hesitant little man: but, by Jove, what a tiger for knowing and getting what he wanted! He was only really happy when he was rehearsing. He loved rehearsing. Give him an enthusiastic small-part man, or a girl who wanted to get on, or said she wanted to get on, and when all the routine daily rehearsals were over - and rehearsals were daily - then he would go on until curtain-time with whoever would stay and play. He was the everlasting secret joke of the Company. Fresh tales were told every evening round the dressing-rooms, and there were some funny tales, I can tell you. But he had that Company on its toes.
It is sometimes said that the vintage years of performances were from 1919 and the six years following. Well, they were all due to old man Gordon, for he was in his prime and had he material to work on in his prime. Later, as he became older and tired, it showed itself in the fact that he was not so flexible. He became a martinet in tiny little things of "business" and tradition, and would not allow the individuality of the actor to colour a part, as he used to in my time. Then he had what I call the spirit of tradition; later he had only the latter. And that is an entirely different thing, making for a dull uniformity. But what a producer when at his best; we who are older have much to thank old J.M.G. for.
He used to wear those eyeglasses which have silver wire frames; he needed different pairs for different sights, and so he appeared to be always in the process of changing his glasses. He had a funny habit of "sucking in" his breath, but quietly as he talked, which gave everything he said a feeling of suppressed excitement. But Gordon illustrates himself in the stories that are told of him. There was the time when the stock of property finger rings had got low. He went out to replenish them, and came into my dressing-room, very annoyed, to say that the shop assistant had been very insinuating - "had looked at me very queerly . . . very queerly indeed" - when he had asked - in Brighton! - for six cheap wedding rings in assorted sizes. In Brighton!
In the 1929 season he was sometimes at variance with Sir Malcolm - then Dr. Malcolm-Sargent - over some detail of stage business, clashing with what Sargent required from the music. Gordon was in a misery. He hated compromise. Never had I seen him in such a state; he was desperate. "I cannot stand it any longer - I just cannot stand it . . . I said to Mr. Carte 'I won't have it. I won't have it'." Of course I was all ears. We all like a dust-up. "What did Mr. Carte say to that?" "Oh, I said it under my breath. I didn't let him hear me.
In one of Darrell Fancourt's early performances this took place. Gordon toured round with him a little step-ladder, placed in the prompt corner, from which he could see over the heads of the chorus. I was standing at his side. Darrell was too far upstage, and Gordon wanted him further down. He went: "Stssssss. Stsssssssssss . . . ssssssstssst." But Darrell was just minding his own business. Gordon again, a little louder: "Ssssssssssts. Ssssssssssts ... SSSsssts". No good. Darrell went on gaily with his singing. Then Gordon, really loudly with determination: "SSSSSSTZT . . . SSSSSSSSSSTZ", and his hand went: "SO" as Darrell looked up and did what was required. And Mr. darling Gordon got off his step-ladder and turned to me apologetically and said: "Mr. Oldham, one must be a brute sometimes."
And here is the other side of "our Mr. Gordon". I had rejoined the Company after seven years in musical comedy. I was excited and crazy to go back; I used to lie awake at nights thinking what I would do with Colonel Fairfax and Nanki-Poo after all this experience. It was at Leeds that I played Marco in "The Gondoliers" for the first time for seven years. Marco has a gay quality, and I had always loved him. That night I was happy: easy and free in the part, and it had been just like coming home. When the curtain fell I went to the dressing-room and was quietly taking off my make-up when old Gordon came in, sat down, and said: "Well, Derek, how do you feel about tonight's performance?" I was happy, and I told him how I felt; and he just came back with "Personally I thought you were thoroughly common." But, you know, he was right. He thought I had lost some of the "style" of G. & S. in those years away, had become a little, shall we say, musical-comedyish. And this was his way of pulling me up. He certainly pulled me up; I fell into line and became once more a "good little D'Oyly Carte actor". But I say this with all gratitude: Gordon gave me diction, much solid stage technique, and nursed the passion and sincerity for my job.
But I must tell you of the great big upheaval which nearly broke old man Gordon's heart, and at the same time washed out some traditional business for ever. Do you remember when "The Mikado" was played with fans? Millions of fans all over the place; one never stopped business with a fan. It was the day of kimonos and chrysanthemums in the hair - oh, pretty it was, too. At the "Wandering Minstrel" entrance of Nanki-Poo I wore a little pyjama jacket and pink tights-I fairly fancied myself. In the madrigal, for some forty years the business had been like this: "Brightly dawns our wedding day, etc., etc., etc., to "Ding Dong Ding Dong", and there you held your closed fan in your fist and pulled an imaginary bell rope. Just the pulling of the rope action. It was Sheffield, I think, and a matinee. Roy Royston was playing in the town, and he came to the matinee, and afterwards, idly sitting there as I took off my make-up, he remarked simply: "That's an awfully pretty little lavatory lilt you sing in Act II, the four of you." "Pretty little lavatory ...?" "Yes. Where you go 'Ding Dong' and the pulling business." Oh, very funny. We thought it was the funniest thing ever. The joke went round the Company . . . ha ha ha ha. '~Ding Dong" (pull) ha ha ha ha. How we laughed! For forty years no one had even thought of that-ha ha ha. It would be Roy Royston to think of that . . . ha ha ha. As we did not play "The Mikado" for another week the joke ran its course; then, as it is with all jokes, became flat and stale, and forgotten. The week went by, and eventually came the next Mikado. Act 11, and then the madrigal, and at the first "Ding Dong" business we remembered. There we were - four of us doing this motion. In a line. it was too much for us. We giggled. When I say 'we', I mean me and Sydney Granville and Sylvia Cecil. Cathie Ferguson had other ideas; she thought it extremely silly of three grown-up persons to be so uncontrolled. And she went on singing, all by herself, the contralto line: "What though solemn shadows fall sooner later over all." All by herself. That made it worse. We were hysterical . . . helpless . . . soundless . . . friendless; and the conductor was furious. Mr. Gordon was changing his glasses at the rate of three pairs per minute and shaking his fist at us from the wings. The audience hated us. They had waited twelve months for this performance, and here we were, giggling and helpless, not even trying to sing. They could see nothing to laugh at.
Well, all things come to an end at last, even madrigals, and with the end came: Silence. Not a hand; and never up to then had it ever missed a double encore. We were frightened, and Sylvia and I went upstage centre and the other two exited on either side. And suddenly, in the silence, came 'Tap-tap-tap-tap . . .'; it was the conductor, giving the cue for the encore. He was determined that we should sing it or he-would-know-the-reason-why-my-word-Mr.-Carte-shall- hear-of-this kind of determination. By this time we were really frightened, and we sang that darned madrigal as it had never been sung. Ding Dong and all. Just determined; no smiles, no giggles, no anything but just grim singing. Tense, het-up, ashamed. You know that little hiatus at the end where it goes "Fa Ia Ia Fa Ia Ia (One:two:three: silent) Fa Ia Ia Ia"? The darned water-pipe at the side of the stage chose that silent moment to go Urn ... oh . . . Urn . . . oh . . . Urn . . . oh!!!" And we went "Brrrrrsplashhhum" and we swept off the stage in shame. A few other Mikados followed, but the madrigal was never the same. The tension of nerves and giggles and fear somehow took away its ease and charm. Letters passed from the London management to the Company; lectures; pleadings; apologies; sorries; but in the end they cut that pulling-the-rope business for ever. And so Roy Royston can say that after forty years he once spoilt "an awfully cute bit of business" in the old Mikado.
In my time with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the following year's engagement was always settled and signed round about Easter; the year's engagement always beginning the following July or August, which was a wonderful thing, for a singer knew how he was placed for almost a year and a half ahead. When Mr. Carte came to renew my contract at Easter-time 1922, I firmly said that I wished to finish at the termination of the current engagement - 1st July. Mr. Carte was taken by surprise, and said: "But, Derek, you have an engagement here for life." I replied: "Yes, that's the trouble. It's too comfortable, and I must leave before the drug gets hold of me." I knew that for me it led nowhere; to stay any longer I should stay in a groove, and a narrow one at that. As I once told Mr. Carte, "Oh, I'm happy. But if happiness is to be had at the cost of self-development then it becomes self-indulgence.
You see, all the characters I had to play - well, nearly all the characters in Gilbert - are only pegs for words and wit; they are not flesh and blood. I know I'm on dangerous ground here saying this; but I do except, of course, all the characters in "The Yeomen of the Guard". That is why I loved playing Colonel Fairfax - he at any rate is real flesh and blood; though when I once told Mr. Gordon I thought Fairfax a cad to try and catch out Elsie Maynard in Act II he nearly had kittens.
And so began my plunge into the world of musical comedy, beginning with "Whirled into Happiness". James White needed me five weeks before my contract ended with Mr. Rupert D'Oyly Carte, and he offered Mr. Carte a very large sum to release me for those five weeks, but Mr. Carte insisted I played out my contract, so my rehearsals for the play were somewhat hectic: trains backwards and forwards to London, and on the last week the producer and the leading lady came up to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and rehearsed me there.
On the 1st July, 1922, I played my last Fairfax (for a time at any rate) at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham; dress rehearsal next day, Sunday, in London; and on Monday, 3rd July, I opened at the Lyric Theatre, London, as Horace Wiggs in "Whirled into Happiness". The D'Oyly Carte Company began their vacation that week-end, and many came on my opening night to cheer me on - Bertha Lewis, Harry Lytton, Sylvia Cecil; and many of the faithful G. & S. audience were there too, bless them.
In one scene with Tom Walls and Billy Merson I had 'to turn a somersault in a jazz number. I was rather proud of my somersault. It had taken some practising, I can tell you. One conductor assured me that when the thing actually happened a lady just to his left in the front row of the stalls put her face in her hands and was heard to moan: "Oh, Colonel Fairfax!"; and two days later I got a letter which read: "Dear Derek Oldham, Two ardent Gilbert and Sullivan-ites came to see you last night in "Whirled into Happiness". All we can say is 'Poor Wandering One . . . why hast thou so sadly strayed?' Yours, 'Disappointed'." Well, maybe they were right; but you can't fight against your own nature; I wanted the great big world, and got it. I fell in love with my leading lady of "Whirled into Happiness", Winnie Melville, and married in 1923. And so began a sequence of long runs-finishing one play and immediately launched into the next. The sheltered, almost student life of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company gave place to the hard glitter and luxury of the West End theatre -a world of restaurants, supper parties, and all the trappings that went with London theatrical life between the two wars.
After the Savoy season of 1929/30 I thought I had said farewell to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for ever. And then, in the spring of 1934, it was put to me: would I like to go to New York in the autumn for the first New York season of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and afterwards play Philadelphia and Boston? What did I feel about it? Would I? Would I? Oh, I would (that an' all).
I sailed ahead of the Company, explored the lovely Martin Beck Theatre where we were to play, knocked around New York, and pretended that at last I was really cosmopolitan! When we opened, it was a wonderful repetition of that first Princes Theatre season. New York enthused. It was the first time for fifty years they had seen the operas played as Gilbert intended they should be played. It was all a great experience and a privilege to be in the Company. New sounds; new sensations; new friends. I never lived down my remark as some Americans drove me up Fifth Avenue; we passed a reminiscent shop frontage, and I brightly said: "Oh, I see you have a Woolworths here!"
How they all accent the last syllable of a word! It is always "Cafay", "Garage", "Mr. Collet". Once the most heavenly woman with the loveliest blue eyes said: "Oh, Mr. Oldham, I do feel harassed." But there was worse to come. It just wasn't fair when they would say: "Come along, Mr. Oldham." Old? An actor - HAM . . . HAM? To say the least . . . a little cruel.
America gave me just one more big thrill-almost the nicest thing that ever happened to me in Gilbert and Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte.
When 1940 was reached, on 29th February Frederic of "The Pirates of Penzance" came of age. England had too much on her plate then to notice anything else but the stretch of phony war, but the United States made a great thing of Frederic's coming-of-age. He was out of his indentures at last, and free to marry his patient and a-bit-faded-by-now Mabel. Well, Frederic himself must have been a bit doddy.
Some friend sent me the American Gilbert and Sullivan magazine, "The Palace Peeper". I found in it the loveliest set of verses. I'm ashamed to be so pleased about them, but I feel they are a reward to me for any satisfactory work I may have done in the operas. The verses are supposed to be a letter from Mabel to Frederic on completion of their years of separation.
|I have loved you|
|'Twas my duty and I've done.|
|Now matter who the tenor|
|I have loved you every one.|
|Since you were Georgie Power|
|All my summers seventeen|
|I've devoted to the D'Oyly Cartes|
|Right down to Johnnie Dean.|
|But whether fat or thin or tall|
|You've been my "Wandering One";|
|Five continents in sixty years|
|It's been a lengthy run.|
|Oh . . . the duty's been delightful;|
|Still . . . one point I must confess.|
|Freddy dear... when you were Derek|
|That was when I loved you best.|
|Artist Index||Main Index|