10 September 1999 | alice liddell
Save Gilbert and Sullivan now!
For a good while now, there have been persistant fears in Britain about both the declining quality, and quantity, of arts-based programmes on television. This is undoubtedly true (note the South Bank Show's humiliating ratings-chasing decline), and OMNIBUS itself is hardly the force it was a couple of decades ago (a recent edition concerned British sitcoms, like they aren't dissected every two minutes in this culture), although it can still spring surprises, like the Jean Renoir double-programme about five years ago. Last night I saw an edition called 'Gilbert and Sullivan: Instant Merriment', which was one such treat.
It wasn't specifically about the duo per se, but a Gilbert and Sullivan obsessive and businessman, Ian Smith, who, sensing a decline in G&S appreciation since the disbanding of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1982 (whose raison d'etre was to stage specifically the Savoy Operas), tried to revivify interest by setting up a G&S International Festival, in 1997, in the US and Britain.
The brilliance of the programme was the way it set up and moved from the buzz and elation of putting on the festival, the sight (and sound) of different American amateur companies performing these sublime works, or devotees singing choruses on buses to the bewilderment of natives, or pretentious, prolix Anglophiles marvelling at English 'refinement', to the melancholy reality of lack of interest, poor ticket sales, gradual (though denied) disillusionment.
There is little attempt to explain why G&S could be relevant today - most people talk about their jolly good fun, or, at best, 'gentle satire'. But G&S are savage: the music makes use of sophisticated, subversive pastiche, parody and irony; while Gilbert's lyrics can be brutal, bitter, nasty, cruel, mocking, and laceratingly satiric behind the polished verse. There is little sympathy with authority, repression, hypocrisy, double-talk, stereotypes or the cult of mother-love.
As well as being a brilliant, furious attack on the British establishment, The Mikado, for example, is the first post-colonial critique, perceptively noting the repressive systems of signification behind British (and Western) Orientalism. Why do you think Mike Leigh is making a film about them? One pioneering producer has sensed this, and we see some of her intriguing modern-dress versions of G&S, set in Northern mills etc., which politicise G&S to the horror of old school connoisseurs.
It is these fuddy-duddy relics who are responsible for G&S's decline. For them, the Savoy Operas are a cosy, unchanged, untroubled Victorian idyll; their biggest proponents seem to be clergymen, businessmen, and silly Americans. Too many old fogeys reminisce Rowley Birkin, QC-style about the dear things, and you feel, to your horror, that you're turning into your grandparents because you adore G&S. One similarly-minded critic bemoans this 'ossified' treatment, suggesting an injection of new blood with the use of comedians such as Stephen Fry or Harry Enfield. An intriguing idea (why stop there - what about a SOUTH PARK Mikado?), but one thing is for sure: Gilbert would have poured moulten scorn on the timid little minds seeking to make respectable his name.