I often state that my classical music interest began when I was a ‘Pirate’ in the school production of The Pirates of Penzance in 1971. However, I can push this back at least three years. It was the invariable custom at Coatbridge High School to produce a Savoy Opera shortly before breaking-up for the summer recess. The tradition went back to the 1920s. In later years, the school abandoned this practice in favour of a ‘school concert’ which no doubt reflected the politically-driven aspirations of a ‘non-elitist’ head-teacher. (As if G&S could be regarded as elitist). How much verbal banter and badinage have I had from more ‘sophisticated’ friends who, in their superior wisdom, eschewed this enchanting form of entertainment)?
In my first year at school, 1967/68 the opera chosen was Ruddigore. Acting in the operas was only open to 4th formers upwards, so I was relegated to the audience. I remember getting tickets from the music department and going along to one of the week-long performances with my parents. I think they were happy to encourage their 12 year old son in anything that was not The Beatles or whatever pop and rock group was dominating the airwaves at that time. Ruddigore it was. I can still remember waiting for the opera to start. My father had explained that there would be an overture before the curtains opened- operatic practice and etiquette were closed books to me. Sure enough, the conductor, Mr Radcliffe, who was head of music, arrived on the podium, with a discreet lamp for reading the score. The overture started: it was the very first time I had heard a ‘live’ orchestra.’ Then the curtains of the purpose built school theatre, which also doubled up as the assembly room, swung open.
Some 46 years on I can still recall being bowled over by the painted scene of the Cornish fishing village of Rederring with the girls tripping in singing ‘Fair is Rose as bright May-day’. If I am honest I cannot now recall what I felt about the music. It was so different to my usual diet of tunes heard on Radio Luxembourg, Radio One and the lately defunct Radio Scotland and Caroline ‘pirates’. I guess that Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett were my progenitors of musical taste. At home, the only classical music I had heard were some piano pieces, including Liebesträume, the Revolutionary Study and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring played by the pianist Ronald Smith and excerpts from Messiah as performed by the Huddersfield Choral Society under Sir Malcolm Sargent. My father had a cousin, apparently, who had sung in that legendary recording. Then there was an LP of folksongs sung by Kathleen Ferrier which I roundly detested. More mature years have allowed me to re-evaluate this beautiful disc.
It was in the second act that I really became awake to the nature of G&S and amateur dramatics. This is set in the Picture Gallery of Castle Ruddigore. As all good Savoyards will know the ancestral pictures come to life to object to Robin Oakapple/Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd’s reticence in carrying out his bad deeds. I think I was as scared as a twelve years old boy would be prepared to admit. Even now, as I think back, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I have come to consider that the song ‘When the Night Wind Howls/In the Chimney Cowls’ is one of the very best things to issue from the G&S. Then, it was just scarily realistic. For the first time in my life, I was truly wrapped up in a theatre performance: I guess I really believed that I was present in Castle Ruddigore.
I also recall being distressed by Mad Margaret: even now I think that she is one of the most powerful and disturbing characters in any of the Savoy Operas.
I regard Ruddigore as being one of my favourite Gilbert & Sullivan opera in spite of the fact that it is not usually regarded with as much esteem as The Mikado or The Gondoliers. The music is typically charming, and in the ghost scene, full of drama. The plot may have been criticised, but I find it a pleasant blend of ‘Merrie England’ and Gothic Horror.
The following year Coatbridge High School performed The Gondoliers and the year after Princess Ida. It was at this point that I resolved that I wanted to be a Pirate.
p.s. The illustration is of the edition of the score that was in the school music library. They bring back many happy memories.