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"Ring The Merry Bells On Board Ship"
HMS Pinafore (or The Lass Who Loved A Sailor): Gilbert and Sullivan

by Alan D. Craxford

Introduction

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Sullivan (1)

WS Gilbert

W.S. Gilbert (2)

The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are much loved and treasured musical gems from a bygone era. They are as popular now as they ever were when written over a century ago - as can be seen by the clamour for tickets, the enthusiasm of audiences and the dedication of amateur societies in London, the provinces and around the world. “HMS Pinafore” can be described as the first written of the more popular five (along with “The Mikado”, “The Gondoliers”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “Iolanthe”). Themes from these operas still have the effect of getting toes tapping and promoting whistling whenever they are played.

The name of D’Oyly Carte will be forever linked with Gilbert and Sullivan as will the Savoy Theatre in the Strand, London. We are fortunate that this National treasure is still available and that performances are still given within it.


The plot

The operetta “HMS Pinafore” revolves around the Victorian principals of station and duty. Gilbert takes great delight in poking fun at the way accidents of birth can put the most unworthy individuals at the top of the tree while the more deserving find themselves at the bottom. On top of this is the classic “topsy-turveydom” that pervades most of his plots. I shall try to explain (by all means take notes if you will!).

Sir Joseph Porter: Leicester Amateurs

Sir Joseph Porter, KCB

George Cook as Ralph Rackstraw

George Cook as Ralph Rackstraw, Able Seaman

The Right Honourable Sir Joseph Porter KCB is the First Lord of the Admiralty but (as he delights in telling us in his patter song) he got where he was through the administrative hierarchy rather than by going to sea. “Stick close to your desks and never go to see and you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navy!”. He is also followed by a retinue of his relations (sisters, cousins and aunts) led by his Cousin Hebe.

Sir Joseph is in love with Josephine – the daughter of Captain Corcoran; the Captain of “HMS Pinafore”. Unfortunately Josephine is in love with Ralph (pronounced Raiffe) Rackstraw – one of the ratings on the boat – and he with her. Sir Joseph is determined to use his visit to the ship to press his suit. The ranking order is that an Admiral would not consider looking at a Captain’s daughter but at the same time a Captain’s daughter could not consider a lowly rating. In a series of comic conversations, duets and trios, Sir Joseph persuades Josephine that ‘Love can level ranks and therefore…”; only confirming Ralph’s suit.

Mrs Cripps (Little Buttercup – a woman who sells goods to the ships off a barrow) then befuddles the situation further by confessing that when she was younger she fostered babies. At one time she got two of them mixed up – and of course the two were Corcoran and Ralph. (Yes – I know the ages of the participants here defy logic but then logic is unimportant in G&S!!) So, at one stroke, Ralph becomes the Captain and Corcoran a mere rating. Sir Joseph has to accept that love levels rank “… to a considerable extent but not as much as that!”

Ralph and Josephine are free to marry. Corcoran and Mrs Cripps decide to wed. Sir Joseph finally accepts the blandishments from his adoring Cousin Hebe.

The proceedings finish with a quick resume of the principal themes.

“Oh Bliss, Oh Rapture! Oh Rapture! Oh Bliss!! “

Gilbert and Sullivan history

Richard D'Oyly Carte

Richard D'Oyly Carte (3)

It took some time for the literary paths of William Gilbert (barrister and librettist) and Arthur Sullivan (composer) to cross. It was almost by accident that they were invited to co-operate on a venture in 1871 which resulted in the now lost opera “Thespis”. In 1875 a budding impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte was looking for a curtain-raiser piece for an Offenbach opera (“La Perichole”). He sent a Gilbert script to Sullivan who agreed to write the music for it and this become “Trial by Jury”. It was an immediate success. They followed this with “The Sorcerer”.

Gilbert was the son of a naval surgeon. He researched the background to the navy very thoroughly prior to writing the libretto for the next opera “HMS Pinafore”. He visited Portsmouth and various ships making sketches as he went. The stage uniforms were commissioned from a naval tailor in that town.

“HMS Pinafore” was first performed on May 25th 1878. Unfortunately a series of circumstances including a stifling heat wave through June and July and the poor location of the theatre in London saw attendances plunge. Sullivan was conducting a series of Promenade Concerts that year and included tunes from “HMS Pinafore” which turned out to be a extremely popular. This kindled further interest in the opera. Audiences returned and receipts again soared. It ran for 571 performances in London.

D’Oyly Carte started a touring company to take it to the provinces. Its success also proved to be a considerable problem with regards copyright particularly in America where performances became all the rage in cities across the States – bringing massive profits to the theatre owners and producers but nothing for the authors. The official performance of “HMS Pinafore” opened in America on December 1st 1879 and proved a huge success.

The background

At the time this opera was written Britain’s Navy ‘ruled the waves’. This was the era of gunboat diplomacy – when the government sent a ship or ships to a trouble spot and expected to be obeyed. Officers came from the upper middle class and there was a tremendous gulf between them and the ratings in the lower decks. Pay was low, rations meagre and discipline harsh.

The First Lord of the Admiralty at the time was W.H.Smith (founder of the chain of newsagents). There is evidence that (uncharacteristically) Gilbert was concerned that he may have caused offence by making his First Lord a caricature of the real one. It is also noted that the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, took to calling his First Lord ‘Pinafore Smith’.

The songs

HMS Pinafore: an illustration from the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

"HMS Pinafore" (the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive)

“HMS Pinafore” is a jolly, rollicking, fast paced romp from the start of its exuberant overture to the final rousing chorus. The overture is quite long by some standards (four and a half minutes) and in relation to the length of the work (about an hour and forty minutes) but it introduces all the main themes. Several of the tunes are now so familiar that you will be whistling along with them.

Of particular note are (Official title first, popular song name in brackets):

“Hail! Men-o’war’s Men!” (“I’m Called Little Buttercup) – Mrs Cripps
“My Gallant Crew Good Morning!” (“I Am The Captain Of The Pinafore”) – Captain Corcoran
“When I Was A Lad” – Sir Joseph Porter
“Never Mind The Why Or Wherefore” - Sir Joseph Porter, Captain Corcoran, Josephine

The words and music of these song can be found on the Web Opera Pages of the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
(Select the link to the song you require. Clicking on the midi file on that page should open your media player and start the melody. To return here close the media player and then press the [BACK] button of your browser)


Continued in column 2...

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Stage performances

HMS Pinafore 2000

Programme

Sam Kelly as Sir Joseph Porter

Sam Kelly as Sir Joseph (5)

My grandfather, George Cook, was an avid Savoyard and took the tenor lead in most of the operas with the Leicester Amateur Dramatic Society in the 1920s and early 1930s. Recently we found a photograph album that he collated and annotated of their season at the Opera House, Leicester in March 1922. Many of his pictures have been reproduced in the article "HMS Pinafore" - 1922 by George Cook

There is something very special (and quintessentially English) about seeing the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company perform a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta at The Savoy Theatre. I was lucky enough to see a matinee performance of this stage production during its first run in early 2000. This marked the return of the Company to its ancestral home after a ten year absence. It was an enjoyable and memorable afternoon.

This same production ran again for a limited season at the Savoy Theatre in London until early March 2003. It starred Sam Kelly (Bunny Warren from “Porridge”) as Sir Joseph Porter and was produced by Raymond Gubbay Ltd.


Other resources

'HMS Pinafore' cover from the D'Oyly Carte CD collection

The CD

Although recorded half a century ago, my copy of “HMS Pinafore” comes from the hey-day of D’Oyly Carte as an institution. John Reed is the fifth in a line going directly back to George Grossmith of comic baritones. He has followed the tradition with the Company by playing all the leading comedian roles over three decades (1951 to 1979). His diction in even the fastest of the patter songs defied belief for its clarity. The other soloists are all competent in their roles. The orchestral sound is crisp, clear and bright.

This recording is one of a series featuring all the popular operettas performed by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company originally released by DECCA on the London label. It features the full libretto (spoken as well as sung). My CD copy comes from 1989 and is an Analogue to Digital Remaster.

A Gilbert & Sullivan Libretto. 'HMS Pinafore'

Libretto

I can heartily recommend it.


“HMS PINAFORE” - Gilbert & Sullivan (1959)

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
The New Symphony Orchestra of London: Conducted by Isidore Godfrey OBE.
Soloists: John Reed (Sir Joseph Porter); Jeffrey Skitch (Capt. Corcoran)
Thomas Round (Ralph Rackstraw); Gillian Knight (Little Buttercup)
CD: LONDON 414283-2 (£11.99)


LIBRETTO

“HMS Pinafore” or “The Lass That Loved A Sailor”.
International Music Publications Ltd (1993)

THE VIDEO

D'Oyly Carte recording of 'HMS Pinafore' DVD 1973

"HMS Pinafore": D'Oyly Carte recording (1973)

I have a (now rare) film performance staged by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company during the 1970s starring John Reed on VHS Video. This shows the delightful lengths to which the Company took the adlibs and the staged encours of the major songs and entrances. There is a very detailed examination and discussion of the making of and subsequent releases of this production at The 1973 D'Oyly Carte Pinafore Video (6)

'HMS Pinafore' from The BBC DVD collection

The BBC DVD

Frankie Howerd as Sir Joseph Porter (5)

Frankie Howerd as Sir Joseph (5)

There is a full series of specially staged productions (originally by the BBC) which is offered as a boxed set of DVDs from Amazon (America).

In “HMS Pinafore” Sir Joseph Porter is played by Frankie Howerd. Perhaps an unusual choice (given Gilbert’s qwerky writing of the character and Howerd’s qwerky brand of humour), nevertheless he does keep his trademarks largely under control and makes a fair stab at the patter songs.

As is the case with all these presentations, each act is introduced by Douglas Fairbanks Junior. The DVD is completed with a short but quite interesting “Making Of” feature which includes a very relaxed interview with Frankie discussing his role.

“HMS Pinafore” (2002) DVD ACORN Media AMP5319


G&S trivia spot

Sir Michael Bishop (Chairman of BMI airline) is an avid Savoyard and is chairman of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Footnote

The first version of this article originally appeared on CIAO on March 27th 2003.


References

1. Sir Arthur Sullivan (detail of a portrait by John Millais, 1888; National Portrait Gallery, London): Student Britannica
2. W.S. Gilbert: The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
3. Richard D'Oyly Carte: The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company
4. Sam Kelly as Sir Joseph Porter KCB: BBC News
5. Frankie Howerd as Sir Joseph Porter KCB: The Frankie Howerd web site
6. The 1973 D'Oyly Carte Opera Company 'HMS Pinafore' Recording: A Gilbert and Sullivan Discography

BACK TO "An Appreciation of Gilbert & Sullivan (in 14 parts)"


Page added - November 21st 2005
Last updated - April 26th 2019




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