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Confessions of a G & S Dragoon

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READING in yesterday’s Times that Lord Glendonbrook, the former owner of the airline BMI, is to fund Gilbert & Sullivan productions around the country gladdened my heart.

The G & S operettas were wildly popular in Victorian days but are now regarded by the snobbish elite as vulgar and low-brow. Millions of pounds is thrown at opera, which attracts a tiny and well-heeled audience (I bet most of them are bored, too) but trying to get Arts Council funding for a run of The Gondoliers is harder than flying to the moon.

Lord Glendonbrook said: ‘Gilbert & Sullivan are part of our national musical heritage.’

Well said! It all took me back to my time at grammar school in the 1960s. In those days the summer term didn’t end in May before you took your O-levels and A-levels, it ran on until the middle of July with the whole school in attendance. The period after the public exams ended in June was given over to all sorts of activities, such as counting books, sport, and for those in the Senior Choir, aged 16 to 18, the annual G & S. Many more girls were roped in for backstage jobs. And if you haven’t been to a girls’ school production of G & S, you haven’t lived.

In 1965, when I was in the fifth form, we did Patience, which has remained my favourite. 

Looking back I don’t know how we did it in the time. Work started only after the exams ended. Then there was scenery to build and paint, costumes to make and fit, the music and dialogue to be learned and rehearsed (an orchestra was put together for the occasion comprising pupils, staff, parents and friends).

The leading roles were taken by the sixth-form girls, and there were some great talents among them, both in singing and acting. The fifth-formers were the chorus, divided into Officers of the Dragoon Guards and Rapturous Maidens on the basis of height. I was tall enough to be a Dragoon.

Here are the Dragoons (I couldn’t remember which one was me, but my 16-year-old self had the surprising foresight to write the names on the back, and I am seventh from the left):

Rehearsals went on all day every day for soloists and chorus, with piano accompaniment, while the scenery and costumes were made by girls who were not in the choir. I see from the programme that there were about three dozen performers, which is a lot of costumes to whip up in a few weeks. The Dragoons were relatively simple, a red jacket with gold braid and a sash, but the maidens’ dresses and principals’ outfits were quite elaborate. Some girls learned how to do stage make-up.

We did not sing with the orchestra until the dress rehearsal. It was a thrill to have the full sound. I don’t suppose it was perfect, but it sounded great to me. This is a picture from the dress rehearsal of the end of Act One:

Then it was the first night. The school gym was close to the stage in the hall, so that was turned into a vast dressing room, where we all changed and had our make-up put on (and beards, in the case of the Dragoons). The maidens were in the first scene so they were on stage behind the curtain as the orchestra tuned up then went into the overture. In the gym we were silent, waiting for our cue to hurtle up the stairs and into the wings.

I am the least eager person to perform in public you will ever find, but being in a chorus was the greatest fun imaginable. The show raced along and it seemed we were taking the curtain call after only five minutes. The buzz afterwards was like nothing else – I could not sleep for excitement.

There were another two performances (all sold out as I remember) then it was all over. A day was spent taking everything to pieces and putting away costumes that could be saved for another production. Here is a review from one of the two local papers (no quarter given for being schoolgirls):

The staff involved must have been ultra-dedicated, but I think they enjoyed it too. I often wonder if today’s teenagers, surgically attached as they seem to be to their screens, will have a store of memories like ours to look back on nearly 50 years later. 

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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