I’m aware that quite a number of people have come to my blog via the Sunningdale Savoy Chorus website. Hello! Here is a picture of me as The Learned Judge in the SSC’s first ever show, Trial by Jury, aged 21. I haven’t aged a bit.
Readers of this blog may recall I was recently invited to be a Vice President of said amateur operatic society in kind recognition of the work I put in to help start it up. I am profoundly honoured.
It was gruelling at the time, from writing and designing the initial posters to attract members, to assembling costumes to making the scenery for an entire courtroom in my dad’s garage. Then there was keeping the rehearsal pianist in check and making sure everybody felt happy and involved (including the pianist). On top of that there were the singing lessons with professional tenor Maldwyn Davies – a lovely man – who opened up my singing voice to the bass-baritone it is now, even though I don’t sing on stage these days. I do miss performing in G & S and remember it all fondly, half a lifetime later!
It was the autumn of 1990 when the idea of starting a local society to perform Gilbert and Sullivan in Sunningdale first crystallised. The first show was in the April of 1991. The SSC is still going strong, and I’m proud of that.
For my part, I had been a G & S fan ever since my Grandad bought me LP sets of The Yeomen of the Guard and HMS Pinafore from a British Legion jumble sale at the age of, well, probably eight or nine. I didn’t really get Yeomen at first, it seemed very serious and distant, but Pinafore I loved from the first roll of the drums in the overture. If anyone wants to know what to play at my funeral (I have no plans to have one quite yet) it would be the Pinafore overture at the start and The Long Day Closes, a beautiful part song by Arthur Sullivan, at the end. I realise the Pinafore overture isn’t at all funereal but I come from a family that prefers not to upset people at funerals.
Later, when I became politically engaged I was drawn to the satire of W S Gilbert, which through fourteen collaborations with Sullivan and countless individual works poked fun at the British and our institutions. I’m proud to have sung in a concert version of Ivanhoe, Arthur Sullivan’s only grand opera, alongside Robin Wilson, son of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson – HW was a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan himself. G & S defies political boundaries because it defies political certainties. Even the most patriotic-seeming moment is in fact a send-up of patriotic-seeming moments.
The name Sunningdale Savoy Chorus came from a discussion with the co-founder, John Woodward-Roberts, who was also at the Civil Service College in Sunningdale at the time. I was adamant that Sunningdale and Savoy had to be in there (we were going to perform the Savoy operas after all, and Gilbert and Sullivan was longwinded) and I didn’t like the implied stuffiness of a ‘society’, so I proposed Chorus instead. It suggested singing, togetherness and equality for all members.
So we had a name. Then the hard work started – begging to get flyers up in shop windows, post offices, GPs’, dentists’ and vets’ surgeries, churches, anywhere that would take them. Then there was deciding what we would be performing when we eventually got going. And then there was the hard task of finding interested members and firmly cajoling them along to rehearsals. It was an early lesson in organising that I would pick up in politics later.
Once we got our singers to a rehearsal they were usually hooked. With bigger, wealthier societies not far away I’m not sure what made ours come or what made them stay. A draughty little village hall a way off the beaten track with hardly any parking must have seemed daunting. The welcome from new members who had settled in, though, was always friendly and very soon a spirit of camaraderie sprang up. Even the iffy piano skills of our first rehearsal pianist didn’t put people off. There was pleasure for me in having helped to draw this diverse group of performers together, though I was only 21 at the time, and quite shy.
I think back on rehearsals and those sublime moments when everything comes together musically – the pianist enjoying a rare moment of keyboard clarity, the soloists finally on top of their part and the chorus having really got their heads around the intricacies of their line. At those moments, back then in a cold hall in Berkshire in the early nineties, it was magical. There was a sense of lift, a sense we were together and achieving as a team.
We would emerge into the night after a rehearsal to find people standing in the dark on the pavement outside, waiting to tell us how beautiful it sounded. For me, there are only two feelings to match that kind of unity in song – one is rowing as part of an eight when the blades are dipping and feathering exactly in unison, the other is winning elections.