Delving into the melodic ballads of Gilbert and Sullivan

Jimmy Cricket
Jimmy Cricket

Columnist Jimmy Cricket writes about his love of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Dear readers, come closer ... you know some things in life puzzle me! For instance was Banksy, the graffiti artist, a bona fide painter before his wife drove him up the wall?

Another thing I used to ponder was Gilbert and Sullivan. No, not Gilbert O’ Sullivan, the famous piano playing pop star, but the legendary light opera composers and lyricists. And that’s what puzzles me. Which one wrote the words and which one wrote the music?

All was revealed quite unexpectedly when I got a booking to play the Grims Dyke Hotel in Harrow, north west London, a few weeks ago.

As Mrs Cricket and I pulled up outside the hotel there was a large sign to the left of the reception entrance: “The house was built 1870 by the famous architect Richard Norman Shaw for the great Victorian era painter Fredrick Goodall”.

Wait for this, as I read further, it said: “It was also the former home of WS Gilbert, author and librettist”. Well, there it was in black and white for the entire world to see. Gilbert wrote the words ... and what wonderful words they were. Take “The Pirates of Penzance”. You’ve got melodic ballads like “Poor Wandering Eyes” to tongue twisting novelty numbers like “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”.

I just had to delve into this guy’s story. It was at once uplifting, inspiring and tragic. In 1890 William Gilbert purchased the property for the princely sum of £4,000 and had it completely revamped. He wrote his last ten works there in the library, overlooking the croquet lawn. He was a big animal lover, keeping farm animals like Jersey cows. He also, would you believe, built a lake covering one and a half acres, with an island in the middle, that included an artificial waterfall. Here’s a man who didn’t do things by halves. William used to have a swim in the lake every day from March until September. Sadly it led to his premature death.

On May 29 1911 William had kindly arranged to give a swimming lesson in the lake to the niece of two well known actors of the day. The lady, called Winifred, was a teacher who lived locally, who brought along one of her pupils, Ruby. They both climbed into the lake while William was still changing.

Ruby, who could swim a little, headed off. However, she misjudged the depth and got into trouble. When Gilbert heard her cries for help, he quickly ran out of the changing room and plunged into the lake. When he reached her, he blurted out “don’t be frightened, put your hands on my shoulders and don’t struggle.”

These were the last words he uttered for, while he was rescuing the young lady, he had a fatal heart attack in the water. Both Winifred and Ruby made it to safety, where they alerted the gardener, who took a boat out and recovered William’s body. He was laid out on the billiard table in the house, where the family doctor pronounced him dead. A distraught Lady Gilbert had the lake drained soon after. She herself died in 1936. In her will, she left the house and grounds to the local Harrow Council with the stipulation that at least four Gilbert and Sullivan operas are performed there every year by local operatic and am-dram societies.

Up util 1963 it was used as a rehabilitation hospital for people suffering from tuberculosis. From then it was used as a prime location for films and television. One of the most noteworthy was a documentary made in 1975, by the poet John Betjeman, about WS Gilbert, called “Metro-land”. Harrow Council then leased it to Great Western, who turned it into a historical hotel. In 1996 it underwent a £3 million refurbishment. They’ve brought it up to date, at the same time preserving the great musical legacy of the past. The library where William penned his famous words is exactly as it was. The hotel is a haven of tranquillity, within earshot of the teeming metropolis.

AND THERE’S MORE ... somewhere where Gilbert and Sullivan operas have been put on many times is the Playhouse Theatre in Preston. I plan to polish up my Wellies, and take a letter from my mammy with me, when I head there on Sunday July 14 for a Gala Variety Show in aid of Age Concern.

It would be great to meet LEP reader friends of mine who come to cheer us on. Box Office 077389 15848.