Bab Ballads and Cautionary Tales

The Bab Ballads of W. S. Gilbert and Cautionary Verses of Hilaire Belloc
Read by Joyce Grenfell and Stanley Holloway
Directed by Howard Sackler

The description as printed on the album cover is a little misleading, as Stanley Holloway reads Gilbert and Joyce Grenfell reads Belloc. There is also some confusion about the title: the Belloc contribution is described as "Cautionary Tales" on the front of the sleeve and on the spine, but as "Cautionary Verses" on the back.

Chris Webster pointed out that Stanley Holloway is now probably best remembered as Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, but he did play Pooh-Bah in the Groucho Marx Mikado. The label is the 'Caedmon Literary Series,' and one assumes that they specialised in records of books / plays / poems, etc. The 45rpm issue apparently includes only the Bab Ballads, not the Cautionary Verses.

Contents are as follows:

Side A
Bab Ballads
Side B
Cautionary Verses
  1. The Sensation Captain
  2. Ben Allah Achmet; or, the Fatal Tum
  3. Phrenology
  4. The Ape and the Lady
  5. Babette's Love
  6. Peter the Wag
  7. The Yarn of the Nancy Bell
  1. About John, Who lost a Fortune by Throwing Stones
  2. Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion
  3. Henry King, Who chewed bits of String, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies
  4. Godolphin Horne, Who was cursed with the Sin of Pride, and Became a Boot-Black
  5. Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death
  6. Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father
  7. Lord Lundy, Who was too Freely Moved to Tears, and thereby ruined his Political Career; Lord Lundy (Second Canto)
  8. George, Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions
  9. Maria, Who made Faces and a Deplorable Marriage
  10. Sarah Byng, Who could not read and was tossed into a thorny hedge by a Bull
  11. Charles Augustus Fortescue, Who always Did what was Right, and so accumulated an Immense Fortune
  12. Jack and his Pony, Tom
  13. Tom and his Pony, Jack
  14. The Example
  15. The Garden Party

The back of the album cover of the 45rpm issue (the front side of which is pictured below) has the following description:

This is a record for people, even children, who love morsels of murder and mayhem, and are not at all dismayed by some of the really peculiar things that can happen to people. It is an established fact that in spite of (or because of?) such goings-on, generations have grown up loving the Bab Ballads. As for us, we think it is a pity to waste such sophisticated verses on the very young, and recommend them whole-heartedly to their elders as well.

Review by Lisa Berglund

Caedmon TCE 145
Caedmon TCE 145

I can't imagine a better pairing, or quartet, of two of England's greatest comic actors with two of England's greatest comic poets. Any child (or adult) lucky enough to possess a copy of this recording will inevitably play it often enough recite from memory every poem, complete with a slavish imitation of each of Grenfell's upper-class hoots and Holloway's orotund growls.

The selection of Bab Ballads is an excellent introduction to Gilbert's comic poetry. One "Song of a Savoyard" appears, "The Ape and the Lady" from Princess Ida; as a formal satire of Darwinian theory it works well out of the context of the opera. The other six selections are fairly representative of the major themes of the Ballads; satires of French and English provincialism ("Babette's Love"), popular fads and familiar character types ("Phrenology," "Peter the Wag") and absurd people in absurd situations, replete with comic violence ("Ben Allah Achmet," "The Sensation Captain"). Even Gilbert's favorite dream of a South Sea idyll makes a brief appearance. Every poem receives a beautifully nuanced treatment from Holloway, who adopts different voices and accents for the various characters without ever swamping Gilbert's humor with his own comic genius.

The collection does not include any ballads on theatre and pantomime. Admittedly, those poems are often less funny and more strongly satirical than Gilbert's other ballads, and in the context of a record intended principally for children the omission makes sense. A few of my favorite poems are missing—I wish Holloway had recorded "Etiquette," "Ferdinando and Elvira," "Eheu Fugaces" and "Lost Mr. Blake." Conspicuous by their absence are the ballads often known to casual fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, the poems that Gilbert adapted for the Savoy operas, such as "The Bumboat Woman's Story," "Captain Reece," "Jo Golightly," and "The Fairy Curate."

Of course, the gem of the collection is "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell," Gilbert's brilliant parody (homage? imitation?) of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Holloway supplies a plaintive little tune for refrain of the "painful yarn" that the old sailor tells the narrator, and I'm sure it's exactly what Gilbert had in mind.

Clearly Belloc learned a lot from Gilbert, and his poems provide just as much pleasure, albeit of a simpler, more acerbic sort. Bad little boys and girls are devoured by lions, tossed by mad bulls, roasted and exploded, disowned or disinherited. Rather like Gilbert's topsy-turvy world, the universe of the Cautionary Verses presents Victorian morality carried to a savagely hilarious but logical conclusion. After runaway Jim is eaten by a lion,

His mother, as she dried her eyes,
Said, well, it gives me no surprise;
He would not do as he was told.
His father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James's miserable end,
And always keep a hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

Grenfell's endearingly starchy reading of these poems will ensure that fanatical fans of Gilbert will enjoy the "B" side just as well.

Issue History
1959 Caedmon Literary Series Mono LP TC 1104
45rpm TCE 145/146