The Bab Ballads (1999)

Read by Jim Broadbent
Directed by Mike Leigh

After the success of the film Topsy-Turvy, Jim Broadbent (who played Gilbert in the film) recorded a set of the Bab Ballads, directed by Mike Leigh (who was also responsible for the film). I received two detailed reviews of the set, which I reproduce below.

Review by Stan DeOrsey

Anyone enthused with Gilbert's wit should rush out and buy this.

First a brief overview of the Bab Ballads themselves. James Ellis counts 137 in total, but this is dependent on how you decide if an item is a Bab Ballad. Most if not all of these are in the G&S Archive for those without texts. Gilbert published approximately 119 of his Ballads in Fun between 1862 and 1871. In 1869 he collected 44 of them into the first published collection, The Bab Ballads, with More Bab Ballads following in 1873 with 36 more. Subsequently these 80 have been endlessly republished as the Complete Bab Ballads in numerous editions.

The recent recording includes only 31 ballads, but the ones most familiar and often associated with the Savoy Operas are included (list below). While the ballads are fun to read, I find poetry much more "entertaining" when read aloud. Gilbert's ballads use words, and pronunciations, with which I am often unfamiliar, thus I am slowed down in reading them and lose the rhythm — a value of the recording. The recording features Jim Broadbent and he reads them very well, with the proper accent, and with character voices when a ballad includes speech. At times you can easily imagine Gilbert is reading them. This recording was issued in association with the movie Topsy-Turvy, indeed the cover is mostly an ad for TT!

My copy of the book does not always match the words read by Broadbent, and even a stanza or two are altered. But I suspect this is less of Broadbent's doing and more of the evolution of Gilbert's work. When Gilbert published his last collection (in 1898 with Songs of a Savoyard) he "improved" or "updated" some of the ballads. I am not sure which version Broadbent used.

The one I was most pleased to hear was "A bad night of it" from 1865. This is an early version of the LC's Nightmare song in Iolanthe. Broadbent reads it quite rapidly, almost a speak-sing. It was a most enjoyable find. "Lost Mr. Blake" was another enjoyable ballad I had never read. Hopefully each of you will discover similar Gilbert gems.

At least in the US, the recording is published by Dove Audio (ISBN 0-7871-2497-4) and sells for $18. It is also available in Canada. I do not know if the UK version is the same, though I assume it is. It consists of two cassettes; no CD version exists in the US unfortunately [or anywhere —ed.]. I found my copy at Borders; Barnes and Noble did not carry it. But it is available from the usual sources on the Internet often at significantly reduced prices.

The copy I have claims to be "unabridged," but with only 31 ballads I have no idea how this can be unabridged, or even how the 31 ballads were selected as 8 were not included by Gilbert in his "complete" collection. The box cover also claims the length to be "approximately 3 hours" yet the actual recording time is less then 2 hours!! Very confusing. Is the UK version like this?

My copy did not contain any liner notes; not sure if this was an error of omission, or if all are so issued (anyone get liner notes?). Not only are there no timings, there is not even a list of the ballads read! What follows is my transcription of the ballads included. I have included the start time (mm:ss) for each one. If your tape leader is of different length, the times might need to be adjusted.

Side 1Side 2
0:33 Captain Reece
4:06 The advent of Spring
5:17 Bob Polter
9:32 The story of Prince Agib
14:03 The folly of Brown
17:40 The Bishop of Rum-Ti-Foo
21:10 Ellen McJones Aberdeen
25:47 Phrenology
29:05 The Rival Curates
32:40 end
0:13 Gentle Alice Brown
5:20 The yarn of the "Nancy Bell"
9:40 The perils of invisibility
13:41 The wise policeman
17:14 The variable baby
21:00 Jester James
26:38 To my absent husband
27:44 Peter the wag
31:40 end
Side 3Side 4
0:16 Only a dancing girl
2:22 The haughty actor
7:21 Babette's love
11:11 The story of gentle Archibald
16:24 The pantomime "super" to his mask
19:10 The Reverend Micah Sowls
23:20 Lost Mr. Blake
29:39 end
0:17 The way of wooing
2:35 The Bumboat Woman's story
8:32 A bad night of it
11:11 Emily, John, James, and I
15:04 Etiquette
21:15 To the terrestrial globe
22:16 At a pantomime
25:58 end

Again, I think you will be most pleased to hear Broadbent read Gilbert. This is a recording long over due. Rush out and enjoy.

* * * *

After reading Stan's comments, Peter Parker added:

One rather odd thing Stan DeOrsey noted was the arrangement on the two cassettes. In the UK this set of two is packed in a two cassette (side by side) case and does have a liner. This contains a list of the ballads included which are identical and in the same order, but side 2 finished with "Jester James" and side 3 starts with "To My Absent Husband." Side 3 still finishes with "Lost Mr Blake."

In the UK this cassette set is published by Penguin Audiobooks; there are the usual credits to those involved, copyright notices, etc. The liner, which in the UK is also the box cover but placed inside the box, also carries a potted (very) biography of Broadbent and references to T-T. There is also a potted biography of Gilbert, a photo of Jim Broadbent taken from a T-T still; the words "selected and directed by Mike Leigh" under an overall heading Faber Penguin. So everyone gets in on the action!!!!

The box also states "running time approx 2 hours...unabridged."

Whilst I like Broadbent's version the recordings by Stanley Holloway and Redvers Kyle are I think very much more in character; particularly "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell." There are so few recordings to choose from.

Review by Lisa Berglund

When Jim Broadbent, playing Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, began reading aloud "Our great Mikado, virtuous man," I instantly concluded that he'd listened to Stanley Holloway's brilliant recording of the Bab Ballads. Everything about Broadbent's intonation and cadence recalled Holloway's treatment of Gilbert's comic verse. (Holloway also recorded one "Song of a Savoyard," "The Ape and the Lady"). The parallel was so close, in fact, that while I was thrilled to learn that Broadbent, directed by Mike Leigh, had recorded 31 Babs in a Penguin audiobook, I wondered whether he would carve out original territory.

The first recording one hears is often personally definitive; I memorized Holloway's renditions in my salad days. With ripening judgment, I still find him superior to Broadbent in three of the four Babs that both read ("Phrenology," "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell" and "Peter the Wag"; only with "Babette's Love" do I find Broadbent as compelling, and as funny, as Holloway). Holloway seems to enjoy himself more: his performance is bigger, the final lines of the poems have more punch, and the absurdities of the stories are related with exuberant gusto. Broadbent is dryer, more deadpan; he sometimes allows the stories simply to cease.

However, Holloway only read comic narratives; the poems that Broadbent reads have greater emotional and satirical range, and for them his approach is more appropriate. That we inevitably associate Broadbent's voice with that of Gilbert, thanks to his role in T-T, just makes the performance all the more effective. (I suspect many of us associate Holloway's voice with Alfred P. Doolittle.)

Unlike Holloway's seven Babs, which were paired with Joyce Grenfel reading Hilaire Belloc's "Cautionary Tales" and marketed as a children's record, Broadbent's The Bab Ballads is definitely aimed at grownups. It offers a comprehensive selection of poems, including a number of sentimental poems and works whose specific, trenchant satire would be less accessible to children. To be sure, kids will love the outrageous violence of "Ellen McJones Aberdeen," "Gentle Alice Brown," or "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell," and will relish absurdities like "The Perils of Invisibility," "The Variable Baby" and "Etiquette." Grownups will enjoy the social satire in these pieces as well as in works like "Lost Mr. Blake" (one of my favorite Babs) and "Bob Polter."

I have a few minor quibbles: some of the poems are really not that interesting ("The Advent of Spring," "Jester James," "To My Absent Husband") and instead of three policemen poems, two of which Holloway read in his collection, why not give us "Ferdinando and Elvira" and "The Periwinkle Girl"?

Much of my c18 scholarship is devoted to the concept of the anthology, and I'm interested in the narrative that an editor creates when he selects and arranges works. One theme of The Bab Ballads is "germs of the Savoy Operas": the recording begins with "Captain Reece" and includes both familiar plot material (like "The Rival Curates" and "The Bumboat Woman's story") and poems that metamorphosed into songs ("The Way of Wooing" evolved into "A man who would woo a fair maid," "The Story of Gentle Archibald" anticipates Archibald Grosvenor's "Teasing Tom" poem, while "A Bad Night of it" contains the seeds of "The Nightmare Song").

Another and more intriguing thread, especially in the context of Topsy-Turvy, is a dark critique of Victorian theater and, by extension, of Victorian hypocrisy. This recording presents a series of Gilbert's poems on theater, ranging from the sentimental moralism of "Only a Dancing Girl"; the comic comeuppance of "The Haughty Actor"; the violent "Story of Gentle Archibald who wanted to be a clown"; the sardonic exchange in "The Pantomime 'Super' to His Mask," and finally "The Reverend Micah Sowls," with its devastating attack on the abuse of Shakespeare (with a touch at the Church). The entire recording ends with one of Gilbert's grimmest poems, "At a Pantomime by a Bilious One," which strips the paint to expose the skull beneath the skin.

Some of Broadbent's best performances come in this sequence, as he deftly moves from the pompous voice of the actor Gibbs to the querulous Super to the unctuous Sowls. Indeed, the range of accents and characters he assumes is one of the tape's greatest pleasures: I especially liked "Bob Polter" and "The Folly of Brown: By A General Agent." In "Etiquette" Broadbent chose voices for Peter Gray and Sommers that exactly match Gilbert's illustrations: the former sounds dapper and brisk, the latter pompous and self-satisfied.

Other poems in the collection not otherwise mentioned above are: "The Bishop of Rum-ti-foo," "The Wise Policeman," "Emily, John, James and I: A Derby Legend," "To the Terrestrial Globe by a Miserable Wretch," and "The Story of Prince Agib."

This recording is essential for every serious G&S collection.

Issue History
1999 Penguin Cassette 0-14-180178-6 U.K. Issue
Dove Audio Cassette 0-7871-2497-4 U.S. Issue