The Gilbert and Sullivan For All Films

In 1972, the group Gilbert and Sullivan For All, with stars Donald Adams and Thomas Round, made a set of eight hour-long G&S educational films. All the operas except Trial By Jury were drastically cut-down, with linking narration knitting the scenes together. Most of the popular operas were included, except for Patience (because it had no role for Round).

The narration seems to have been recorded multiple times. For the PBS broadcasts in the U.S., the narrator was James Stuart, founder and patter baritone with the Ohio Light Opera Company. Pirates was rebroadcast on New York's WNET in the early 1980s with narration by Canadian comics Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster. I have heard that Wayne and Shuster recorded narration for others of the series, as well. For the U.K. versions, the story teller was either Andrew Faulds or David Doddimead. One correspondent has reported copies narrated by Peter Murray, who was also the G&S For All musical director.

The only home video re-issue is from Musical Collectables, the marketing arm of the annual Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, with new introductions and narration by G&S For All's surviving founder, Thomas Round. The series is packaged on four 2-hour tapes. I've watched the first group, Pinafore/Gondoliers and Yeomen/Pirates. Chris Webster's review of the second batch is below.

The productions, despite being heavily abridged, are beautifully costumed and staged. Business and blocking are in the traditional manner, but do not slavishly reproduce D'Oyly Carte stagings. The choreography could be more ambitious, but what's there is at least adequate. Fifty-something Tom Round's voice is in glorious bloom, and all the others sing well, though the balance between voices is a little off-kilter at times. These films provide rare glimpses of many former D'Oyly Carte stars; for this reason, if no other, they are must-haves.

Unfortunately, the transfers are beset by every imaginable technical problem. The original film stock has not worn well — I am told they used Round's personal copies. Colors look like they've been processed through a cobwebby-gray filter. I asked my then-wife how old the films looked, and she guessed the 1940s.

Tom Round's narration is delivered with enthusiasm, but the constant switching between modern video and decades-old film is jarring. Often, Round comes on-screen before the music has stopped, or is left on-screen as the music is starting. Several musical tags are amputated mid-note. There are occasional lip-sync problems and drop-outs. In short, this is not a quality editing job, though perhaps the original materials are so far degraded that no better could be done. There's also lots of flicker while Round speaks — no excuse for this, since the narrations are all new. Possibly this was introduced during the conversion from PAL to NTSC.

Because the productions include only about half of the music, and none of the dialogue, Round comes on-screen after every number, and sometimes even in middle of a number, to explain what's going on in the plot. Although it gets tedious after a while, it clearly had to be done. But why must he give the story away ahead of time? For example, in The Gondoliers, he tells us that Luiz is the King, just before Inez comes on and makes the disclosure herself.

I never saw the films before the Musical Collectibles re-issue, but I am told that every version of the narration suffered from similar flaws, or worse. For example, Savoynetter Arthur Robinson says that the PBS narrations were “interminable, embarrassing, and, as I recall, condescending to G&S (and to the British in general).”

The sound tracks are taken from the group's fine set of stereo recordings dating from 1972, although Belinda Smith, whose father runs Musical Collectables, says that in some cases timings from the recordings didn't track exactly to the film, which would explain the occasional lip-sync problems. In any event, the new transfers offer a very poor sound quality, which is inexcusable given the excellent source from which they came.

The Gondoliers is perhaps the best. This opera has less plot than most, so it suffers least from abridgement. The scenes are colorful, and John Cartier's hen-pecked Duke in the second act is truly memorable. Yeomen, on the other hand, has a very dense plot, and the abridgement here trivializes it out of existence. Pirates suffers from such severe technical degredation that it is practically unwatchable. Pinafore is a must-see for Valerie Masterson's contribution, but is otherwise a bit dull, and the film stock is in poor condition.

Overall, these are videos most G&S fans will want to have, but in such poor condition they are no longer suitable as an introduction to the operas, which was their original purpose.

Review by Chris Webster

[Note: This is a review of the second batch as re-issued by Musical Collectibles, namely Trial, Iolanthe, Mikado, and Ruddigore. —Ed.]

I found these to be far more enjoyable to watch than the original four. When I saw the original batch I was very put off by the quality, and even on re-viewing after a lengthy passage of time, I was still put off, because my memory of the initial shock was still in my mind with the pictures I was viewing. This was not the case with the second batch. I knew the quality would be a bit 'crumby' and was ready for it.

At the moment, I have only watched these on mono equipment, which does not show up the inadequacies of the sound quality as much as if I was to hear the soundtracks on good stereo equipment, so although the sound quality is not good, I did not suffer the audio uneveness that was apparent between old film and new links when I watched the other tapes. This made it a much more pleasant listening experience than before. Until I watch these on better equipment, I will not know if the uneveness is still there on this second batch. However, the sound quality of the original film is still not good.

A short while ago, I compared the LP of Pinafore to the video soundtrack and found that they were indeed indeed the same sound source, although the LP had been cut down a little in parts. For example, at one point the LP track finishes, but the film sound continues with Deadeye ringing the ship's bell. I think there were also occasional sounds to be heard on the film that are not on the record, but nevertheless it is definitely the same recording that is being mimed to. Every slight nuance seems to be the same between the two different sources, which would be very difficult to repeat exactly the same if two recordings were made. I was able to adjust the speed of the LP suitably so that I could turn the film sound off and watch the pictures with the stereo LP recordings in sync, and this brought much more life to the whole experience.

The poor editing and many of the visual technical faults in changeover from film to video that were evident in the first reissues are still there, including occasional 'clipping', but these do not seem to be as drained of colour as the first batch was. I don't suppose anything has been done to improve on the last batch though. This is probably because the originals of these films have worn better — certainly better than Pinafore, which had the worst colour quality of the last batch. There appear to be fewer problems with keeping the sound in sync with the pictures. This was a major problem when it happened on the earlier issues (particularly in the “Very Model of a MMG”). I think the only syncing problems to be found here are down to the artists miming to the sound, but this is generally done pretty well.

A question has now been answered for me, which was whether Trial would be complete or cut into sections. The other operas have banded tracks on the LPs as per the filmed segments, but Trial is complete and unbanded, and this led me to wonder if this meant that the film ran straight through, and I am happy to find that this is the case. Trial runs through without any breaks, pauses or interruptions and very good it is, too.

I think Donald Adams comes over particularly well. I am a great admirer of this artiste, not only from some of the superb performances on record, but also of personal experience of seeing him live, and I was quite disappointed that the earlier issues did not do him justice at all. He came over better as Deadeye than in any of the other roles — certainly his Pirate King did not come over as well as it should have in the film presentation. Quite often, I thought that these films did not do him justice at all, and I really don't know why this should be, but here his full personality is captured as the Usher, and his is the best Usher I have seen, and is a joy to watch.

Tom Round as Edwin does not look any different to his Edwin as seen in the film, The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan, despite a difference of two decades. The Judge in this instance is played by Lawrence Richard, who plays the 'Pooh Bah' roles in the other films (or in most of them). I still prefer the role to be played by a lighter voice, but his portrayal was most adequate, and I don't think it would have been any different had John Cartier played the role, as although he is the usual patter man in these films, I think that his voice is too heavy for the roles.

I shan't give full reviews but here are a few snatched comments: One unexpected moment is to be found right at the end of the “Blameless Dances” sequence in Ruddigore which I thought was hysterically funny, but I will not spoil this for future viewers The men's chorus in Ruddigore Act One are restored to military uniforms (which I have never used seen on stage) rather than the "civvies" which later replaced these costumes in DC performances. The fairies in Iolanthe are played straight and are the better for it. The opening chorus is quite a delightful balletic sequence. KK and NP wigs in The Mikado look awful. In the introduction to the Mikado film, Tom Round tells the story of his own personal introduction to the operas and how he joined the D'Oyly Carte Company. Those who have seen his one man show will know this story, but it is nice to have him telling it on video. It is a shame that his shows given at the Festivals have not been issued on video.

In general, despite the technical imperfections and limitations (that I was now ready for), I found the second batch of films to be very enjoyable. Perhaps after seeing and enjoying these I will now be able to go back to the first four films and enjoy them more than I have done in the past.

See also the article on the
Gilbert and Sullivan For All recordings.
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