The Old D'Oyly Carte on Film and Video

Regrettably, only three complete performances by the old D'Oyly Carte Opera Company were recorded on film or video. The Company's first “toe in the water” experiment with TV came with a 1965 Patience broadcast on the BBC. This was a "one-off" and apparently was not intended to be the first of a series. The tape is not known to survive. The BBC did a lot of house-cleaning before home video came on the market, not realizing that even unimportant "vintage" television programs would someday be valuable. The 1965 Patience may well have been a casualty.

On three occasions, The Savoyard (the Friends of D'Oyly Carte house organ) announced deals to record all the operas for television. The first such deal produced the 1966 Mikado, but no reason was ever given for not continuing the series. The production, although filmed on a studio set, substantially recreated the Company's stage production of the time. Besides being shown on television, it also enjoyed a brief theatrical release. The performance itself was, unfortunately, rather flat, but at least the D'Oyly Carte style was captured. Interestingly, in 1994 I was in a production of The Mikado staged by the D'Oyly Carte's last patter baritone, Alistair Donkin, and the blocking was essentially the same in this film.

The second deal was announced about 1973, with Pinafore first in the series. It was taped and shown complete on the BBC, and shown on the CBS television network in an hour-long abridgedement. I have never seen this production, but the reviews I have received strongly suggest that the company was well into its sad decline at the time it was made. As in 1966, the series ended without explanation.

The third deal was supposed to be with Brent Walker. Plans apparently were well advanced (perhaps dates even scheduled) to record all the operas in the D'Oyly Carte productions, but something must have gone wrong. Again, no information was ever made public on what happened or why, but Walker went on to produce the series without any D'Oyly Carte involvement.

Two other films are worthy of mention. In 1926, the D'Oyly Carte shot a four-minute promotional film of The Mikado, to showcase the new production by Charles Ricketts. Very few copies are known to exist, and for copyright reasons it is not widely available.

In 1939, there was a full technicolor production of The Mikado. This was not a D'Oyly Carte performance--the libretto was even rewritten--but the D'Oyly Carte chorus participated, Geoffrey Toye conducted, and two D'Oyly Carte principals (Martyn Green and Syndney Granville) took leading roles.

Correspondent Robert Morrison provided the following excerpt from Clemence Bettany's history of the company included in the souvenir booklet D'Oyly Carte Centenary 1875 - 1975: 100 years of D'Oyly Carte and Gilbert and Sullivan, (published by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust in 1975), as it provides a few additional details about the D'Oyly Carte film and T.V. productions:

The following year the company rehearsed a new production of The Mikado by the well-known opera director, Anthony Besch, which was presented in London at the Savoy season in 1964 (16 December - 4 April, 1964). The designer was Disley Jones. Like Goffin, Besch and Jones thought so highly of the Ricketts' costumes that they retained them (with the exception of Nanki-Poo). The set was designed around them with transparent screens of pale grey rouged with red-gold. It was an idealised picture of Gilbert's Japan of "vase and jar, screen and fan".

It was not so much a new production of the opera, there were no enormous changes, it was more a question of re-thinking and regrouping, of making the performers re-assess what they were doing and why. Bridget D'Oyly Carte gave Besch Gilbert's own prompt books. He discovered on studying them many things considered "traditional" were of recent origin. As Besch explained, “Artists can't always be thinking up new things, so what has tended to happen is that a singer has sometimes automatically taken over bits of stage business from a predecessor.” Besch himself remembered the records made by the company in the thirties where, “Comes a train of little ladies” was sung rather lyrically. It was now taken rather briskly and the business on the stage had become rather fussy. Besch changed the stage movements and Isidore Godfrey automatically reverted to the tempo that Besch remembered.

The next two London seasons took place at the Saville Theatre in 1965 (6 December - 12 February, 1966), and 1967 (18 December- 24 February, 1968). The lessee of the theatre was the late Brian Epstein.

During the first of these two seasons the company made what was virtually their first full length television debut in Patience, shot from the stage of the Saville. Cox and Box had been televised earlier in 1952.

In between these two London seasons the company were involved in the making of a new film of The Mikado. It was filmed from the stage of the Golders Green Hippodrome and because of the tour schedule had to be completed in two weeks. The director, Stuart Burge, based the direction of the film on Besch's stage production. Inadvertently the old film with Green and Fancourt had recently been reissued and the new production company, British Home Entertainments, was forced to ask the distributors to withdraw it. The producers of the new version (which was in colour) were Anthony Havelock-Allan and John Brabourne and featured John Reed as Ko-Ko, Donald Adams as the Mikado, Kenneth Sandford as Pooh-Bah, Philip Potter as Nanki-Poo, Thomas Lawlor as Pish-Tush, Valerie Masterson as Yum-Yum and Christene Palmer as Katisha; Isidore Godfrey conducted the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The Company were also involved in a rather unusual film project, a cartoon version of Ruddigore made by the husband and wife team of John Halas and Joy Batchelor. Miss Batchelor spent three years working on the cartoon. The company were responsible for the soundtrack, recording the opera first, under the direction of James Walker, musical director of the company (Isidore Godfrey retired in 1968 after 43 years with the company). The cartoon characters were then matched to the sound. James Lawrie, the general administrator of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust, was co-producer.

I have not previously heard about a televised production of Cox and Box in 1952 and would appreciate any further information.

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