Division in the ranks of South Shields Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society

Members of the society when they staged Camelot in 1980.
Members of the society when they staged Camelot in 1980.

They may have been christened South Shields Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society, but as Harry W Low wrote in 1998, to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary, the choice of name caused quite a stir among the members.

With the society having just turned 70, we once more delve into Mr Hay’s book, and the shows staged by them over the years.

Dressed to play their roles in Annie Get Your Gun in 1982.

Dressed to play their roles in Annie Get Your Gun in 1982.

“The name given to the society at its inception inferred that it has a policy of producing only Gilbert & Sullivan operas, although it was not specifically written into the rules,” explained the one-time president and founding member.

“It was a short-sighted policy, as with only 13 titles in the G&S repertoire, and our insatiable appetite for shows, it soon became obvious that we would be repeating shows before long.”

Indeed, in the first six years since its inception in 1948, it staged nine operas.

“The arguments over diverging from the G&S-only policy were quite acrimonious at times for there were those with deeply entrenched opinions,” explained Mr Hay.

“But in the end, reason and good loyal friendships prevailed and it was agreed that some diversifying would be expedient.”

So for the next three or four years Gilbert & Sullivan productions alternated with Country Girl, Quaker Girl, and The Geisha, all performed in St Aidan’s Hall.

In 1958 the society decided to stage The Arcadians but members were “determined to seek a more worthy venue than St Aidan’s Hall so negotiations were entered into with the Rank Organisation which resulted in us hiring the Odeon Theatre, in King Street, South Shields, and our production turned out to be a success.

“It had taken us only 10 years to arrive at a top quality theatre.

“The Sorcerer in 1959 not only saw us complete the entire G&S repertoire of 13 shows, but was also our last show in St Aidan’s church hall which had served us so well for so long.

“Belle of New York, Maid of the Mountain, Vagabond King, and back to G&S with Mikado, followed in consecutive years before bingo drove us out of the Odeon Theatre.

“Then after only one show, The Gondoliers, in the Regent cinema, we began our 30 year period at South Tyneside Technical College with, appropriately, another G&S production Ruddigore.”

For the next 15 years, the society interspersed eight G&S with many others.

After that they “drifted further and further away from G&S, producing only two, The Pirate of Penzance and The Gondoliers.

“We tended towards post-war shows with the wonderful Robert and Elizabeth leading a list which included many fine titles.

“No doubt there will be some who regretted the drift away from G&S shows, but with hindsight and experience could we really have seen a G&S-only policy surviving today?”

For the society’s 21st anniversary in 1969, members held their first Patrons’ Night, with excerpts from past shows, produced by George Parker and musical direction by Frank Edmonds.

The 1977 silver jubilee show followed a similar pattern, with the same producer and Adrian Officer as musical director.

“In 1979, the society presented D’Oyly Carte in Concert, the company comprising a G&S society chorus, with principals from the D’Oyly Carte Opera company, which was very enjoyable.

“For our ruby (40th) anniversary we presented a Gala Concert with Janet Peel as musical director.

“Professional singers Anne-Marie Owens, from English National Opera, David Morrison, from Scottish Opera and Joan Carroll, from Covent Garden, all past members, were invited as guest artists along with Denver Codling, another of our one-time members.

“It was a huge success and a most memorable evening.

“Our World of Music, a title born in 1973, offered the audience a selection of music and songs from shows we had done and from other shows we had not done, thus vastly widening the choice.

“The title was revived in 1983 and has now become a regular and increasingly popular annual production.

“Since 1985 Janet Peel has been the principal architect in devising, arranging and directing these shows.

“For several years she was assisted by Tim Poolan and more recently has had wonderful support from Alan Watson.”