How South Shields society’s shows have changed over the years

One of the society's productions from years gone by. Did you see it?
One of the society's productions from years gone by. Did you see it?

Much has changed since the South Shields Gilbert & Sullivan Society was founded in 1948.

As we continue our celebration of the society’s 70th anniversary, we again delve into the marvellous book, written by Mr Harry W. Low in 1998, charting the first half century of the music group’s history.

Mr Low wrote:“Half a century has seen everyone’s lifestyle change beyond all recognition, as the advance of science has brought to most a great many advantages.

“The theatre has encompassed all of this technology and even more, enhancing its end-product to a degree undreamed of 50 years ago.

“While the professional theatre has set the pace, the amateur theatre has done its best to follow.”

Mr Low, who was president at the time of publication and a founder member of society explained that when the G&S produced its first show in St Aidan’s Church Hall, there was only “the very minimum of lighting facilities on a make-do-and-mend basis in those austere years”.

“I can remember well that at the side of the stage, where the chorus and principals awaited their entrance, the lighting dimmer consisted of a drain pipe set upright in a concrete base filled with water into which an electric element was raised and lowered.

“Can you imagine what the fire department or others would say about such a Heath-Robinson contraption nowadays?

“There was the occasion when, arriving at St Aidan’s Hall for the evening performance, it was discovered that there was no power to the switch board as the main fuse had blown.

“There was no way the electricity company could be called in time to repair the fuse so our electricians, Wilf Clark and Bill Dearden, worked frantically to restore power in time for curtain up.”

In the book, This Wolrd Of Music, Mr Low recalls how there was no amplification “scarcely heard of in those days”.

“Principals were expected to be able to project their voices and be heard at the back of the auditorium.

“Meanwhile, scenery, always of the box-set type, hired from a scenery supplier, was a major deciding factor in the choice of shows.

“We had to consider how many scenes there would be and could we handle the scene changes? These were restricting factors.”

So how did the society benefit from the technical advances in the first 50 years of its existence?

“Well, in the lighting department we have batteries of overhead, side and front lights, supported by follow-spots capable of providing innumerable colour mix permutations, and all individually controlled by a complex computer.

“The touch of a button changes everything to a prearranged combination.

“It is nothing for our Customs House musicals and concerts to demand 100 to 150 lighting changes, all pre-set to the lighting plot requirements of the director.

“We have come a long way from the water-filled drain pipe!”

From sight to sound, and here too the changes up until 1998 were equally dramatic.

“With tape recordings, we can produce any required sound effect – trains, aeroplanes, machine-guns, animal calls, birds and so on – all of which are put through the amplification system.

“For sound amplifications we now employ specialist sound engineers who use both personal and area coverage microphones.

“The area coverage microphones are put in place prior to the run of the show where they remain for the duration.

“The personal microphones are fixed to the selected company members, concealed in the hair or costume, before each performance.

“The sound engineer switches the microphones on and off as required, and monitors and controls the volume.

“In the days when performers were responsible for switching on and off their own microphones, a minor accident often brought forth an expletive which reached more ears than intended.

“We have come along way from, “if you cannot project you cannot have the part”.

“Radio microphones nowadays are also used to link the stage managers with the conductor, lighting and sound engineers, follow-spot operators, front of house and so on.

“Shows are no longer restricted to one or two scenes.

“Modern theatre does not always demand that every scene should look authentic, it is sufficient to suggest the scene and leave the rest to the imagination.

“So much better, I firmly believe, than the repeated closing of the front tabs with the chorus trooping on to sing a reprise, while the stage crew can be heard assembling and fixing the next scene, which so breaks the spell.

“An example in professional theatre is Les Miserables with ‘suggested’ scenery as opposed to Sunset Boulevard which uses immensely authentic-looking scenery.

“Amateur stage has done well to move with the times, using modern technology which has helped narrow but not eliminate the gap between amateur and professional theatre.”

Twenty years on, and technology, of course, has continued to move on a pace, but Mr Low’s delightfully detailed description of those early years makes fascinating reading.

And we will have more of his words, along with other nostalgic look-backs in the weeks ahead.