The Brent Walker Videos
In the early 1980s, a television producer and former boxer named George Walker approached the D'Oyly Carte with the idea of taping all of the Company's productions on video. The Company's financial difficulties were by then public knowledge, and management were more willing to experiment with new media than they had been in the past. The Company agreed to the proposal and even scheduled extra rehearsal time, but Walker changed his mind at the last minute and decided on studio productions instead. There were discussions of using the D'Oyly Carte chorus and possibly selected principals, but the project eventually went forward with no D'Oyly Carte participation whatsoever.
The productions featured Alexander Faris conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus, supplemented with non-singing dancers on-screen. The principals were a mixed lot, ranging from established light opera singers (Derek Hammond-Stroud, Gordon Sandison), to imported "guests" designed to increase marketability in the States (Peter Marshall, William Conrad, Frank Gorshin, Peter Allen), to well-known British comedian/actors (Clive Revill, Keith Michell, Frankie Howerd), to a few former D'Oyly Carte stars (Donald Adams, Gillian Knight).
The producer, Judith De Paul, made the following comments about her approach to the opera in this interview with Ceni Shenlick in the Opera News of March 17, 1984, p. 11:
I believe in making performing arts programs that can be enjoyed by anybody, and I have devoted a great deal of time, a large portion of my life, to that end. Obviously, Gilbert and Sullivan make the transition to small screen more easily than say Der Fliegende Hollander…
…I believe in Gilbert and Sullivan, and I know that with the proper casting, good design, choreography, big production numbers, with the filmatic look, it would work. I didn't want to touch a strain of music or line of dialogue. I do not believe that you necessarily have to have the "hot Mikado" or a "new Mikado" — I just think the Mikado works.
Originally, when these works were conceived, Gilbert and Sullivan didn't have real opera singers in all the roles but rather actors who could sing. They felt, rightly, that if they had opera singers in all the parts, the works would have lost a little of their uniqueness. But if you can cast actors who can also sing, and who are known for their marvelous acting abilities then you get the best of both worlds — a performance from an actor who interprets through words and inference. We've been careful to cast so there is not a hugh margin of difference between actors and singers.
The first five entries in the series — Pinafore, Pirates, Iolanthe, Mikado and Gondoliers — were shot during the summer of 1982. Six more productions were shot the following year: Sorcerer, Patience, Ida, Ruddigore, Yeomen, and the double bill of Trial/Cox & Box.
The productions from the first phase were shot in one week apiece, while for the second phase two weeks each were allotted. There is a noticeable improvement in production values from the first group to the second, whatever other faults one may find with them. (Phil Sterneberg observes: “It's noteworthy that Ian Bradley had the same set of priorities; delete C&B, and one has the exact same breakdown between the original two volumes of his annotated libretti.”)
Quality in the series varied widely. Pirates, Patience and Gondoliers were played relatively straight. Iolanthe and Ruddigore took advantage of video special effects, and so were more controversial. Trial had an interpolated scene (a mimed prologue set to Sullivan's Overture di Ballo), while Princess Ida was set as a “play within a play” (wholly unsuccessfully, in my view). Pinafore, Mikado and Yeomen were all but ruined by poor casting and directorial blunders. Yeomen is surely the most reviled of the series (because of the many cuts and Joel Grey's misjudged Jack Point), while Cox & Box may well be the best.
DVD Video Spines
The five productions from the first phase were shown in the United States on the CBS Cable network in December 1982, in the final week of that network's existence. The series was also shown on the BBC, mostly in 1983-4, although one correspondent reports seeing Pirates in late December 1982.
The entire series was shown in the United States on PBS, over a long interval that dragged from 1984 through 1987, as follows:
1984: Yeomen, Gondoliers, Trial/C&B, Mikado
1985: Ruddigore, Pirates, Sorcerer, Patience
1987: Iolanthe, Pinafore, Ida
The 1987 operas were originally scheduled for 1986, but apparently a less than enthusiastic reception of the earlier ones led to their delay.
For this round of broadcasts, the series was styled “The Compleat [sic] Gilbert and Sullivan: The Very Model of a Modern Major Musicale” and was sponsored by the Mobil Corporation. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. recorded a set of irritating, condescending, and often inaccurate introductions that were shown before Acts I and II of each production. Harry N. Abrams published a colorful but error-filled "coffee table book" by Darlene Geis to accompany the series. The book featured still shots from the series and included poorly-written plot summaries and historical background.
The operas were recorded mostly complete, but for the PBS series Ruddigore and Yeomen were subjected to some brutal cuts to enable them to in a two-hour time slot (including time for the Fairbanks introductions and promotional announcements). All versions sold on home video, aside from the Laserdisc issue of Yeomen, have been the same as broadcast on PBS, with Fairbanks's useless introductions retained, even though uncut (or at least less cut) versions had existed and been broadcast on the BBC previously. (See the Yeomen page for details.)
This is a summary of the cuts in the various Brent Walker videos, supplied by Philip Sternenberg:
The numbers cut from Yeomen are as follows:
"When maiden loves" Verse 1
"Alas, I waver to and fro"
"Is life a boon?"
"Free from his fetters grim"
"When a wooer goes a-wooing"
Also missing are two significant chunks of dialogue: the scene between Fairfax and Elsie (thereby making her acceptance of the proposal by "Leonard" come out of the blue), and Meryll's spilling the beans to Dame Carruthers.
In comparison, Trial, Sorcerer, Pinafore, Pirates, Patience, and Iolanthe are uncut (not counting overtures and an occasional line of dialogue whose omission might have been accidental). C&B is mostly the original version, including "Sixes," using the transpositions and orchestral cuts of the Savoy Edition. (Example: Bouncer's song includes both verses but is in E instead of F and is missing the four measures of the intro that were cut for the Savoy Edition.) Musically Ida lacks only "Come, mighty Must," and Gondoliers lacks only Verse 2 of "For the merriest fellows are we," but both are missing numerous individual lines of dialogue. These cuts don't interfere with the plot, but some jokes are lost. Bradley mentions that some of these lost lines had become DCOC cuts towards the end of its existence. Mikado is musically complete, but there's a painful cut of part of the "boiling oil" dialogue.
Ruddigore is missing only two lines of dialogue but is cut musically as follows:
"I shipped, d'ye see"
"The battle's roar is over"
"When the buds are blossoming," Verse 2
"Oh, happy the lily" principal stanzas
"There grew a little flower," Verse 2 "Away, remorse"
Most of the operas have condensed overtures with the opening credits. The C&B and Ida overtures are complete. The Pinafore and Pirates overtures are heard in their entirely in the DePaul fillers. (Some home video versions may lack the fillers.) The complete Sorcerer overture is heard over a pantomimed extension of the final scene which turns into the closing credits. Trial is preceded by the Overture di Ballo played over a pantomime of preparations for the trial.
The existence (at least originally) of longer versions of Yeomen and Ruddigore is known, thanks to those who recorded them off the air in Britain before the PBS edits were made. Peter Parker has been working assiduously to determine if the uncut versions survive, but the videos have passed through so many hands over the years that finding anyone with knowledge of them has proved surprisingly difficult.
Each comes in its own case with a booklet contain the cast credits and full libretto. Each disc has a Play All option, a song index for almost each song, and a G&S Profile (which is the same on every disc). The song index is sometimes not "accurate", e.g., the jump to Lady Jane's solo in act II of Patience starts at the song, not at the recitative.
The video quality varies; usually it's extremely good considering the age, but scenes of Ruddigore looks like sand has been sprinkled all over it. The audio is in stereo and sounds clean but not much dynamic range.