The operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were one of a very limited number of things that, following introduction by my parents, I have retained with me throughout my life.
It was back in the 1970s, when we lived near Manchester, that my sister and I were first taken to see the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the old Opera House in Manchester itself: not once, but twice within a season that the company played there.
I can’t for the life of me remember the order in which I saw various of the operas, but the four I saw with my parents were The Mikado, Iolanthe, Ruddigore and The Gondoliers.
During the same period, a schoolfriend’s parents took me with them to sit in a box and watch Patience for her birthday treat one year.
Whichever one came first, I was instantly besotted. This was all in the second half of the ’70s, by which time I was studying for a music ‘O’ level and dreaming endlessly of a life on the stage. Given a half-decent singing voice, that rather quickly developed into a desire to join D’Oyly Carte.
Even then, aware that I was probably never going to be tall and (tit) willowy, my ambitions extended toward the female comic roles – Lady Jane in Patience, the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe and Katisha in The Mikado. All were traditionally played by fuller-figured women – perhaps it was a sort of apprenticeship for a later desire (still with me) to be given the excuse of an invite to a fancy dress party so that I can go as a Wagnerian diva; Brunhilda in wingéd helmet, with something akin to a chain mail corset containing some of my best assets?
But I digress – as explained elsewhere, my Wagnerian stage was still some years in the distance.
Not that the female comic roles were the best in the operas. Oh no, the best roles were the male comic leads – the baritone with the fabulous, famous patter songs. But at least the female comic lead got to do plenty of scenes with her male opposite number.
When I first saw D’Oyly Carte, the male comic lead was John Reed (left, as Ko-Ko) – a legend by then, having played the roles from 1959.
He retired from the company in 1979 – the last of the great comic leads, going back to Peter Pratt, who he succeeded, Martyn Green, Henry Lytton and George Grossmith, who first created so many of the roles under the direction of WS Gilbert.
When he left the company in 1979, Reed himself was succeeded by James Conroy-Ward, who I coincidentally ended up working with at a telesales company just off Baker Street, shortly after I’d arrived in the metropolis. James took great pleasure in finally having a colleague who actually knew what he’d done – understood what it was about and loved all that. It was as near as I came to working with D’Oyly Carte.
This morning, via a link to something completely unrelated, I discovered that John Reed had died a couple of weeks ago. He was 94, so he’d certainly enjoyed ‘a good innings’.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I’d watched The Mikado after finding that it was on DVD. It was the company’s stage production of 1966. The transfer to DVD is clumsy – it’s been done on the cheap, when a re-mastering would have done wonders for it. But there is John Reed – absolutely magnificent as Ko-Ko.
And only last weekend, I watched Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy again – his version of the creation of The Mikado. A wonderful cast – and the singing of Martin Savage as Grossmith instantly bringing Reed to mind.
I met him fleetingly twice. A small man, dapper and with the same high-pitched delivery off stage as on; charming and friendly and completely without any airs of 'stardom'.
It should be difficult to really feel sad about the death of someone that you only briefly met twice and who was, after all, 94, but someone who has been a constant source of joy in my life for 30 odd years has gone.
John – thank you for all the pleasure you gave and will continue to give, thanks to recordings and film.