The Merry Widow 2009

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1923 Plymouth Gilbert and Sullivan Fellowship founded
1924 First ever production - The Mikado
1947 First post-war production - The Gondoliers
1970 & 1980 The Yeomen of the Guard at the Royal Citadel, Plymouth
1983 Our debut at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, with Iolanthe starring John Reed OBE
1993 Guests on Friday Night is Music Night for BBC Radio 2
1997 First of several NODA awards – for Iolanthe
1998 CD recording of ‘The Music of Gilbert and Sullivan’ with the Band of HM Royal Marines Plymouth for the RNLI
2009 2nd CD recording of ‘The Magic of Gilbert and Sullivan’
2009 First non-G&S production, The Merry Widow
2010 Our debut at the Buxton International G&S Festival with Ruddigore won six nominations and two awards and we were filmed by Sky Arts

2012 Our second non-G&S production, My Fair Lady and a gala concert with the Band of HM Royal Marines Plymouth at the HfC, Truro


The Fellowship, believed to be the oldest continuing society in the United Kingdom devoted to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, was formed in October 1923 by Mr Horace Bickle.

The previous year he was in London as a law student when a chance conversation in his lodgings with two prominent members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, Henry Lytton and Darrell Fancourt, prompted him to set up the Fellowship on his return to Plymouth.

Its object was to promote and preserve the works of both Gilbert and Sullivan. A contemporary newspaper article reported: “There seems little doubt that the Gilbert and Sullivan Fellowship, whose first session commenced last evening in the Lockyer Hall, is to receive cordial support from the large body of Plymouth musicians.” (Western Morning News and Mercury: 24 October 1923)

The first production was The Mikado in March 1924 at the Repertory Theatre, Plymouth. The producer, WG Lennox, and principal tenor, Gordon Crocker (playing Nanki-Poo), were both former members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. The rest of the principals were chosen by vote of the Fellowship members at an audition! The chorus was so large that it was divided into sections which played on different nights.

All did not run smoothly, however. The day before the dress rehearsal Gordon Crocker sent a telegram to say that he had had an accident and could not appear. As a result Horace Bickle found himself on the train to London with an appointment to see Rupert D’Oyly Carte.

Horace recounts: “On hearing my trouble he said he had no spare tenors and when I suggested that perhaps we could borrow an understudy he told me he did not keep understudies for **** amateurs. Perhaps his secretary could help me if I saw her on my way out. As I was walking out of his room he said, ‘By the way, there will be no charge for your accommodation.’”

Horace spent a night gratis at the Savoy Hotel and they even provided pyjamas as he had left Plymouth in such a hurry that he had forgotten to pack an overnight bag. The next day he was able to find the young tenor Dewey Gibson at his lodgings and told him: “You are playing Nanki in The Mikado at Plymouth tonight and for the rest of the week.” Dewey replied that he had never acted with amateurs to whom Horace Bickle replied that now was his chance and he might learn something.

Horace recounts: “At 7.30 I went before the curtain to apologise for Gordon Crocker and to present the Fellowship to the people of Plymouth. The overture was played and just as it was finishing Dewey was not ready so I slipped a note to the orchestra to play the overture again. I think this is the only time that it received an encore.”

Since 1924 the Fellowship has produced ninety-one fully-staged productions of the Savoy operas at Plymouth theatres including the Repertory, the Globe, the Palace, the Athenaeum, the Devonport Playhouse and the Theatre Royal. The company has also presented busy concert programmes every season, raising thousands of pounds for charities throughout the southwest region of England. Particularly memorable were the annual Christmas concerts at the Plymouth Guildhall, a number of appearances with the Band of HM Royal Marines Plymouth, a guest choir appearance on BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night, and A Feast of Gilbert and Sullivan with Much Loved Productions at Plymouth Pavilions.

Popular operas have been produced as many as twelve times since 1924. Two productions of The Yeomen of the Guard were presented within the walls of the Royal Citadel on Plymouth Hoe and we performed HMS Pinafore on board HMS Antelope before she was sunk in the Falklands War. Even the less popular operas such as Utopia Ltd, The Grand Duke and The Zoo have all been produced at least once.

Despite its long heritage the Fellowship has not confined itself to traditional versions of the operas, nor has it strayed too far from the original music and libretti. Even so, some of its more modernized versions would not have met with the approval of our founder, who would have preferred the movement and costumes of the original D’Oyly Carte productions to be preserved intact. On seeing the Fellowship’s 1984 production of The Pirates of Penzance, Horace Bickle commented that it was “very good musical comedy, but very bad Gilbert and Sullivan”! 

The company has moved with the times and in 1997 Alan Spencer’s production of Iolanthe (two weeks before the General Election), with its raunchy fairies under their Cruella-de-Vil lookalike Queen and references to Anti-Sleaze MPs, won the NODA Regional Award for Excellence. This heralded further innovative productions by Alan Spencer including a 1940s Trial by Jury/HMS Pinafore (1999), an Edwardian Mikado (2000), a NODA award-winning 1920s The Gondoliers with a Charleston-style Cachucha (2001), a very modern Eastern-bloc Princess Ida (2002) and a 1930s Iolanthe complete with Busby Berkley-inspired fairies and choreography (2005).

Along the way we balanced this innovation with faithful readings of a double NODA award-winning The Pirates of Penzance (2003), The Yeomen of the Guard in 2004, a beautifully rustic The Sorcerer in 2006, The Mikado in 2007 and HMS Pinafore in 2008.

In 2009 we made history by presenting our first non-G&S production, Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, which was critically acclaimed and marked a change in our constitution and artistic policy. We now intend to mix our presentation of the Savoy Operas with similar pieces by others, e.g. light operas, operas and musicals that require a classical approach.

2010 saw our first appearance at the Buxton International G&S Festival, taking our Plymouth production of Ruddigore. We were nominated in six categories: Best Musical Director, Best Director, Best Choral Singing, Best Animated Chorus, Best Traditional Opera and Best Male Voice. We won the latter two, with Rod Hunt achieving Best Male Voice for the role of Sir Roderic. While there we were also filmed by Sky Arts for a 10-minute film shown several times since on Sky Arts 2.

In 2011 The Pirates of Penzance was a sell-out and artistically acclaimed.

In 2012 we then performed our second non-G&S production, My Fair Lady, following a January concert at the Hall for Cornwall with the Band of HM Royal Marines Plymouth for the RNLI.

This year in 2013 is our 90th year as a company celebrating with yet another concert at the Hall for Cornwall with the Band of HM Royal Marines Plymouth in aid of the RNLI. Our main production went back to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan with The Gondoliers.