Last updated: 9 Mar 02 (with colour photographs added April 2016)
One of the better things to emerge from the creation of Wood Green High School was the potential for musical and dramatic opportunities that the presence of girls provided. In my final year, the new music teacher on the “other side”, David Willey (fresh from Dartmouth High School, which already had a tradition of putting on G&S operettas), took on the challenge of musically directing Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado . There must have been times during the Autumn Term 1969 that he had cause to regret accepting this mission. The choruses were awful – largely because the concept of memorising musical lines was new to them. Many a rehearsal of the men’s chorus led to mutterings of, “we’ll never do it” – and the music was just the first problem. The Producer – Mathematics teacher, Michael Lowe – still had to get teenage boys to move gracefully, as “gentleman of Japan”, brandishing fans.
Nevertheless, it did eventually come together, but not without a few calamities, en route.
Firstly, how to accompany it? Having consumed all of the school’s musical talent in the principal roles and in the choruses, there was no chance of mustering an orchestra, so it was decided to arrange the accompaniment for the school’s “church” electronic organ (played by yours truly) and piano (played by the Producer, Michael Lowe). David Willey and I spent many an hour annotating the score, showing who was to play what, and the result was not at all bad (as mentioned in one of the press reviews later).
Secondly – and a pretty bit snag – Nanki Poo’s role fell vacant part way through, for reasons I can’t recall. Fortunately, an old boy of the school, Anthony Preece (who left in 1963) was found and persuaded to step in to save the production. (The valete in the Woden says of Tony: left to go to West Midlands Training College, prefect 1962-63, Captain of Oakeswell House, Secretary of the Classical Music Society, Secretary of the School Choir and member of the Photographic Society. Quite a catch, then! Where are you, now Tony?)
Thirdly, during the actual performances, Harry Baptist-Smith (The Mikado) lost his voice but – with the aid of some suitably regal potions – managed to stagger on.
Star of the show, undoubtedly, was (as is normal) Ko-Ko, played superbly by Wood Green Secondary Modern’s remedial teacher, Ron Court. That the performances actually took place at all is due in no small part to Ron’s keeping everyone’s spirits high when we could see only disaster ahead.
Another member of staff new to me, Nita Taylor (Wood Greens Sec’s needlework teacher), performed miracles with the costumes, and then put on a stunning performance as the formidable Katisha (“whose left elbow people came miles to see”). Sadly, Nita died recently.
It was very novel experience for me, having rarely performed music collectively before. My experiences had been limited to church-organ playing with the usual indifferent and unenthusiastic congregational singing of church-goers or school assembly. To accompany what eventually became a chorus singing with gusto, was thrilling, and the end of Act One was electrifying as I was allowed full organ to accompany the final page, “we do not heed their dismal sound for joy reigns everywhere around”!
The stage crew tried inadvertently to sabotage half of the orchestra by spiking my jug of water with vodka on the last night. Fortunately, one sip and I realised that something was not quite right, and so had to go thirsty for Act One!
Click on the thumbnails if you want to see the bigger picture.
Unfortunately I did not record from which newspapers the following articles came. My apologies to them if they still exist!
Pupils at Wood Green High School, Wednesbury, ventured into the world of comic opera last week, when they staged a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”.
Most of the cast consisted of senior pupils at the school, but they were helped out by members of the staff. It was the first time the school had staged a musical production.
Produced by Michael Lowe, a teacher of Mathematics at the school, the show was strikingly well-costumed and many of the comedy scenes came over successfully.
Ron Court as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, kept the show on the boil with his imaginative use of familiar but still amusing lines. He was one of the few members of the cast who seemed really confident with the songs.
Easily the best singer was Nita Taylor, as Katisha, the elderly pursuer of Nanki-Poo. Her only fault was that she seemed rather too young and attractive.
Though occasionally lacking volume, Tony Preece as Nanki-Poo, who was reminiscent of Harry Langdon, gave a polished performance. Brian Poxon as Pooh-Bah brought over all the pomp and dignity of the part.
Picture shows the cast assembled on stage at the end of their dress rehearsal.
The popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan operas was revealed again last night with this production by pupils and teachers.
The Savoy operas are not easy to present, and this production lacked Gilbert’s technique in many instances. The chorus work, however, was excellent and well-drilled by Conductor, Mr. D. Willey, but the pace was slow.
Outstanding was Nita Taylor as Katisha — her movement and delivery was almost perfect. Nanki-Poo (Tony Preece) has a fine tenor voice and should improve during the remainder of the week.
Despite first night nerves, Linda Watts as Yum-Yum sang with charm and ease and played the part with great confidence. Ko-Ko (Ron Court) looked uneasy on his first entrance, but he soon got into the part. His business, however, could show more detail.
Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo (Jean Hudson and Bernadette Ilsley) as the two sisters were very attractive, and Pooh Bah (Brian Poxon) sang well, but could have been more ponderous.
We did not see the usual fire and brimstone in the Mikado (Harry Baptist-Smith), although he has the physique for the character.
The organ and piano accompaniments were most pleasing and on the whole I have rarely seen this opera done so successfully by such a young group at its first attempt
The Evening Mail, on 16 March 1970, published this photograph (apologies for poor quality – it’s a scan of a photocopy of a photocopy of the newspaper article!):
A scene from the Mikado at Wood Green High School, Wednesbury. Left to right, The Lord High Executioner (Ronald Court), Nanki-Poo (Tony Preece, kneeling), Pooh-Bah (Brian Poxon), Pish-Tush (Adrian Young) and Pitti-Sing (Jean Hudson).
Pupils and staff at Wood Green High School, Wednesbury, spent about two terms in rehearsal for their first musical production, “The Mikado”.
But all the hard work that went into the production was repaid in full – for they had a full house on each of the three nights the show was staged.
Headmaster, Mr E C Witcombe, said today that about 1,200 people saw the production.
It is amazing what comes to light 40 years after the event. Prompter Margaret Hiscox (better known as Head of Mathematics, who is still a good friend after all these years) unearthed some colour prints of the performance, and has very kindly given them to me. So, for the first time, for 4½ decades, here we can see The Mikado in all its colourful glory. Many thanks, Margaret.
I made mono recordings of every performance, and have recently transferred the Thursday one to MP3 format. Sadly, I cannot make these available on this free WordPress blog, but if anyone would like a copy, please contact me.