|Interview of Mr. Fred Cornford
Subject: The Wolverton Gilbert & Sullivan Society
Date: 20. September 2000
Subject: for Clutch Club Wyvern: Music in Wolverton
Interviewers: Judee Maye and Stephanie Cooke
Frederick William Cornford:
I live in Southern Way, Wolverton, and have done since the end of the war. I was born in Newhaven 8th February 1922. My involvement with the Wolverton Gilbert and Sullivan Society (Wolverton District Society as it was then) comes right back to the summer of 1974, when I was bicycling along Church Street in Wolverton and a car pulled up along side me and the late Arnold Jones, great musical man locally, called out to me and said: 'I'm thinking of starting a Gilbert and Sullivan Society. You wouldn't like to come along and chair the first meeting for me, would you?'
So I said, it was nothing for me to chair meetings in those days. So I agreed and went along to the Wesley Centre - what was then the Methodist Church in Wolverton. At the end of the meeting I found myself not just chairing that one meeting, but becoming chairman of the new Wolverton and District G&S Society. So I was in it right from the word go and at that first meeting we had a whip round in order to get enough money for the treasurer, who'd been elected to send out a few letters to invite people to come along and join it. That was either July or August 1974.
From my own point of view, because I heard the music of Sullivan many times, Brass Bands used to play it and it featured in all sorts of light music programmes - but I had no idea that there was such a thing as a libretto that went with the thing. That was a bit of a emotional shock, when I discovered in fact it wasn't just music but you also like had to learn inter linking words and what's more, you had to parade yourself on a stage.
Quite apart from being chairman I previously for many years been singing, helping out Arnold (Jones) Choir as a bass and of course myself singing in the bass section in the G & S Society. And in fact still doing so. But that was quiet a shock to discover that you didn't just sing - you jolly well had to learn lines and what have you, prance about which I could do a damn sight easier in those days than I can now!
The first thing we did was 'HMS Pinafore'. Started of nice and gently, as you might say because 'HMS Pinafore' was pleasant to do, not to long. We did that down what is now the defunct College of Further Education in the Stratford Road and our first five to six shows were done down there before we moved on to Stantonbury Theatre, where we are now.
Both McCorquodales and the Railway Works were tremendously helpful in loaning us equipment and stuff. And in fact we did all our own scenery in those early days with assistance mainly from the Railway Works who we used largely because many of us had good connections there. We could get a great deal of assistance from them and they were very free with it.
McCorquodales too, they did a great deal of printing for us. Printing our programmes - they used to get their apprentices to cut their teeth on programmes printing for the G&S Society and this sort of thing. So we were fortunate in the early stages. By the time we left the College of Further Education at Stratford Road here in Wolverton to move to Stantonbury Theatre we'd got a bob or two in the kitty and we could start and hire scenery and stuff like that. The first show we would have done up in the Stantonbury Theatre would have been (just checking it out) 'The Gondoliers' and found ourselves performing at a proper theatre - that really capped all our ambitions. We have never really looked back.
The Society now does a G& S production every spring, and in late summer does a concert where we involve people who perhaps had no principle parts in other things to express themselves at the Linford Art Centre. That's the regular pattern we've dropped into from recent years very successfully the Society is going along. We in fact have reached that point now in September where we start again for the New Year of the Society as it were. This Friday would be our third rehearsal for 'The Pirates of Penzance'. We are doing next spring (2001).
For the first 20 years or there about, the local G&S Society the late Arnold Jones was musical Director. He did a marvellous job, because he took people like myself a bunch of absolute greenhorns and really introduced us to singing in that kind of fashion together with many others. I'd sung with Arnold in boosting his choir for 'The Messiah' - because he ran a church choir as well. We used to go along Easter time and boost his Messiah performances but none of us really knew anything whatsoever about opera singing even in the comic opera sense and Arnold took us, dusted us down and within a couple of years he got a very successful Society going indeed.
His other connections of course, he was conductor for the Wolverton Light Orchestra for a great many years. I wouldn't know how many. He was a choirmaster, very competent pianist himself, in every way an excellent amateur musical man, played clarinet, had a super tenor voice himself. He was a very musical chap in the local area, which is very much indebted to what Arnold did. We've had one or two entertaining and interesting diversions during performances
We only once did a matinee on a Saturday afternoon and we chose to matinee on Cup Final afternoon, and our business manager who was seriously member of the Society - like myself - right from the very start, Bert Coleman. He brought his mobile Television in and - which was quite something in those days - and we sat watching this cup final in the men's dressing room. It was between West Ham and Arsenal I recall and West Ham won 1-0 and we were very much engrossed in the football match and after a bit someone came banging on the dressing room door - and we'd missed three entrances (all the men). The ladies had been carrying the entire show on their own. We were enthralled watching the football match. We were strictly banned from ever having a Television in the dressing room again. We took a long time (for the men) to live that one down.
Another time before our very first performance of 'The Pirates of Penzance we had some cutlasses for the pirates which we borrowed from the Northampton Society and they were the real McCoy. Doug Bates, one of the policemen, bass. He was fighting with his truncheon against a pirate, something went drifting and poor old Doug was cut on the back of his hand which needed some serious attention. The place looked like Canvees Butcher Shop for about 10 minutes. Things like that are actually difficult to overcome when you are actually on the stage.
We had been in the day when things that was the sort of thing for the yobos to enjoy doing we had our bomb scare at Stantonbury. And had to evacuate half way through the performance and come back and finish it of in about half an hour down at the College of Further Education.
Doing 'Ruddigore' we were just about to change the pictures for the real thing when the lights failed and Brian Sullivan was singing at the time. He was a - part escapes me now -. He was singing when all the lights went out, everything went putt finish and I don't even think the exit light were on in those days. That was a fair old while ago. We stood about the stage, waiting for about quite 20 minutes I would think and suddenly 'Bang' and back on the lights came. Arnold Jones said 'right, start where we left off, Brian' and away we went and finished the show. And we had been standing on the stage for quite a considerable time, just waiting for it to come back. I often commented Brian, he sometimes sings with us now - he in fact conducts the Northampton Male Voice Choir these days. When I see him we often reminisce always think that was quite a marvellous achievement, just took it up right where we left off about 20 minutes before!
All sort of things go wrong, someone falls down flat on their face and another time there was an entry that didn't happen. We waited about I should think quite 4 to 5 minutes for Graham Mitchell to appear and it appears he was very interested in the sports page of the paper in the dressing room, but forgot all about his entrance. We were all standing around trying to fill in for him abb. libbing and really when you look back on it how remarkable how proficient even an amateur Society an be in covering up a thing like that. They all pitched in quite off the cuff, do what they want to do.
We started absolutely with nothing literally, not a sou, because at the inaugural meeting we had a whip round in order to get enough money for the treasurer or secretary to send out letter to various people that we were in fact now the G&S Society. And we were looking for patrons and members and everything else under the sun and so we literally started with out a sou. There was no question of been able to hire both costumes and scenery but fortunately the assistance we had from both the Railway Works and McCorquodales overcame the problem of scenery. And we made our own up from the assistance and material they were able to provide. But we did in fact stick our necks out take a calculated risk, that we would get enough money from the first production in ticket money hire costumes and we hired these from a theatrical costumer - Fox's - very posh. And the stuff came in by train to Bletchley in great big wicker hampers and we had to go over to Bletchley to pick these hampers up and bring them back. There's a photograph in existence of that -original Fox's costumes being used in the first production of 'HMS Pinafore'.
From then on we ended up that first year with a couple of hundred pounds to the good, and steadily across the next 27 years we've built our finances up as any prudent society would. Occasionally we've lost heavily with the less popular shows. It is a pursuit which attracts devotees and they know what they like and don't like. And there are certain shows if you are cunning enough you'll avoid absolutely. But with only 13 to work with in the entire catalogue you've really got to throw in Princess Ida, the Sorcerer or one or two more folks would say 'Good Lord, you did this last year' as with Pirates. People who come and saw it - say 4 to 5 years - say 'Goodness me, you only did this last week.'
As a result you've really got to take one or two of the less popular ones and occasionally do them with the majority of popular G&S Productions energetically sung by the cast. We can just about make it pay now. You don't make a very big profit because there is huge amounts of competition in Milton Keynes. Both amateur societies and now there is the profession theatre that's made life a bit difficult in the last couple of years.
Some 14 to 15 years ago there was considerable discussion then the G&S Society because of the limited number of G&S Shows as there is on 13 of them and some were never done, two were never done, 1 or 2 of the other were not popular. This means repetition as it comes around again and again and eventually even the cast are getting fed up with doing over again and this the Wolverton Society was in common with every one else, felt they would like to break away from this system. Proposition was that we would do a G&S Production one year and a light operetta on the subsequent year. So G&S came every two years and there was a fairly strong meeting I suppose at the old Methodist church to decide on this. It was turned down.
The folks still felt that they might liked to have done other things. Those who were in favour of at least doing operetta as well as G&S then got together to form the Music Makers of Milton Keynes. This was set up in Sid Pearson's house in Cambridge Street, Wolverton. Started of with again in order to get enough finances to function in any way shape or form we had a concert in the Scout Hall in Wolverton which we did songs from the Show. Very successful weekend it turned out to be in every respect.
The Music Makers have gone from strength to strength as a result this year doing 'Viva Mexico' as Malcolm Crane as musical director. It's almost as many people in the G&S in total and a great many of them are in both. Because the opportunity to get away from G&S and for the others to get away from doing purely operetta offers itself, and at least I should think one third or more than that, are members of both societies. The Music Makers perform stuff such as 'The Merrie Widow', 'Die Fledermaus', 'Gypsy Baron', 'The Lilac Time' a whole host of operettas of that kind. Done them extremely well indeed. They are now performing at Stantonbury Theatre as well as the G&S. Roughly six-month apart and folks who want to be members of both societies have absolutely an ideal situation.