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March 05, 2008

The Task of Filling up the Blanks: They'd None of 'Em be Missed - Richard Suart and A. S. H. Smyth

Posted by Lincoln Allison

They'd None of 'Em be Missed
by Richard Suart and A. S. H. Smyth
Pp. 192. London: Pallas Athene, 2008
Paperback, 12.99

W. S. Gilbert's idea of writing a comic song in which he lists his enemies ripe for punishment was such a good one that he used it twice in the same opera. In The Mikado the eponymous character lists "appropriate" punishments for his least favourite malefactors while Ko-Ko, faced with central government execution targets, constructs a "little list" of "society offenders who might well be underground".

However, though the idea was clever and was superbly complemented by one of Sir Arthur Sullivan's catchy patter tunes I think that Gilbert's original version is good only in parts and often shows an unattractive aspect of his personality:

There's the nigger serenader and the others of his race
And the piano organist - I'm sure hed not be missed.
Admittedly, this was written in the 1880s when racialism was reaching its height, but there were those who showed immunity and I would have preferred WSG if he had been one of them. For most of its history this has been sung as "the banjo serenader". Consider also:
. . . the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy
And "who doesn't think she waltzes, but would rather like to try.
Come off it WSG: satire is supposed to get at the powerful and pretentious, not at unfashionably dressed provincial ladies.

Nor do I like the implications of:

All funny fellows, comic men and clowns of private life
They'd none of 'em be missed theyd none of 'em be missed.
I have always thought that this sounds suspiciously like the author saying, "I will do the jokes, thank you". Which raises a particular issue as well as a general one because the original singer of the song - as of nearly all the G & S "patter" songs - was George Grossmith, author, with his brother Weedon, of the brilliant Diary of a Nobody, whose wit has stood the test of time at least as well as Gilbert's, though Gilbert kept him on a pretty tight rein. There is space, however, created by:
And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind
Such as - what d'ye call him - Thing 'em bob
And likewise Never Mind
And 'st 'st 'st and What's-his-name and also
The task of filling up the blanks Id rather leave to you.
This has normally been taken as a license to refer mimetically or visually to contemporary politicians. The normal way of singing the song is to stick more or less to Gilbert's original and to extemporise in the above section. This has been the case in most of the productions I have seen going back to the one put on at Lancaster Royal Grammar School in December 1957. (On reflection I can still name the masters who played the Mikado and Ko-Ko and the boy who played Nanki Poo!)

They'd is a book entirely about one song and the history of its development. It is by Richard Suart, a Grossmith de nos jours who has performed the role in a variety of productions and locations and A. S. H. Smyth, a journalist whose work has appeared on the Social Affairs Unit website among other places.

One might be forgiven for wondering about Smyth's role because a great deal of the book consists of Suart's memoirs and improvisations and is written in the first person. Suart has an understandable hang-up about being rejected from productions in favour of a star though among stars who have performed the role he rates Eric Idle highly and Jasper Carrott not highly. At the end of the book (pp. 188-189) it is revealed that Smyth walked into Suart's dressing room and proposed joint authorship of the kind of book which he (Suart) was already thinking about. So it seems fair to surmise that the drive and the donkey-work came from the journalist, most of the rest from the singer-improviser.

It was rather brave of Suart to construct the book in this way with about half the lyrics by himself and the rest by a variety of authors, singers and politicians. There are versions from all over the world: there was a German one within a year of the first production and a specifically Fort Worth one quite quickly.

Suart himself has done versions in Dutch and Italian: the latter was the only time that anyone attempted to censor him, fearing the long tentacles of Signor Berlusconi. There have been specialist versions confined to cricket, chess and the National Trust and versions on behalf of Stalin and the European Commission. Almost every well known cartoonist has used Ko-Ko's list as an inspiration at some stage.

I don't know whether Suart thinks he comes well out of the comparisons he has set up, but I don't think he does. His verse tends to be blandly aimed at the middle-of-the road, lowest common denominator targets of the day, excessively concerned with politicians and scandals (and not particularly well scanned). For example (p. 55):

If Aitken's resignation claims he wants to spend more time
With his solicitists, he's welcome on my list.
And of course there's Jeffrey Archer, the insider dealerist,
And his wife on that Lloyd's list - they never would be missed.
Peter Lilley's version at the 1992 Tory Conference has more bite and is more tightly constructed (p. 62):
As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I've got a little list - I've got a little list
Of benefit offenders who Ill soon be rooting out
And who never would be missed, they never would be missed -
There are those who make up bogus claims in half a dozen names
And councillors who draw the dole to run Left wing campaigns
Young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list,
And dads who won't support the kids of ladies they have . . . kissed
Etc. I also like the list Tim Rice constructed on behalf of the late Colin Cowdrey which he read at Cowdreys memorial service (well, I would, wouldn't I?) (p. 144):
As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I've got a little list - I've got a little list
Of some cricketing offenders I would banish from the ground
And who never would be missed, they never would be missed.
Such as coaches who would rather run ten miles than hold a net,
And chaps whose innings end because some blighter placed a bet.
I used to think that sledging was a sport that needed snow,
But now I know its something else it really has to go . . .
Try singing it: every syllable fits. Of course, Suart has a natural disadvantage here because Lilley and Rice have audiences which share values and interests whereas Suart just has a theatre audience. I'm sure a lot of his stuff went well on the night, but it isnt very interesting to read.

I had thought I would include in this review a list of my own in the proper Gilbertian form, but reading this book convinced me that constructing this sort of verse is a lot more difficult than I originally assumed. If anyone wants to help me out I am particularly keen to rid the world of:
- windfarm enthusiasts
- graffiti vandals (especially when they invoke the concept of art)
- Scotsmen (and women) who talk as if they were victims of the British Empire rather than its chief beneficiaries
- car drivers who play their sound systems on full with the windows open
- sportswriters
Etc &c

Finally, since my day job used to be political theory, I must remark on the question which arises when Ko-Ko meets John Rawls. The criterion which Rawls set was called the "veil of ignorance" and involved asking the question of what kind of society a rational person would choose to live in if they had no knowledge of what their own position in that society would be. Would you choose the chance of being Ko-Ko given that you also had a chance of being one of his victims? Tough one!

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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In fairness to WS Gilbert, my understanding is that the term "nigger serenader" refers to those who used to perform "blackface" - in otherwords, the black and white minsterals. If this is the case, then it is hardly a racist term, but a scorn for a bizzare act of entertainment. The term was dropped after some decided that black audiences in the US would find it offensive, and think it was aimed at them.

Posted by: PT at March 7, 2008 10:30 AM

I originally took this charitable view, but am persuaded that it isn't really tenable. If it's "b & w minstrels" who are "the others of his race"?

Posted by: Lincoln Allison at March 7, 2008 07:41 PM

I originally took this charitable view, but am persuaded that it isn't really tenable. If it's "b & w minstrels" who are "the others of his race"?

I thought it was supposed to be the left that was obsessive about racism and demonstrated its piety by sniffing it out everywhere. "Race" does not literally mean "racial group": it is ironic. Gilbert is actually doing the opposite of what you're accusing him of. He criticizing not blacks but whites who do would-be humorous imitations of blacks.

Posted by: Raininspain at March 10, 2008 12:33 AM

It is not a nigger minstrel but a nigger serenader who would have been a real nigger as in Agatha Christie's Ten Little Nigger Boys. It was a word people of that era all used, even paint manufacturers. There were not just blackface banjo players come from Alabama but entire books of nigger recitations, stump speeches and songs all written in dialect and sold to the working and lower middle-classes in Britain to perform in their own faces without make-up much as they might perform Cockney or Lancashire.
Allason is wrong though about Rawls. None of Rawls opponents want the arbitrary whimsical Lord High Executioner because they believe in justice as desert. Rather they are wise enough to see that the pursuit of Rawlsian fantasies leads inexorably to a society where such executioners flourish. Rawls really did live behind a veil of ignorance .

Posted by: Sharpy at March 15, 2008 06:30 PM
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