Ian Wallace: Bass baritone celebrated for his 'buffo' roles – and for his rendition of 'The Hippopotamus Song'
Thursday 15 October 2009
Opera singer and actor, broadcaster, writer, cabaret artist, compere and raconteur, Ian Wallace – a true Scot, and sometimes a kilted one – discovered quite early in his life that he had a talent for entertaining people. But his comprehensive success in this convivial activity was achieved despite what most people would regard as serious handicaps: he had no formal training as singer or actor; and he was critically ill, in his 20s, with testicular and spinal tuberculosis. That his father, the Dunfermline MP, Sir John Wallace, hoped that he would succeed at the Bar, did not make his path any the less problematic.
Wallace's parentage – he was born in London on 10 July 10 1919 – held no hint of stage or platform but at Charterhouse his histrionic gifts began to emerge and he acquired a repertoire of songs which he performed to his own accompaniment on the banjolele. This achievement did not impress Boris Ord, who auditioned him for a choral scholarship to King's, Cambridge: he went instead to Trinity Hall, reading Law and taking with him a reputation as licensed jester and cheerful victim of many a pratfall.
Active in the Footlights and the ADC (he was once memorably miscast as Banquo) he also took singing lessons. But the war put paid to an immediate career in musical theatre and, abandoning the Law, he joined the 98th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Then came TB of the testicles, which left him, as he put it, "sterile but not, thank God, impotent"; and, not long afterwards, TB of the spine, at that time a life-threatening condition. For 20 months he lay prone on a plaster catafalque which did not, however, prevent him from singing to his fellow-patients at the Horton Hospital, Epsom, or from directing a revue, High Temperature, for its amateur dramatic society.
His recovery was gradual, as was the development of his career, but he found some miserably paid work as an "actor laddie" in Glasgow and this led to his engagement in two modest musicals. Ian evidently made his mark in these productions for they opened the door into opera: he was engaged to sing Schaunard in La Bohème and Bartolo in Barbiere di Siviglia for the New London Opera Company, an ensemble which at one time included the great Mariano Stabile. He was on his way as a bass baritone, adding to his repertoire Masetto (Don Giovanni) and Count Ceprano (Rigoletto), the latter a production directed by Carl Ebert of Glyndebourne, who consequently offered him Masetto in Glyndebourne's production for the 1948 Edinburgh Festival. He had arrived.
Wallace sang at Glyndebourne during 10 seasons between 1948 and 1961, most memorably Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola and both Mozart's and Rossini's Bartolo. In face and figure he was a born buffo and the house suited him ideally for he had, as he put it himself, "an in-between voice, slightly soft-grained, which... wasn't all that big." It was big enough, though, for Vittorio Gui, Glyndebourne's wonderful Rossini conductor, to invite him to repeat his Don Magnifico in Rome, where the stage staff addressed him as "Signor Vallahchay".
Meanwhile, in 1948, Ian had married Patricia Black (invariably "Pat"), the daughter of a colleague of his father, a devoted wife for more than 50 years and the adoptive mother of their children, Rosie and John. He had also acquired a singing teacher, Rodolfo Mele, who, after declaring that he needed to "get reed of the furniture in 'ees throat", remained a valued mentor for 25 years.
Glyndebourne's summer seasons left Wallace plenty of time for complementary activities. In BBC studios he sang in operas by Rameau, Gluck, Borodin, Prokofiev and Holst: he appeared in pantomime and, in 1952, at a Royal Command Performance, he co-starred with Robert Morley in a version of Pagnol's Fanny at Drury Lane. He even made a film, Tom Thumb, for MGM. But a new vista opened up when, in 1966, with Frank Muir, Dennis Norden, David Franklin and Steve Race, he made a pilot programme of the quiz game, My Music, initially for BBC Radio, later for BBC TV. An amusing mix of musical know-how, good humour, wit and ingenuity, it was immensely successful, Ian contributing genially as raconteur and singer. No less important to him was "The Hippopotamus Song" ("Mud, mud, glorious mud") written for him by Donald Swann and an invariable ingredient of the three versions of An Evening with Ian Wallace (which, he recalled, was once announced to general hilarity by the nervous spinster chairing the occasion as A Night with Ian Wallace).
Wallace's operatic career resumed when Gui invited him to the Bregenz Festival in 1964 and 1965, when he repeated his Don Magnifico, while Scottish Opera offered him Leporello (Don Giovanni), Pistol (Falstaff), the Duke of Plaza Toro and Don Magnifico between 1966 and 1969. These engagements, in his native land, gave him special pleasure.
Indefatigably busy, Wallace was by this time well known for his extraordinary versatility and very well liked by all who knew or heard him; he was in constant demand on charitable occasions and was generous with his time and talents. In the mid-'70s he agreed to give a concert for the Council for Music in Hospitals at Broadmoor Hospital (inadvertently signing the attendance book for inmates rather than visitors) which turned out to be the first of many such performances. As the Council's President between 1987 and 1999 he raised thousands of pounds for it, often through appeals on radio and TV.
He also found time to be President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians in the year 1979-80, a difficult period during which his wisdom and tact were deemed crucially important to the Society's well-being. He was active in official golfing circles, and he published two enjoyable volumes of memoirs. For his services to music he was awarded the OBE in 1983.
The least pompous of men, he seemed always – even when, latterly. a victim of Parkinson's – to be in cheerful good spirits, and, of course, he could be very funny. His concern for others, whether fellow-patients, musical colleagues, family or friends, was heart-warming: John Amis, who had replaced David Franklin on the My Music team, said he was "as kind and generous a colleague as anybody could wish for."
Ian Wallace did indeed inspire affection, and he will leave a big gap in the élite ranks of those successful artists who have expended a generously large part of their gifts in the interests of others.
Ian Bryce Wallace, singer, actor and broadcaster: born London 10 July 1919; married 1948 Patricia Black (one adopted son, one adopted daughter); died London 12 October 2009.
Robert Ponsonby's excellent obituary of Ian Wallace referred to his first revue conducted from his hospital bed in the Army in 1940, writes Patrick Shovelton. No – not the first. I was an exact contemporary of Ian at Charterhouse from 1933-38 and in the autumn of 1936 three extraordinary 17-year-old boys got together and wrote a revue. Ian Wallace, Ronnie Millar, later Sir Ronald Millar, the playwright and speechwriter to Margaret Thatcher, and Dick Stone, later a leading theatrical agent, produced a revue entitled All Alight at Scholar's Court – our central quadrangle. This would have been unthinkable in the austere days of Sir Frank Fletcher but our new "liberal" headmaster, Robert Birley, had taken over.
The revue, poking fun at the School and its "beakes" alike, was a roaring success; but Birley was heard departing from the show, muttering "never again, never again".
Ian's early War Service was also distinguished by his nearly losing his nose. While he was stropping his cutthroat razor in the barracks, the strop snapped and the razor cut Ian's nose in half. Fortunately medical aid was at hand and Ian's nose was sewn together. He always maintained that his representation of Dr Bartolo was improved by the nasal scar! This was typical of his attitude to adversity – he always rose above it.
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