Miles Kington: When Arthur Conan Doyle met J M Barrie

Barrie and Conan Doyle found they had little talent for lyrics but churned out the libretto - it was not a success
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The Independent Online

"Imagine if they had not only met but collaborated," I said. "Wagner and Ibsen writing an opera together! A musical! Die Meisterbuilder von Nuremberg, perhaps!"

My wife, who loves Ibsen but not Wagner, shuddered slightly. And of course it was a ridiculous idea. Composers never work with writers that anyone has ever heard of. If librettists could become famous without having to enter an opera hall, they would. No famous composer has ever worked with a famous writer.

A reader writes: Oh, no ? What about Stravinsky and W H Auden?

Miles Kington writes: What about them ?

Reader: I don't know, but it came up once in a pub quiz I was in. There was a spotty chap in glasses in our team who got the answer. It was the only answer he got right all night. He didn't know anything about EastEnders. Not a damned thing.

Let us take it, then, that Ibsen and Wagner never wrote a musical together. But equally strange things have happened. Did you know, for instance, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote a musical? It was called Jane Annie, or the Good Conduct Prize. And do you know with whom he wrote it? None other than J M Barrie.

That's right. The man who created Sherlock Holmes got together with the man who gave birth to Peter Pan, and over the kitchen table they hummed tunes at each other, and knocked corners off each other's lyrics.

It happened like this. Barrie and Conan Doyle had met each other through working for Jerome K Jerome's magazine, The Idler, and had got on famously. Both Scots, both studied at Edinburgh University, both mad about cricket, etc, etc. In 1892, Conan Doyle was summoned to Barrie's house in Aldeburgh by a message saying that he was very ill and needed Conan Doyle's medical skills, and when Conan Doyle got there he found that indeed Barrie had got nasty bronchitis. It had been brought on by the stress and strain of trying to write an operetta, which he had foolishly signed a contract to do for D'Oyley Carte, and for which he found, after starting, that he had little talent.

In Barrie's own words, "I went into hiding to escape it, was discovered and brought back and allowed to introduce a collaborator, who was Doyle..."

Yes, he begged Conan Doyle to help him, and although Conan Doyle soon found he had little talent for lyrics either, he and Barrie churned out a libretto (and, presumably, the bronchitis cleared up). D'Oyley Carte accepted the text, got composer Ernest Ford to do the music, and the operetta went on at the Savoy for a month or so. It was not a success. The Times was mildly amused, but a more typical review came from George Bernard Shaw: "The most unblushing outburst of tomfoolery that two respectable citizens could possibly indulge in publicly".

Barrie agreed. In a later memoir he called it a dreadful failure, and remembers that on the opening night a young admirer of Conan Doyle came in to the box in which they were both sitting, just after the final curtain.

"Doyle expressed my feelings in saying to him reprovingly, 'Why did you not cheer?' but I also sympathised with our visitor when he answered plaintively, 'I didn't like to, when no one else was doing it.'"

Coming soon: How Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde also got together, but not, thank goodness, to write a musical