Gilbert and Sullivan are on my little list, and they never will be missed

MPs may lament the loss of subsidy for the D'Oyly Carte Opera, but not David Aaronovitch

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THE MPs were of all parties and of one mind. On Wednesday morning, led by Mr Martin Bell, they rode eloquently and unanimously to the aid of an imperilled part of contemporary British society. The Totnes Tory, Mr Anthony Steen, spoke of a "unique British institution on the point of being closed". His Conservative colleague, Mr Richard Spring, described such a closure as being "a cause for national mourning". The Man in White himself was of the opinion that the matter was of the most extreme urgency. "The time is short," he warned, "the threat is real; this is the place and this is the time to sound the alarm bells."

The reader of this column will already know - from the pictures and the sub-headings - that the "real threat" was not to, say, charitable organisations funding the counselling and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders or the young victims of sexual abuse and incest. They go to the wall every day, largely unnoticed - the "alarm bells" unrung.

No, it was the refusal of the Arts Council, announced this week, to fund the pirates, policemen, dancing judges and leaping peers of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company that was the reason for the debate and the speeches. Should the company go under, said Bell and co, then GilbertanSullivan, that one word made from three, would be lost to us, lost to Britain. "We have no Mozart, no Puccini, no Wagner," agonised Bell, "but, my goodness, we have Gilbert and Sullivan, who have entertained and illuminated our country and the world for more than 120 years."

The feeling that the Commons is entirely filled with men and women from a parallel universe was strengthened when Mr Barry Gardiner, the new Labour MP for Brent North, rose and commenced his speech thus: "I suspect that I am alone in the Chamber this morning in being entitled to wear a D'Oyly Carte necktie," he began. "Unfortunately," he continued, "I am no longer able to wear mine because of the over-zealous support and enthusiasm of my wife for a local jumble sale some months ago. Otherwise, I would certainly have sported it in the chamber this morning."

I wonder if Mr Gardiner has a Cats T-shirt, or whether that would seem a little over trendy. I say this because, essentially, GilbertanSullivan were the Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice of the muttonchop whisker and hansom- cab age. Their impresario, Mr D'Oyly Carte himself, started things off in 1875. His company, which held the copyright on G&S, performed nothing else for a hundred years. That copyright expired in 1961, and the company closed in 1982. Only a legacy from a Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte allowed it to start up again six years later. It's been in the financial doghouse ever since. Now, despite intense lobbying, the Arts Council has refused any more money.

Why? The MPs thought they knew. "Cultural elitism and snobbery," said Bell. "Cultural snobbery on the part of elitists," was Austin Mitchell's variation. The arts establishment "view Gilbert and Sullivan as popular, middle-brow and beneath their gaze and their contempt." So the nobs at the Royal Opera House got loads of dosh while comprehensible, popular D'Oyly Carte was being forced to the wall.

They could be right, I suppose. But if I were on the Arts Council I would not give the D'Oyly Carte a penny either. And this is not because I have contempt for the accessible. I am in favour of enthusiasms, especially where they foster a bit of do-it-yourself. I like the idea of people having sing-songs and organising their own productions: providing that (a) I do not have to attend and (b), that - within reason - I do not have to pay.

But there is no case for taxpayers' money going to something as unnecessary and archaic as a company largely dedicated to the production of 14 operettas composed at the fin of the last siecle. D'Oyly Carte, as we have seen, folded once before, for half a decade. Did you even notice? Was a lasting scar left on the nation's cultural psyche? When it came back, were you uplifted?

Of course not.

GilbertanSullivan are not Shakespeare. We have the RSC, but there is no Shaw company, no outfit dedicated to Beckett or Rattigan (let alone to Sir Arthur Pinero, the dramatic contemporary of G&S). Periodically, nice new versions of things like the Mikado are lavishly revived at the ENO, involving proboscid geniuses like Jonathan Miller. Which is fine.

Otherwise what do you have? Pleasantish music, with dated, droll ditties in rhyming couplets sung by second-rate singers. Worse, for many fans (not least the MPs), quotations from the operettas act as a substitute for real humour and wit, coming between them and invention. I absolutely dread it when anyone says to me that X or Y was "well put" in Iolanthe or Ruddigore.

But that's just my subjective view. The Arts Council has more objective criteria for its handing out of state subsidy. It is (as its mission statement says) committed to "nurturing creativity, responding to innovation, promoting excellence, sustaining our living traditions, supporting multi-cultural interests, fostering new audiences and helping more people to encounter the work of artists throughout England". It is not, therefore, the artistic wing of English Heritage, charged with keeping ancient forms alive.

Yet Steen speaks of the D'Oyly Carte as "an opera company with deep roots in what it is to be British in our heritage and culture". So it is a heritage issue? Yes, unless you buy Bell's argument that G&S "reaches out to us across a century and more and speaks to us with relevance in the 1990s as it did in the 1880s". Not to me it doesn't. But then, here's Bell on the modern, satirising the arts establishment. "Perhaps", he said, "if it wrapped up bricks in muslin or islands in plastic, it would be deemed worthy of Arts Council funding. Perhaps if it cross-dressed the cast of The Gondoliers or had the crew of HMS Pinafore clad in black leather and chains, it would be deemed worthy of Arts Council funding." Well, it would certainly make it a lot more interesting.

Bell's attitude makes you wonder, once again, how anything new ever happens in this seemingly hidebound country. All this and Prince Charles too. How would the buildings they now love have fared if, every time someone had applied to the King for planning application, he had been told, "don't build that new-fangled castle there, where it will overshadow those historic hovels. Wattle and daub is the true Olde Englishe style." Had the first St Paul's Cathedral not burned down in 1666, we would never have had the second. Are we to regret its loss?

So, why should we, as a nation, be paying money for ancient musical satire, when we hardly write any of our own? Why do our legislators indulge in such complacent adoration for our ridiculous institutions, when there is so much new thinking to be done? There is not air enough for every plant, and we should not allow nostalgia to blind us to the choking effect on innovation, on new shoots, by the careless watering of untrimmed, unhealthy, gnarled old bushes. Martin Bell says, of D'Oyly Carte, that "the flame must not go out in our time" Oh yes it must, Martin. We should blow it out.

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