Rum-ti-tum, the heartbeat of a nation

Day Twelve Buxton, Derbyshire; A JOURNEY AROUND THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN

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The train jolted its way up the side of the hills into the Peak District. At the heart of the unintimidating fell-tops, cupped in a hollow, lies Buxton. It is a small spa town of solidity and decency whose Georgian architecture is on a reassuringly human scale. In the cautious conservatory of its winter gardens, holiday-makers eat Swiss roll and read The Daily Telegraph. The shop sells tea towels imprinted with the words of "Bless this House" or "My Kitchen Prayer", which begins: Bless my little kitchen, Lord/ I love its every nook ...

If the outside world is knocking at its door, Buxton doesn't need to know. It is safe and old-fashioned and English in the way that Gilbert and Sullivan are. It was just the right venue for the fourth International G&S festival (last year's winners: the South Anglia Savoy Players - South Anglia is Gilbertian for Essex).

It was the big day for the Bournemouth G&S Society. At 9am Paul, a 54- year-old solicitor who had taken the week off work, was already backstage erecting the set and lighting rig for the society's production of The Yeoman of the Guard. He has been doing stage lighting for more than 20 years. "You start work before the rest of the company get here, and when they go home you are still here to take it all down," he said. But his enthusiasm seemed undimmed.

By 11am the company had arrived and were sitting in the Victorian splendour of the Matcham theatre, all cream and gold and blue drapes. "Pacing is everything today," Roberta Morrell, their director, announced. "Remember you have to peak at 7.30pm." Roberta, a professional employed by Bournemouth to mark their 50th anniversary production, had put the cast through a gruelling three weeks of solid rehearsals. "Remember you do this for pleasure; don't lose sight of that fact."

As if. The capacity for innocent enjoyment is integral to G&S. That much was evident from the moment the rehearsal began. It is not just that the splendid rum-ti-tum of Sullivan's music offers endless opportunity for arm-swinging gusto. (Amateurs love G&S, because you're supposed to be hammy). Or that the wilful ahistoricity of Gilbert's Ruritanian flummery fulfils even the most extravagant childhood dreams for dressing up.

No, in the wings, too, there were endless opportunities for merriment. Yeomen threatened mischief with their halberds. Hats were worn inside out. Heavy Tudor skirts were lifted to waft air to nether regions. By the prompt desk a member of the chorus looked wistfully on to the stage: "I'm understudying Phoebe," she sighed, "but she's never ill - despite the voodoo doll and the pins."

In the stalls, like a beady-eyed eagle, sat Edna, who joined the company in 1949, played contralto leads till 1955, and directed 31 consecutive annual productions until 1986. In her late eighties, she is now an honorary consultant. "Those halberds should all be facing the same way," she said in a whisper which must have reached the gallery. "Most of the men have two left feet - but don't write that down."

By lunch time Janet, who introduced herself as the society's chairman, was ready for a rest. She had only recently recovered from a heart attack. "The support I got after it was incredible," she said. "There's a tremendous sense of caring about one another in a group like this, even if you're not bosom pals. Bernard and his wife were fantastic."

Bernard, too, was in the stalls. He had done his bit. He was the props man and he had set everything out in the wings, stage right. At one time his only involvement was to bring his wife, Maureen, who was in the chorus, to rehearsals, since she couldn't drive. Then he got drafted into props and has been, it was universally acknowledged, indispensable ever since. He stood in the darkness and surveyed the dress rehearsal. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me," he said quietly. "No one could be more proud of this lot than me."

In the wings, halberd down, Yeoman Roger filled me in on the role of treasurer. He collected members' subs (pounds 15 a year) and handled ticket sales (pounds 30,000 on a good show such as The Mikado, Pinafore, Pirates or The Gondoliers). He has done it for 10 years. It was a bit of a busman's holiday - he is finance director for a Dorset brewery - but he met his wife through it. "Both second marriages," he said as he nipped back on stage.

"Who's looking after the props?" inquired a stranger. "Bernard," I heard myself say. "They're on the other side." It was catching, this sense of participation.

"You can sometimes feel like a hamster on a wheel," said Robin, who played the Sergeant, but was in reality a retired major with the Royal Engineers. It's not just the rehearsals, said his wife, Vicki, who is in the chorus, there are the concerts at the Ringwood Conservative Association, the dinner dance, the quizzes, the Anything-But-G&S night, the barbecues, garden parties and cream teas.

Bournemouth G&S, it must be said, is a bit short of the under-45s. "The kids would rather be in Grease, with mikes," said Vicki. "You can't get the young to commit themselves: three months ahead! Every week! The very idea!" It is almost as if G&S speak to a time when the general populace aspired to a middle-class culture: today, in the classless homogeneity of our pop era, everyone seeks safe, non-elitist anonymity. It was a world of activity in which high standards were balanced with giving everyone a role - said the musical director, Jean, a teacher - unlike so many modern pastimes, which involve passively sitting in front of a computer or TV.

The performance was quite magnificent. But the performance was, to me, not the point. In the bar afterwards members of the cast, emboldened ever so politely by alcohol, made clear that they expected The Independent to take the mickey out of Gilbert & Sullivan. I would not dream of it. It was Edmund Burke who said that British society is made up of countless little platoons. Bournemouth G&S Society is one of them. They are where our citizens learn the mechanisms of mutuality.

The dogged reliability of the lighting man Paul, the continuity and standards of the octogenarian Edna, the trust and striving after excellence of the director Roberta, the exactness and probity of Roger the treasurer, the love and care which Janet articulated, Jean's acknowledging of the strengths and weaknesses of others - all these are the foundations of our civil society. It does not have to be G&S, of course. It is all there in the bowls teams, the tennis clubs, the night schools, the local Rotary and countless other bodies. Britain would be a poorer place without them.

Tuesday: Knottingley, West Yorkshire.

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