by Canon Jim Foley

The Programme for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, staged at the Scots College Rome in 1951, fell into my hands by chance recently. It would merit a place of honour in the Vatican Archives. There will be those who will blush deeply to see their names writ large in such distinguished company. I found myself, at a distance of sixty years, reflecting on the subsequent careers of some of the protagonists, on and off stage.

Among them was a future cardinal whose career took off when, in 1951, having completed his doctorate in Canon Law, cum laude, on the subject of Tithes in Medieval Scotland, he was cast as Strephon, an Arcadian Shepherd, a role to which he brought a certain gravitas. Strephon and Phyllis the Arcadian Sheperdess sang a memorable duet on that occasion. In later years they seldom if ever sang from the same hymn sheet. Then there is a future auxiliary bishop who moved on from musical director in 1951, to secure the role of Little Buttercup for himself in H.M.S. Pinafore in 1952. Things were already looking up for him too. A future Vicar General’s career took a dip when he was demoted from the role of a Gentleman of Japan in the Mikado in 1949 to the Chorus of Peers in Iolanthe in 1951. He took it badly and was never quite the same again.

The company also included a future Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism who was perfunctorily relegated to the stage committee having failed to realise his early promise. The fateful audition consisted in singing two verses of Tantum Ergo which proved beyond his range. The producer was evidently looking for perfect pitch. Then there was one member of the cast whose career telescoped from the Peers’ Chorus to head of Protocol in the Holy Office, General Secretary to the Scottish hierarchy and Protonotary Apostolic.

Well cast as Private Willis of the Scots Guards, was the future author of several books on Christian spirituality which had a wide appeal. Having been in the Guards himself he was perfectly at home in the role. Strephon’s mother, Iolanthe, who was chosen because he had a good appearance, would surface sixty years later, still wearing well, as the star of a popular TV series centred on an Island parish. From his showing in Iolanthe few of us would have foreseen such a meteoric rise.

Further down the pecking order there are seventeen future parish priests. As far as I can make out they include only one future canon among them. Modesty precludes any further comment on him and his accomplishments. Honourable mention should also be made of the pianist whose talents were tested to the limit. The experience clearly equipped him for whatever challenges he might face in later life. An unknown hand, which proved to belong to Willie Boyle, has added an extra Persona to my copy of the Dramatis Personae, that of Chief Critic!

D’Oyly Carte could never have imagined that this light-hearted Operetta would attract such a distinguished cast, charged with so much potential, not only realised in Arcadia, but in real life. Sleuths may pass an enjoyable hour identifying some of the above personalities in the attached photo. As yet no supreme pontiff has emerged from our ranks. Had we staged Wagner’s Ring Cycle instead of the Savoy Operas we might have had better luck. With each year that passes this seems unlikely, unless the next conclave is looking to elect an nonagenarian baratone.

The ten thespians from those heady days that are still alive at time of writing (July 2013) will be forgiven for looking back on that Arcadian Landscape with a mixture of pride and nostalgia. It was inhabited by some of the most gifted people you could ever hope to meet. The Arcadian Landscape of 1951 would give way only too soon to a less idyllic world. Yet, even in Arcadia ‘as the sun sets, the mountains begin to cast longer shadows’ (Virgil: Eclogue 1 last line).

The entire cast of Iolanhe

The entire cast of Iolanhe

(Photograph of the cast of Iolanthe by courtesy of Bobby Grant)

Click on the images below to view slideshow.

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