Gilbert & Sullivan’s Greatest Hits

April 2, 2013

A DVD that should have been titled Gilbert and Sullivan and Ford has been released on Video Artists International under the title . Fewer than 50 of the 96 minutes of the material  are from “Tennessee” Ernie Ford’s television show, but they are the delights of the disc. 

In 1959, Ford was hosting what was then one of the most watched half hour variety shows on television. It was called The Ford Show because it not only starred a personality named Ford, it was sponsored by a car company by that name as well.

On April 16 of that year, instead of a guest star, a comedy bit and a couple of songs, the show presented one 26-minute abridged version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous comic opera, The Mikado. Ford acted as a folksy narrator as well as taking on the role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titti Poo.

As a narrator, he retained his personality of the friendly, southern country boy with a pronounced drawl and a host of small town or farm allusions. His description of the plight of Ko-Ko as an executioner who has no experience executing anyone, and hopes he never will have to, includes the observation “if you take a job as a poop scooper, there’s going to come a time when you have got to get in there and scoop a little poop.”

That’s not exactly the precision of the King's English for which William Schwenck Gilbert was known, but it gets the point across.

Later he refers to Ko-Ko giving the lover, Nanki- Poo, “a haircut from the neck up.” Y’up. We know what he means.

Not all of what passed as politically correct in 1959 would be acceptable today – I don’t think any television host would describe the marital life dreamed of by Nanki-Poo and the lovely Yum-Yum as “getting themselves a few acres of swamp land and raising a couple of fat, pink-cheeked rice pickers.”

But such insensitivities aside, the program was colorful, tuneful, funny and thoroughly enjoyable. 

In addition to Ford, there are two notable performances. One is a lovely Yum-Yum in the person of Detra Kamsler. The other, a clear-voiced Ken Remo as Nanki-Poo. Ford’s back up group, The Top Twenty, handle “We Are Gentlemen of Japan” nicely, and the rest of the supporting cast is acceptable.

The adaptation by Howard Leeds and Norman Paul takes Gilbert’s script seriously, even though it is cut down to fit the half-hour time slot. The decision to use Ford as narrator makes it possible to communicate enough of the plot to make the songs sensible – and the Tennessee humor is confined to “Tennessee” Ernie’s narration.

Thus, Gilbert’s tone as well as his convoluted plot are given their due and the music of Arthur Sullivan is treated with equal respect.

The episode was so well received that nine months later the team took on Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, again with Ford acting as a down-home narrator who briefly takes a role. This time he fills in as Sir Joseph Porter, the desk clerk elevated to the First Lord of the Admiralty. He adopts a bit of an over-blown upper-crust British accent while in the character of Porter, and as a result, his singing isn’t quite as impressive as it had been in The Mikado. However, he holds his own with guest singers Donna Cooke and Dick Wessler. Susan Lovell is particularly good in her abbreviated rendition of “I’m Called Little Buttercup.”

When narrating, Ford’s unique way of getting his point across comes back into play. He sets up the story of love blocked by class distinctions by explaining that in Queen Victoria’s day “there were the aristocrats and the commoners and there were no holes in the fence for the rooster to get into the wrong henhouse.” 

He tells us that comic villain Dick Deadeye’s idea of fun is “to steal the pea out of a little boy’s whistle.”

Again the adaptation by Leeds and Paul succeeds in encapsulating the convoluted comedy in a short time without belittling it, and again the production was tuneful, funny and enjoyable. 

Unfortunately, unlike The Mikado, no color copy of this Pinafore is known to exist and the black and white kinescope used for this disc isn’t of the best quality. But it has been cleaned up to an acceptable level and we’re lucky to have it available on DVD.

Video Artists International has filled the rest of the disc with material that either is already available on other discs they have issued or is of less interest than some of the things one would have hoped they would have tried to obtain.

Among the things I’d have loved to see on the disc would be the one other opera that The Ford Show did in this half hour adaptation format, Bizet’s Carmen. Other theatrically themed episodes of The Ford Show would also have been of interest such as one or both of Carol Channing’s appearances, the episode featuring Gordon MacRae or the one with the star of L’il Abner, Peter Palmer. The 1957 episode when Steve Allen attempted to get Ford to replace his live audience with a laugh track must have been prescient and those of us who grew up with the television of the time might enjoy seeing the episodes with Jon Provost and his co-star Lassie or Lee Aaker and his co-star Rin Tin Tin.

Instead, we have here selections from another Mikado telecast, the Bell Telephone Hours’ 1960 version that starred Grouch Marx (but none of Groucho’s moments are on these clips), three numbers from the Alfred Drake/Barbara Cook The Yeomen of the Guard from 1957 and five from the Bell Telephone Hour’s 1963 version of H. M. S. Pinafore that starred Martyn Green. All of these are available on recently released discs.

The one segment that is new to disc is a 1962 medley of Gilbert and Sullivan songs by Martyn Green and Cyril Richard. It is a charmer and Green seems to be enjoying himself more than he had in the Pinafore segment.

One more item of note: The disc includes the original commercial for the 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 and Ford Falcon which was done “in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  Now, that was worth including on the disc of  The Ford Show items!

Gilbert & Sullivan: Greatest Hits
Video Artists International DVD 4558
Running time: 96 minutes
List Price $19.95