Whenever a theatre company does a production one of the first considerations is the costumes. Unless they are doing something like Steaming, with all the characters hanging around a Turkish bath draped in nothing but towels, a lot of thought and care must be taken to give those on stage appropriate dressing to show their character, station in life and relationship with the rest of the population.
In modern plays non-professional companies often raid the individual wardrobes of the company but in a period piece more work is needed. When the characters are in uniform the problem is greater.
Most military uniforms are expensive, with braid, gold buttons and other embellishments. If a known regiment is to be shown, then authenticity is also a consideration.
This is the tale of how one company is going about dressing an old work. Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria knows at least that it will repeat the G&S Operas so any new costumes will be used a number of times—but that also means that they must be sturdy enough for repeated use.
Over the years the Yeomen of the Guard uniforms in Victoria have either worn out or been destroyed in a fire. This problem it turns out it a recurring one. In 1949 the programme for Yeomen had a paragraph stating that the committee regrets that after exhaustive enquiries sufficient Yeomen uniforms were not obtainable so some have been dressed in other costumes of the period and the committee “craves your indulgence and trusts the omission will not detract unduly from the performance”.
While Yeomen allows for some of the male chorus to be citizens, we still need a core of Yeomen in the recognisable costume. How to go about obtaining them?
In 1887 W.S. Gilbert began to wrestle with the thought that he needed to come up with an idea for a new comic opera. The Mikado had been an amazing success and made a lot of money. Ruddigore, which followed it, by contrast had made only a small splash in the theatrical world (though Gilbert was later to say that it had made him £7,000 profit) so an idea which would be popular with the public and entice Sullivan, was needed. Sullivan was suffering a bout of bad health and the desire to do something different.
While waiting for a train one day at Uxbridge station, Gilbert’s eye fell on a poster advertising the Tower Furnishing Company with an illustration of the Tower of London. He decided that this would be an attractive setting and began work on The Tower Warder, which Sullivan declared to have “a pretty story, very human and funny too”. Once in rehearsal Gilbert renamed the work The Beefeater and it was close to the opening night when the title The Yeomen of the Guard was decided upon.
While all the costumes (assuming that the production remains faithful to its original setting) are Tudor in period, the Yeomen uniforms you might think are simply the familiar red outfits seen in many a book on British history. This is not so.
The first Yeomen wore green. Towards the end of the Wars of the Roses, when the Lancastrians heirs were just about exhausted, young Henry Tudor was living in France, in fear of his life. His father was from an undistinguished Welsh family but his mother was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and younger son of Edward III. Margaret Beaufort was indomitable in her belief that her son was the true heir to the throne and eventually he invaded England and improbably won a battle against the much greater forces of Richard III, and became Henry VII. While in exile he was protected by a personal force of bodyguards who stayed close to him in battle. When he was crowned in Westminster Abbey his nearest soldiers were these men, to whom he gave the name, The Yeomen of the Guard. They were the only royal bodyguard, the first permanent armed body in the country and were entitled to stand nearest to the sovereign on state occasions.
Their everyday dress was russet cloth with a Tudor rose front and back. On state occasions their uniform was ‘damask white and green, goodly embroidered both on their breast before and also on their backs behind, with round garlands of vine branches, beset richly with spangles of silver and gilt in the middle a red rose, beaten with goldsmith’s work’.
I have often had the temptation to use this design for a production of The Yeomen of the Guard but apart from the fact that it would be way beyond any possible budget it would also completely confuse the audience.
The familiar red uniforms have changed over the years and directors and designers need to think of what period they want the opera set. The Tower of London was a royal palace and from time to time the Kings lived there and were guarded by The Yeomen of the Guard. However this changed and the body guard devolved into two distinct entities. The Yeomen of the Guard continued as the personal bodyguard to the monarch but a separate group wearing almost identical uniforms became the Tower Warders of more formally The Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London. So Gilbert’s title reflects the wrong body of men.
Today the Yeomen of the Guard are retired soldiers who only appear on special ceremonial occasions, usually around 30 times a year. They are given three weeks notice and provided with railway warrants as well as an allowance for food and overnight accommodation. They receive no pay.
On the other hand, Yeomen Warders are full-time employees. They must have served at least 22 years in the armed services, reached the rank of warrant officer (or equivalent) and have earned the long service and good conduct medal. They live in cottages around tower green and their pay scale is in accordance with that of the Civil Service. In 2006 the first woman was appointed to their ranks. Today the duties are ceremonial and they work as tour guides to the Tower.
This is good research background but how does it help with costumes? There are various imaginations of the costume. Some have the monarch’s initials usually ER or HR on them—some of the authentic uniforms have these others do not, but then placing them limits the period that the production can be set in. Some costumes are embellished with a grid of gold mesh, which is effective, or other decorations. Under Elizabeth II the bodices have the insignias of England (a rose) Ireland (a shamrock) and Scotland (a thistle). Not appropriate for the historic yeomen.
After the D’Oyly Carte Company folded in 1982 much of its goods were sold off including sets of costumes. A few years ago I managed to obtain one of their Yeomen costumes. The first thing to note is the weight of it. I can hardly lift it and it would be very hot and uncomfortable to wear on stage. Nevertheless it is magnificent. The tunic is in the Elizabethan style, with large puffed sleeves gathered in at various points. The bodice is tight fitting with large panniered sections forming skirts. There is a Tudor rose in the centre of the bodice and no initials of any monarch. The tunic is worn over red britches. Both are liberally embellished with ribbons of gold and blue. A heavy woollen material is used throughout.
We invited a professional costume maker to look at it and give us an idea of how possible it would be to simplify and make on a budget. She went into raptures, pointing out how cleverly the decorations were done to catch the light and improve the look from the stage. With her we have worked out how to obtain a pattern, which would take up less material without looking as if we have skimped and making it possible to replicate the costume.
To make a set of costumes will be the task for we can recruit sewers in some kind of production line. But even with a lighter and less expensive material and some corners cut with substitutes for gold braid, the cost per costume will still be substantial.
The alternative to having our own set, is to hire from Perth, itself a costly solution. So the Committee decided to set up an appeal for our supporters to donate toward the making of the costumes.
Donations to Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria are a tax deduction, but the donor cannot direct the money to a specific cause (a regulation that has always puzzled me), nor can they receive any benefit such as a free ticket.
So we have prepared a flyer asking for donations to the group and promising it will be put toward the costume. Names of donors will be acknowledged in the programme. If anyone is generous enough to give us a larger sum that person’s name will be placed on the inside of the costume. In a generation hence a chorister may ask ‘who is Jennifer Benefit?’ And the answer will be a generous person who made the making of this costume possible.
BOOK REVIEW: Seven Big Australians by Anne Pender
Review by Diana Burleigh
The book, subtitled Adventures with Comic Actors, covers the lives and careers of seven of the most popular and loved Aussie performers. All are still living, aged between 96 and 64, except John Clarke, who died all too soon at the age of 69.
All the subjects have a few things in common. For example none of their careers have gone through a conventional drama school start. Many have worked together and through this we get a good look at the development of types of theatre in Australia, which adds to our general knowledge of recent theatre history when it chronicles details of the early days of La Mama or the Pram Factory. Occasionally the information repeats itself in more than one biography, which could have been less clumsily handled. But this is a minor flaw in a book which is well-researched and written and brings to life artists we have become familiar with through film, TV and on stage. Several times I was delighted to be reminded of productions I had seen which involved one or more of the subjects.
It is heartening that of the seven, three are women, Carol Raye, Noeline Brown and Denise Scott. The four men are Barry Humphries, Max Gillies, John Clarke and Tony Sheldon. This is a greater diversity than we would have had a few years ago, though of course all are of white Anglo Celtic origins, which in itself it a comment on our entertainment history.
Anne Pender, professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of New England, begins each chapter with an account of an interview with her subject, though I suspect there were several more interviews. The chapters continue with biographical details of the individuals. There is little critical comment, the author choosing to display facts over commentary.
English born Carole Raye, now in her 90s, has one of the most diverse careers. Her father was in the navy and she travelled with him to several countries but it was dancing that captured her interest from an early age. She had childhood success working with Robert Helpmann (who urged her to train for classical ballet) and the Australian choreographer Freddie Carpenter. Marriage took her from the stage and she lived with her husband in America working as a nanny and in primary schools. It was when she moved to Nairobi as television was about to be introduced that she managed to work in the medium, both as a personality and gaining experience in the technical side of the telecasting.
On moving to Australia in 1964, Carol applied to the ABC for a job in production but was told they trained their own people. So she took her talents to Channel 7, where she was allowed to do a pilot of a satiric programme based on current affairs. The Mavis Bramston Show became a phenomenon and ran for years, creating several of our earliest stars, including Barry Creyton, Noeline Brown, June Salter and Gordon Chater.
Subsequently Carol worked in straight theatre: Travelling North by David Williamson; soaps, Number 96 and was a regular on the Mike Walsh Show.
Anne Pender has written a full-length biography of Barry Humphries and it is tempting to suggest that this version is a précis of it, in that it covers some aspects of his life and character and seems to have done a cut and paste on others, omitting quite a lot of his experience.
The early chapters are most illuminating as they show a boy bullied by his Melbourne Grammar fellow pupils because of his inability in the perceived important areas of maths and sport, despite his excellent and original vocabulary. He became introverted and a loner. This did not drive him into solitude or to shrink from public activities. One of his first acts of defiance was, while attending a compulsory footy match, to turn his back on the field and knit. He became known while still at university, for outrageous stunts which were designed to startle fellow passengers on train trips and in city venues. Pender traces his career from his student days when he was recruited by John Sumner for the theatre he founded at Melbourne University (later to become the Melbourne Theatre Company) and his discovery of his ability to create a range of characters for which he was to become famous.
When she was taken to a performance of As You Like It at the age of seven, Noeline Brown became fascinated with theatre. From an under-privileged background Noeline left school at 15 to work in a library where she was encouraged to read widely and see plays. This led to her joining amateur theatre companies. At this time non-professionals were accepted into the artistic milieu and she mixed with writers, critics and artists.
Her big break into television brought her into contact with Carol Raye in The Mavis Bramston Show and they were to work together over years in such programmes as Number 96 and Blankety Blanks.
Throughout this time Noeline still worked on stage in such successes as Don’s Party and Buzo’s Rooted. Pender makes a great deal of her appearance in the musical Applause, based on the film All About Eve, which had been a big success for Lauren Bacall in New York and London. She does not mention that the production in Sydney was an expensive flop.
The chapter on Max Gillies gives us a superb history of Melbourne’s La Mama and Pram Factory. These two theatres were extremely influential in creating a new Australian style of performance. Both writers and actors were given the chance to create something, which contrasted with the then dominant British writing and presentations.
Max took a different path from the other actors in the book and we are regaled with his beginnings in plays to his more vaudeville performances to the range of characters he developed. There is a slightly confusing timeline in the telling of his story but nevertheless Max comes across as a charismatic and talented figure.
One of Gillies early collaborators was John Clarke but the two fell out and their paths diverged. Clarke came from a dysfunctional family (as did several others in this book) but his mother’s interest in writing drew her to the theatre and he was drafted into amateur shows. This was not a path to his theatrical involvement, as he was not interested in playing other people, he wanted to be himself.
He found his mark at university where he gravitated to the theatrical revues. He found a job as an assessor for New Zealand television, for which he had to see and recommend overseas programmes for the TV station. He became influenced by the British satirical movement, which included Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe. The New Zealand TV companies found these too radical for their airwaves but it inspired Clarke, who with the encouragement of Barry Humphries began to develop his own style. The famed Clark and Dawe interviews came from his admiration for Peter Cook. Although the book post-dates Clarke’s death it is not recorded.
Tony Sheldon seems to come from a younger generation, so it comes as a surprise to realise that he is now in his 60s. Coming from a showbiz family, he has a different career path. He began performing at the age of seven on Graham Kennedy’s Tonight. His father Frank Sheldon was a producer on the show and his mother, Toni Lamond a popular performer, singer, dancer and personality.
Once again we get a tantalising glimpse of the world of variety, introducing such illustrious names as Jill Perryman and Ticki Taylor.
Tony Sheldon’s childhood was troubled by family problems, which were exacerbated by the public nature of his father’s suicide and mother’s addiction to prescription drugs. Nevertheless he managed to survive boarding school (which he hated) and began working in straight theatre, a contrast to the lives of his parents and grandparents, vaudevillians Max Reddy and Stella Lamond and his aunt Helen Reddy. Tony worked with a number of established companies as well as commercial shows. He filled in the ‘resting’ periods with script writing for TV. This included a year on Sons and Daughters for Grundy. His big break came when he was cast in Torch Song Trilogy, three plays about a family-minded Jewish drag queen. The play is greatly demanding with the lead character being on stage for nearly three hours. The show was a triumph for Sheldon. After a sell-out season in Sydney, Gordon Frost bought the production and took it to Melbourne. Pender states that it broke box office records as the longest running play in Melbourne, but fails to mention that it was in the Universal, a fringe theatre in Carlton, with a very small capacity. The intimacy of this space added to the atmosphere of the play and enhanced its message. Sheldon admits that this production put him on the map.
Worried that he would be type cast in flamboyant gay roles, Sheldon initially turned down the role of Roger De Bris in The Producers but was persuaded to accept it and it gained him a Helpman award. During the run of The Producers, Sheldon was asked if he was interested in being part of a workshop to develop a stage version of the film Priscilla. Tony said he would rather stick pins in his eyes than play another drag queen. Fortunately he was persuaded to change his mind and history now records the musical was such a success and that he is now referred to as a Tony nominee when it took Broadway by storm after its triumphant seasons in Australia and London.
The final subject of the book is Denise Scott. At first sight she seems an unlikely star. Denise seems to be filled with a lack of self-confidence, and insecurity about her talent and at times self-loathing.
Hers was a happy working class family and at the age of eleven was inspired by the monologues of Joyce Grenfell.
Denise trained as a teacher as a way of escaping Greensborough where she was brought up. This led to her joining theatre companies touring schools, which gave her valuable performing experience.
Against all odds she began to find work in stand up and sometimes had the humiliation of being heckled in a vituperative manner. But she made contacts with other women in the comedy field including Lynda Gibson, Jean Kitson and Sally-Anne Upton, which resulted in work on TV in such programmes as The Big Gig and Full Frontal. Her path to being a successful TV host, comic actor and guru of the Australian comedy circuit is skilfully traversed by Anne Pender.
The book adds much to our knowledge and appreciation of a group of people who have brought much pleasure and will bring back fond memories of performances that we have seen over many years.
Seven Big Australians: adventures with comic actors by Anne Pender, Monash University Publishing, Vic, April 2019, ISBN (pb) 978-1-925835-21-2, $29.95