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A life of Gilbert and Sullivan

PUBLISHED: 13:00 07 April 2011 | UPDATED: 21:31 20 February 2013

A life of Gilbert and Sullivan

A life of Gilbert and Sullivan

Thousands of visitors flock to Sheffield Park, but few realise it is also home to the largest collection of Gilbert and Sullivan memorabilia on permanent display in the world. Angela Wintle meets the man hoping to save it for the nation

As I step into the darkened room, with its cast of shrouded figures, I can almost smell the Victorian greasepaint and hear the ghostly echoes of familiar characters the capering Koko and the poignant sobbing of broken-hearted Jack Point; the martial stomp of the Heavy Dragoons and the Mikados bloodthirsty roar; the sound of fairies tripping hither and thither and the lilting tones of those Three Little Maids from School.
I am standing in a room crowded with memories of yesteryear. Here, at Oak Hall, bordering Sheffield Park and Garden on the edge of the Sussex Weald near Uckfield, is the largest collection of Gilbert and Sullivan memorabilia on permanent display in the world a shrine to our greatest ever musical theatre duo. Its the lifetime collection of Melvyn Tarran, a Sussex man who just cant get enough of his operatic idols.
The first things that strike you are the historic costumes 30 in all originally worn by members of the DOyly Carte Opera Company, who were entrusted with performing Gilbert and Sullivans masterpieces. Then you notice the endless display cases; a theatrical cornucopia of stage props, letters, portraits, photographs, posters, souvenirs and theatre programmes.
Melvyn darts from one case to another, reading aloud from neatly typed cards which he and his faithful band of volunteers have spent patient hours compiling.
But there was a time when he knew nothing of the librettist WS Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, who collaborated on 14 comic light operas between 1871 and 1896, among them, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, which are still popular to this day.
He discovered the duo while working as a trainee hotel manager at the Ritz and Piccadilly hotels in Fifties London, where he met a chef who had played trombone at the DOyly Cartes famous Savoy Theatre. Cheerily singing snippets from his favourite arias, he would reminisce about his favourite performers while using his long carving knife as a baton, smiles Melvyn.
His curiosity got the better of him and Melvyn paid two shillings to watch a performance of Ruddigore when the Company next came to town. That evening was to change the course of his life. I was spellbound and the performers seemed like huge stars, he says. Little did I imagine that 40 years later some of those names would sing at my own concerts here at Oak Hall, and many of those costumes would form part of this collection.
Melvyn pursued his career in hotel management, but never turned his back on his operatic idols, later opening a restaurant in Hassocks called Sullivans. Festooning the interior with G and S photographs, he dressed his waitresses in Victorian costume and christened the tables after famous DOyly Carte principals.
When he wrote to the opera company asking if they would consider sending one of their best-known singers to the opening, they astounded him by forwarding an entire list of famous names that would attend, and even donated a parcel of G and S mementoes for his permanent display. And so the Gilbert and Sullivan Collection was born.
Buoyed by his restaurants success, Melvyn later opened a second called Tarrans next to the Theatre Royal in Brighton, which he also filled with G and S memorabilia. But as the collection swelled, it soon became clear that he needed a larger and more lasting home for his collection.
It came in the shape of Oak Hall, a former riding school bordering the National Trust-owned Sheffield Park and Garden, once part of the estate of the Earls of Sheffield. Here, Melvyn staged charity concerts featuring former DOyly Carters, while continuing to expand his collection.
The exquisite costumes, always a feature of any G and S performance, are among his most impressive exhibits. Almost all the major operas are represented, including The Pirates of Penzance, The Yeoman of the Guard, The Gondoliers, Princess Ida and Ruddigore. But the finest are his costumes from The Mikado, designed expressly for the Company in 1926 by the artist and designer Charles Ricketts.
More recently, Melvyn has also acquired costumes from director Mike Leighs critically-acclaimed film Topsy-Turvy (1999), chronicling the life and times of Gilbert and Sullivan, and he wryly observes that the long cloak worn by Jim Broadbent for a London street scene cost him more than many DOyly Carte originals.
Other important exhibits include a Broadwood grand piano, a gift from Sir Arthur Sullivan to his American mistress Mrs Ronalds; Sir Arthurs 18 carat gold-mounted walking stick, topped with a magnificent tigers eye finial; letters written in WS Gilberts own hand, and 20 albums packed with sepia photographs chronicling the DOyle Cartes London productions from the 1880s until the 1920s.
There are also absorbing displays celebrating some of the companys principal artists, including Rutland Barrington (1853-1922), WS Gilberts main baritone, George Grossmith (1847-1912), who played nine memorable G and S characters during the 1870s and 1880s, and Sir Henry Lytton (1865-1936), perhaps the most famous Savoyard of all, who played 22 principal roles over a period of 44 years. Knighted in 1930, he was affectionately known as the Knight of all he Savoyed.
He says old Savoyards are often moved to tears when they visit the collection and are prompted to donate memorabilia of their own. There are a lot of ghosts in these rooms and the DOyly Carters say it makes them go all shivery, says Melvyn. It also has a profound effect on ordinary visitors, even if they dont know anything about the operas, because they love to see the costumes. Theres something here for everyone.
But two years ago Melvyns collection was something of a secret and closed to the public at large. Even now it still isnt run on a commercial basis, though he will introduce a small admission fee this season. Our biggest problem is finding volunteers. We have half a dozen at present, which means we have to restrict our opening times to a few hours on a Saturday. But I dont advertise I havent the time. And almost everything devolves to me"
Meanwhile, Melvyns collection just keeps growing. He admits his fascination borders on the obsessive and he spends many patient hours scouring auction sites looking for more theatrical goodies.
He is anxious about the future of his collection and has begun to cast around for a new custodian. Ive told the National Trust Ill give it to them, but they worry about the cost of conserving it. The Victoria & Albert Museum would also like it, but while Im still around Id like it to be seen and enjoyed by the public, not stored away in boxes and brought out for the occasional exhibition.
I want to promote the works of Gilbert and Sullivan because all too often theyre pushed aside.


The Gilbert and Sullivan Collection at Oak Hall, which borders the tearoom at Sheffield Park and Garden, is scheduled to reopen for the spring season on April 9. It will open on Saturdays between 11am and 4pm. Pre-booked group visits are available at any time. For further information and to confirm opening times, please ring 01825 790338.

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