Wednesday, 04 September 2019

C.H. Workman: My Life as a Savoyard

Written by C.H. Workman

MyLifeSavoyardBanner 001C.H. Workman, 1907. Photo by (Dover Street Studios, London. Private collection.

The first D’Oyly Carte repertory season of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas staged at the Savoy Theatre, London between December 1906 to August 1907 under the personal direction of W.S. Gilbert, resulted in the renewed popularity of the operas amongst West End theatre-goers and also brought fame and great personal success to the company’s principal comedian, Charles Herbert Workman, who, in the midst of the season, penned the following reminiscences for The Tatler [No. 301] published on 3 April 1907.

From Church to Stage.

NAY, good Sir Tatler, I was not intended for the Church. Unlike many of my brethren of the sock and buskin I never aspired to holy orders. My preferment lay rather with orders pertaining to our local theatre. These were the gift of a friendly greengrocer who, good honest soul that he was, whilst himself abjuring the playhouse, was broad-minded enough to exhibit playbills, in return for which he received periodical vouchers admitting “two to pit.” To me he was kind enough occasionally to bequeath one of those magic scraps of paper because I happened to be a choir boy in the church of which he was a warden. Thus to the inadvertent encouragement of a worthy Churchman may be attributed my first desire to be an actor.

In Amateur Pantomime.

My first theatrical essay was in an amateur pantomime of which I was joint author. In it I took the humble parts of the Demon King, Fairy Queen, Cogia, and also one of the Forty Thieves, or rather, to be precise, one of a dozen (our local talent being limited), who by clever stage-management were able effectively to represent the full forty. I made it my earnest endeavour to impart to each of my robbers a distinct personality. I suppose I succeeded. Anyway, everybody who witnessed the performance declared 1 was a born actor. That was enough. I was now quite convinced that the commercial office to which I had been consigned was no place for me. I must be an actor.

I Become a Savoyard.

Proud was the moment when after a further period of amateur strutting I presented myself at the Savoy Theatre for audition, prouder still when I received my first professional engagement as chorister from Mr. D'Oyly Carte, but far greater my elation when shortly afterwards I was cast for first citizen in The Yeomen of the Guard. That was just twelve and a half years ago.

On Tour.

Since then it has been my good fortune to sustain all the leading comedian parts in the Savoy répertoire in the provincial touring company. My favourite character—Jack Point—I have played about 1,000 times, Koko in The Mikado far oftener. How many thousands of miles I travelled—north, south, east, and west—through the United Kingdom during those years is a mathematical calculation which may well be left to the unemployed to work out.

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    Workman as the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, 1907. Engraving by Swain Sc.

    Private Collection.

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    Workman as Ko-Ko in The Mikado, 1908. Photo by Dover Street Studios, London.

    Private Collection.


Under Fire.

One of the most stirring incidents, lending colour to an otherwise "bald and unconvincing narrative," occurred at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool. We were playing Iolanthe when a fire broke out somewhere. I was in the middle of the Lord Chancellor's song, “Said I to myself, said I,” when I beheld the audience suddenly jump from their seats and deliberately turn their backs on me. Wondering how I could have offended them I was about to “dry up” when Mr. Bellamy, our manager, shouted to me from the wings, “Don't stop; for heaven's sake go on! Give it 'em strong!”

Smoke Creates Joke.

In a moment I grasped the situation and, closing my eyes, sang fortissimo:—

I’ll assure all my friends who are ready to choke
That the fire that they fear is nothing but smoke,

It's only a sort of Gilbertian joke.

Said I to myself, said I.

That was, I think, the first and only time I dared to play tricks with Gilbert and Sullivan. To gag in a Savoy opera is, as every actor knows, only a degree less than high treason—a crime for which even the Mikado himself has failed to find a fitting punishment. In this instance, however, my offence was overlooked. The effect of that perversion was magical. The fire went out, the people stopped in.

A Good Time in South Africa.

Ever memorable will be my visit to South Africa with the D'Oyly Carte company, and full of happy reminiscences my three-months' stay in Johannesburg. I have always been devoted to horses, so much so that I often vowed if I failed as an actor I would turn jockey or drive a hansom cab. So I was truly grateful for the kindness shown me by Major McFarlane of the Rand Club there, who placed at my disposal a dogcart and nag for the period of my visit, I was also privileged to tool a coach to a race meeting, my team comprising three playful polo ponies and a hunter.

Behind a Racehorse.

On the eve of our departure from Johannesburg I asked François Cellier if he would drive round with me to leave P.P.C. cards on our hospitable friends. It chanced that day that the major’s cob which I usually drove was otherwise engaged, and so the groom—knowing me to be no novice at handling the ribbons—harnessed in the trap the major's racehorse, Bishop by name. Now this good gee evidently could not turn his back to music, for the moment our worthy chef d’orchestre was seated beside me Bishop reared and commenced to beat time with his fore legs. Whereat Cellier remarked, “Look here, Workman, old chap, this, is all very pleasant, but please don't forget we’ve got a performance to-night.”

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    The D’Oyly Carte Company in Africa: Charles H. Workman sitting cross-legged in front (second from left), next to Business Manager, Henry E. Bellamy (centre) and Musical Director, François Cellier seated in chair at far right.

    Reproduced in Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte: Reminiscences of the Savoy and the Savoyards by François Cellier & Cunningham Bridgeman, Isaac Pitman and Sons, London, 1914. Courtesy of David Stone.

G. and S. Redivivi.

The crowning joy of my career came in December last when I found myself rehearsing The Yeomen on the Savoy stage for London revival. I looked around the company and saw few but new faces. It was not without a pang of regret I missed many old colleagues and companions, notably my good old friend and playmate, Fred Billington, with whom for so many years I had been touring those thousands of leagues. Still, by my side I was glad to find the same delightful Phœbe—Jessie Rose. I had been rather dreading those rehearsals. Mr. Gilbert might, I feared, think my Jack Point a libel on his famous jester. Happily it turned out otherwise, and from the author I received nothing but words of satisfaction and kindly encouragement.

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    The Yeomen of the Guard: front cover of The Theatre Magazine, ‘Savoy Number’, vol. II, no. 7, Feb 1907, featuring C.H. Workman as Jack Point. Illustration by H. Granville Fell.

    Courtesy of David Stone.

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    W.S. Gilbert.

    Image from Henry A. Lytton, The Secrets of a Savoyard.

Kisses Cut.

The only notable mistake Mr. Gilbert discovered was my conduct in the trio, “A Man who would Woo a Fair Maid.” It had been my business in the country to kiss Elsie and Phœbe alternately on each note of their vocal shake. Gilbert observed, “There's rather too much kissing—for London.” “Then,” I asked, “you would cut those last kisses?” “No; I wouldn't, but I think you had better.” Again, when I paused after the words, “under her very nose.” Gilbert asked me why I didn't go straight on. I explained that there was always a big laugh after that line. “Really? I must be a very funny fellow then,” was the rejoinder.

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    The Yeomen of the Guard: Nora McLeod as Phœbe, Lilian Coomber as Elsie, Pacie Ripple as Col. Fairfax and C.H. Workman as Jack Point, 1906. Photo by Raphael Tuck & Son.

    Private collection.

The Theatrical Beggar.

One of the penalties attached to an actor who makes himself at all conspicuous on the stage is the private and personal correspondence it entails. From one fair but perhaps o'er-bold playgoer I received a note the other day saying, “I do so admire your acting and should so like to see you again if you will kindly send me a ticket.” Then come the autograph-seekers. These I am always ready to gratify provided they reciprocate by sending me a small contribution to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. I never knew before how easy it is to raise money by one's unwitnessed signature on a mere scrap of paper.

A Poetical Correspondent.

One little lady admirer addressed me flatteringly in verse so admirable that I hope she will pardon my quoting a few of her lines:—

As the duke so delightful I saw you last week,
The result of it is I your autograph seek.
I saw you also as the Jester one night,
And to see you drop dead was a very sad sight.
I hope my request you won't mind, for I'm sure O

I'd hate to offend the great Duke Plaza-Toro.

A Rhymed Reply.

My autograph with a note complimenting the poetess brought me another charming canto containing:—

You’re really too good to afford me such pleasure.

For I’m sure dukes and jesters don't have too much leisure.
For even a duke’s life is not always honey,
And a jester is told that he's “paid to be funny.”

You call me a poet, but alas that's not true,
I'm only a schoolgirl whose tasks are not few.
I hope once again your acting to see.

Patience meantime my motto must be.

N.B. — Patience being our next revival.

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    C.H. Workman as Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard & the Duke of Plaza Tora in The Gondoliers, 1907. Photo by Dover Street Studios, London.

    Private collection.

A Happy Engagement.

I never cease to thank the “lucky star” that guided me to the Savoy. From no other management has ever “poor player” received such unfailing kindness, courtesy, and consideration as that shown by Mrs. D’Oyly Carte towards all who are privileged to be professionally engaged by her. Apart, therefore, from the personal gratification I feel in not having failed in my efforts to please both management and public, no one more heartily rejoices in the great success of the present revivals than their faithful servant, C.H.W.

Workman Signature

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    Helen D’Oyly Carte.

    Image from Henry A. Lytton, The Secrets of a Savoyard.

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    Patience: Clara Dow as Patience, C.H. Workman as Bunthorne & Louie Réné as Lady Jane. Photo by Dover Street Studios, London.

    Private collection.



Compiled by Robert Morrison

with additional information supplied by Andrew Lamb and George Low

  1. Following his audition at the Savoy, Workman joined the D’Oyly Carte touring ‘E’ company during October of 1894 as a chorister in Torquay. He continued to tour in the provinces playing small parts in the G&S repertoire until October, 1895 when he was summoned to London to play small parts and understudy Walter Passmore at the Savoy with the principal company. He created the role of ‘Ben Hashbaz’, the Court Costumier, in the premiere season of the final G&S comic opera The Grand Duke from 7 March 1896, and also deputised in the leading role of ‘King Ferdinand’ in the comic opera His Majesty for a couple of weeks in February 1897 following the withdrawal of George Grossmith from the part. When Henry Lytton was subsequently summoned to London to take over the role, Workman returned to his original small part of ‘Adam’ in the production. Further such roles played by Workman at the Savoy included ‘First Citizen’ in the first revival of The Yeomen of the Guard between May to November 1897, as well as ‘Simon’ in the curtain-raiser Old Sarah, before he ultimately returned to performing with the provincial touring companies as principal comedian up to late 1905.
  1. The South African tour by the D’Oyly Carte Principal Repertory Opera Company, headed by Charles H. Workman as principal comedian, commenced at Cape Town on 26 December 1905 with a repertoire that included Trial By Jury, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Mikado, The Yeomen of the Guard and The Gondoliers and proceeded through Kimberley, Bloemfontein and Pretoria from February into March 1906 and played in Johannesburg between 12 March to 2 June. Return seasons in Pretoria and Bloemfontein followed throughout the remainder of June and the tour concluded with performances in Pietermaritzburg from 2 July and in Durban between 9 to 21 July, before embarking for Britain, where the company arrived in Southampton on 27 August.

Fellow artists on the tour included Fred Billington in the heavy baritone ‘Pooh-Bah’ roles, Jessie Rose in the mezzo-soprano soubrette roles and Charles H. Workman’s wife, Bessel Adams in featured soprano roles and occasional appearances as understudy to the lead soprano.

P.P.C. = Picture Post-Cards.

  1. The first D’Oyly Carte repertory season commenced at the Savoy Theatre, London with the revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on 8 December 1906. This was followed in turn by revivals of The Gondoliers from 22 January 1907; Patience from 4 April and Iolanthe from 11 June 1907. Plans to revive The Mikado during the season had to be abandoned when the licence to perform the work was withdrawn by the Lord Chamberlain for fear of offending His Imperial Highness, Prince Fushimi of Japan who was visiting England at the time. The consequences of this action resulted in questions being asked in the British Parliament’s House of Commons, a petition presented to King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace and a substantial financial loss to Helen D’Oyly Carte (who had succeeded her late husband, Richard D’Oyly Carte, as the manager of the company upon his death on 6 April 1901). However on the last night of the season there was a special double performance, which began at 4pm with Act I of The Yeomen followed by Act II of Gondoliers. An interval for dinner then followed before the evening’s entertainment continued with Act II of Patience followed by Act I of Iolanthe, and then a scene from Act II of The Mikado. The performance concluded with the National Anthem at 11 p.m.

During the season W.S. Gilbert received his knighthood from Edward VII to become Sir William S. Gilbert on 15 July 1907. (A somewhat belated tribute, in Gilbert’s view, given that the late Sir Arthur Sullivan had received his title on 22 May 1883.)

The success of the first repertory season led to a second season staged at the Savoy Theatre between April 1908 to March 27, 1909, when the repertoire included revivals of The Mikado, (from 28 April), HMS Pinafore, (14 July), Iolanthe, (19 October), The Pirates of Penzance, (1 December), The Gondoliers, (18 January 1909) and The Yeomen of the Guard, (1 March).

An added feature of the second repertory season was the return of famed Savoyard, Rutland Barrington to play the same parts that he had created in the original productions some 20 to 30 years earlier, plus the added roles of ‘Don Alhambra del Bolero’ and ‘Wilfred Shadbolt’ in the latter two operas. Fellow Savoyard, Richard Temple also returned to replay his original role of ‘Sergeant Meryll’ in The Yeomen for the last four weeks of the season.

  1. Fred Billington had been a mainstay of the provincial D’Oyly Carte touring companies over a period of almost 40 years, originating the role of the ‘Sergeant of Police’ in the original British “copyright” premiere of The Pirates of Penzance at Paignton in Devonshire on 30 December 1879 and playing the role of ‘Pooh-Bah’ in The Mikado some 4,000 times up to the time of his death in 1917 (see also:-
  1. Jessie Rose was a member of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company between 1896-1900 and 1901- 09 debuting at the Savoy Theatre in The Grand Duke and playing small parts and performing in the chorus up to 1900. Following a break for motherhood, she re-joined the D’Oyly Carte from September 1901 in the touring provincial companies as principal soprano until May 1902 and then played major secondary roles in the G&S repertoire and in accompanying curtain raisers. Graduating to the principal soubrette mezzo-soprano roles from January 1904, she continued touring with the company and participated in the first and second repertory seasons at the Savoy. Her post-D’Oyly Carte appearances at the Savoy included roles in The Mountaineers and Fallen Fairies under C.H. Workman’s management in 1909, before her eventual retirement from the stage to enjoy full-time married life and motherhood (see also:-




Clemence Bettany, ‘100 Years of D’Oyly Carte and Gilbert and Sullivan’ in D’Oyly Carte Centenary 1875-1975, D’Oyly Carte Opera Trust, London, 1975

François Cellier & Cunningham V. Bridgeman, Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte: reminiscences of the Savoy and the Savoyards, Isaac Pitman and Sons, London, 1914

Henry A. Lytton, The Secrets of a Savoyard, 2nd ed., Jarrolds, London, c.1925

Cyril Rollins & R. John Witts, The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1961

Robin Wilson & Frederic Lloyd, Gilbert & Sullivan—The D’Oyly Carte Years—The Official Picture History, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1984


Selected Discography

Charles H. Workman recorded the following songs from the G&S repertoire (plus Sullivan and Basil Hood’s The Rose of Persia), for the Odeon Company at various recording sessions in 1910 and 1912 (the latter featuring an orchestra under the direction of noted West End musical director and composer, Herman Finck).

  1. Trial By Jury: ‘When I Good Friends’ (Catalogue no. 0661 or 66690—Matrix no. Lx3350)
  2. The Sorcerer: ‘My Name is John Wellington Wells’ (Cat. no. 0676 or 66697—Mat. no. Lx3348)
  3. HMS Pinafore: ‘When I was a Lad’ (Cat. no. 0648 or 66695—Mat. no. Lx3346)
  4. The Pirates of Penzance: ‘I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’ (Cat. no. 0648 or 66654—Mat. no. Lx3304)
  5. The Pirates of Penzance: ‘Softly Sighing to the River’ (Cat. no. 0743 or 113000—Mat. no. Lx3591) [rec.1912]
  6. Patience: ‘If You're Anxious for to Shine’ (Cat. no. 0685 or 66696—Mat. no. Lx3347)
  7. Iolanthe: ‘The Law is the True Embodiment’ (Cat. no. 0730 or 113001—Mat. no. Lx3592) [rec.1912]
  8. Iolanthe: ‘When I Went to the Bar’ (Cat. no. 0730 or 113002—Mat. no. Lx3593) [rec.1912]
  9. Iolanthe: ‘When You're Lying Awake’ (Nightmare Song) (Cat. no. 0639 or 66653—Mat. no. Lx3303)
  10. Princess Ida: ‘If you Give me Your Attention’ (Cat. no. 0661 or 66651—Mat. no. Lx3301)
  11. Princess Ida: ‘Whene'er I Spoke Sarcastic Joke’ (Cat. no. 0841—Mat. no. LxG87) [rec.1912]
  12. The Mikado: ‘On a Tree by a River’ (Tit Willow) (Cat. no. 0639 or 66655—Mat. no. Lx3305)
  13. The Yeomen of the Guard: ‘I Have a Song to Sing—o’ (Cat. no. 0743 or 66899—Mat. no. Lx 3589) (with Elsie Spain) [rec.1912]
  14. The Yeomen of the Guard: ‘I've Jibe and Joke’ (Cat. no. 0809 or 143064—Mat. no. LxG91) [rec. 1912]
  15. The Yeomen of the Guard: ‘A Private Buffoon’ (Cat. no. 0685—Mat. no. Lx3302)
  16. The Gondoliers: ‘In Enterprise of Martial Kind’ (Cat. no. 0676 or 66898—Mat. no. Lx3349)
  17. The Gondoliers: ‘I Stole the Prince’ (Cat. no. 0809 or 143063—Mat. no. LxG88) [rec. 1912]
  18. Utopia, Limited: ‘First You're Born’ (Cat. no. 0851 or 143062—Mat. no. LxG89) [rec.1912]
  19. Utopia, Limited: ‘Some Seven Men Form an Association’ (Cat. no. 0841—Mat. no. LxG86) [rec.1912]
  20. The Rose of Persia: ‘There was a Small Street-arab’ (Cat. no. 0851 or 143066—Mat. no. LxG90) [rec.1912]

Recordings courtesy of Dominic Combe [Palaeophonics],

Listen to the C.H. Workman Discography

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