The Harry Potter movies have some of the very best actors in the world. My favorite by far is Jim Broadbent, who plays Professor Horace Slughorn. I first knew of him from the movie, Topsy Turvy. In it, he played William Schwenk Gilbert of the musical writing duo, Gilbert and Sullivan.
Here is my favorite scene from all the Harry Potter movies, which, bizarrely, has not a shred of magic or action in it—but it does have Broadbent and a wonderful closing line:
Broadbent is on my mind because I was recently watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the umpteen-millionth time while simultaneously considering a post on Gilbert and Sullivan, or possibly on patter songs. The latter, which figure big in G&S operas, are according to Wikipedia, “characterized by a moderately fast to very fast tempo with a rapid succession of rhythmic patterns in which each syllable of text corresponds to one note.” Perhaps the most famous example of a G&S patter song is “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”
The two artists were a fantastic (if ultimately fractious) team and produced music, lyrics, and an approach to their productions that transformed British theater. One of my favorites songs of theirs is “If You’re Anxious For To Shine.” It is a song which lampoons the aesthetic movement of the 1870’s and 1880’s, as well as pretentiousness in general. One stanza reads:
Be eloquent in praise of the very dull old days, which have long since passed away. And convince ‘em if you can that the reign of good Queen Anne was culture’s palmiest day. Of course you most pooh-pooh whatever’s fresh and new and declare it’s crude and mean, for art stopped short in the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine.
A dear friend gave me a boxed copy of the collected songs of Gilbert and Sullivan that had been published in 1941 and which she bought at the wonderfully cluttered Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. Old music in an antique binding—a killer combination!
I mention all this because my personal writing inspiration for a historical story comes from finding something of that time that I feel passionately about, or which enflames my imagination. I don’t know how it is for other folks, but for me it has to start with being feverishly swept away. For my forthcoming novel, The Conjurers, my inspiration came from reading translated medieval spell books, astrology guides, and Tarot histories that are available online. In my recently published short story, Wicked and Loving Lies, it was the precarious lives of quadroons in New Orleans that I had read about, and the incredibly rich, evocative feel of the city itself.
I haven’t written anything that draws on Gilbert and Sullivan…yet. But who knows what might come? In the meantime, I keep handing the monkey on my shoulder tiny bones recovered from the sprawling necropolis of history. Then I wait to see what he does with them.
Bonus Trivia: The term “Patter Song” derives from the Roman Catholic “Pater Noster,” which it is said some people rush through as quickly as possible.
Bonus Bonus Trivia: There have been many remakes of Gilbert and Sullivan productions including a Yiddish adaptation of the Pirates of Penzance titled, Di Yam Gazlonim.
Bonus Bonus Bonus Trivia: When he was nine years old, author Neil Gaiman won a quiz about Gilbert and Sullivan in his local newspaper of Sussex, England.
Bonus Bonus Bonus Bonus Trivia: The Savoy Theatre in London’s West End, built specifically for Gilbert and Sullivan to showcase their productions, was the world’s first electrically lit public building in the world.