When I read the delightful tale of “Three Men in a Boat” a few years back for the first time, the only acquaintance I’d made with G&S was through a scene in “Star Trek: Insurrection” where Picard and Worf utilise a rendition of “A British Tar” to capture Data. So, the wonderful episode below naturally went right over my head…
When Harris is at a party, and is asked to sing, he replies: “Well, I can only sing a comic song, you know;” and he says it in a tone that implies that his singing of that, however, is a thing that you ought to hear once, and then die.
“Oh, that is nice,” says the hostess. “Do sing one, Mr. Harris;” and Harris gets up, and makes for the piano, with the beaming cheeriness of a generous-minded man who is just about to give somebody something.
“Now, silence, please, everybody” says the hostess, turning round; “Mr. Harris is going to sing a comic song!”
“Oh, how jolly!” they murmur; and they hurry in from the conservatory, and come up from the stairs, and go and fetch each other from all over the house, and crowd into the drawing-room, and sit round, all smirking in anticipation.
Then Harris begins.
Well, you don’t look for much of a voice in a comic song. You don’t expect correct phrasing or vocalization. You don’t mind if a man does find out, when in the middle of a note, that he is too high, and comes down with a jerk. You don’t bother about time. You don’t mind a man being two bars in front of the accompaniment, and easing up in the middle of a line to argue it out with the pianist, and then starting the verse afresh. But you do expect the words.
You don’t expect a man to never remember more than the first three lines of the first verse, and to keep on repeating these until it is time to begin the chorus. You don’t expect a man to break off in the middle of a line, and snigger, and say, it’s very funny, but he’s blest if he can think of the rest of it, and then try and make it up for himself, and, afterwards, suddenly recollect it, when he has got to an entirely different part of the song, and break off, without a word of warning, to go back and let you have it then and there. You don’t — well, I will just give you an idea of Harris’s comic singing, and then you can judge of it for yourself.
Harris (standing up in front of piano and addressing the expectant mob): “I’m afraid it’s a very old thing, you know. I expect you all know it, you know. But it’s the only thing I know. It’s the Judge’s song out of Pinafore — no, I don’t mean Pinafore — I mean — you know what I mean — the other thing, you know. You must all join in the chorus, you know.”
[Murmurs of delight and anxiety to join in the chorus. Brilliant performance of prelude to the Judge’s song in “Trial by Jury” by nervous Pianist. Moment arrives for Harris to join in. Harris takes no notice of it. Nervous pianist commences prelude over again, and Harris, commencing singing at the same time, dashes off the first two lines of the First Lord’s song out of “Pinafore.” Nervous pianist tries to push on with prelude, gives it up, and tries to follow Harris with accompaniment to Judge’s song out “Trial by Jury,” finds that doesn’t answer, and tries to recollect what he is doing, and where he is, feels his mind giving way, and stops short.]
Harris (with kindly encouragement): “It’s all right. You’re doing it very well, indeed — go on.”
Nervous pianist: “I’m afraid there’s a mistake somewhere. What are you singing?”
Harris (promptly): “Why the Judge’s song out of Trial by Jury. Don’t you know it?”
Some friend of Harris’s (from the back of the room): “No, you’re not, you chuckle-head, you’re singing the Admiral’s song from Pinafore.”
[Long argument between Harris and Harris’s friend as to what Harris is really singing. Friend finally suggests that it doesn’t matter what Harris is singing so long as Harris gets on and sings it, and Harris, with an evident sense of injustice rankling inside him, requests pianist to begin again. Pianist, thereupon, starts prelude to the Admiral’s song, and Harris, seizing what he considers to be a favourable opening in the music, begins.]
Harris: “‘When I was young and called to the Bar.’”
[General roar of laughter, taken by Harris as a compliment. Pianist, thinking of his wife and family, gives up the unequal contest and retires; his place being taken by a stronger-nerved man.
The new pianist (cheerily): “Now then, old man, you start off, and I’ll follow. We won’t bother about any prelude.”
Harris (upon whom the explanation of matters has slowly dawned — laughing): “By Jove! I beg your pardon. Of course — I’ve been mixing up the two songs. It was Jenkins confused me, you know. Now then.
[Singing; his voice appearing to come from the cellar, and suggesting the first low warnings of an approaching earthquake.
“‘When I was young I served a term
As office-boy to an attorney’s firm.’
(Aside to pianist): “It is too low, old man; we’ll have that over again, if you don’t mind.”
[Sings first two lines over again, in a high falsetto this time. Great surprise on the part of the audience. Nervous old lady near the fire begins to cry, and has to be led out.]
“‘I swept the windows and I swept the door,
And I— ’
No — no, I cleaned the windows of the big front door. And I polished up the floor — no, dash it — I beg your pardon — funny thing, I can’t think of that line. And I— and I— Oh, well, we’ll get on to the chorus, and chance it (sings):
‘And I diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-de,
Till now I am the ruler of the Queen’s navee.’
Now then, chorus — it is the last two lines repeated, you know.
“And he diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-dee’d,
Till now he is the ruler of the Queen’s navee.”
And Harris never sees what an ass he is making of himself, and how he is annoying a lot of people who never did him any harm. He honestly imagines that he has given them a treat, and says he will sing another comic song after supper.