An opera about gangster ‘Mad' Frankie Fraser and the composer Ivor Novello, both jailed in Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1944, was due to be staged at the prison tomorrow but has been cancelled with four days' notice.
Peter Scott-Presland, the librettist and producer, told The Times,
I approached them two and a half months ago. I had this idea that because the play was set in Wormwood Scrubs, it would be nice to do it in situ. They came back very quickly to say “Yes, we would love to have you”.
Although there have been two visits to the prison recently to organise the event, a spokesman for Wormwood Scrubs said,
The Prison Service is proud to be an inclusive employer but facilitating this event would not, at the moment, have been the best use of officers' time at Wormwood Scrubs.
The gay composer and musical star Ivor Novello – “the prettiest man in England” – was one of the most beloved British entertainers of the first half of the 20th century. He was imprisoned in 1944 for the misuse of petrol coupons. At the time no-one was allowed petrol unless they were doing work of national importance. Novello pleaded that he needed his personalised Rolls Royce because he was boosting morale… to no avail.
Novello was nervous about meeting the other inmates, but as he went to lunch from his cell on the first day, all the prisoners lined up and sang one of his most famous songs “We'll Gather Lilacs” to welcome him. When librettist Scott-Presland heard the story an opera immediately suggested itself.
In my mind I heard the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly.
It is said that Novello shared a cell with ‘Mad' Frankie Fraser for a brief period. The gangster spent 42 years in prison and was known for violence against warders and fellow inmates.
Composer Robert Ely and Scott-Presland imagined this meeting for the chamber opera 1944: Home Fires.
For the past seven years, Ely and Scott-Presland have been working on A Gay Century, “an epic cycle of Queer life” from 1900 to 2001. The series of operas is produced by Homo Promos, which was formed in 1988 in response to the Section 28 Local Government Act in the UK which stated that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The group has staged more than twenty productions.
The intended series of operas, one for each decade, has now run to 17 with such a wealth of subject matter. The publication of the Wolfenden Report gives rise to Separate Beds, “a Rossinian farce about a gay couple trying to disentangle their living arrangements in the face of an imminent police visit”. The Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott scandal and murder attempt is treated from the point of view of the dogs involved – the main characters are Mrs Tish, a Jack Russell, and Rinka, a Great Dane.
1944: Home Fires was performed at London's Cockpit Theatre yesterday, 3 September, with King's College London and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Alfred Mitchell as Ivor Novello, and Royal College of Music and International Opera School graduate Kieran Rayner as ‘Mad' Frankie Fraser.
Of the cancellation, Scott-Presland said,
No reason was given whatsoever. I get the impression that although some staff are really keen on doing this sort of support work for LGBT prisoners and so on, there are other people who are absolutely paranoid in the Prison Service and probably the Home Office as well that this is going to become a weapon in the woke wars, that the right-wing tabloids are going to get hold of it.
But it is not costing taxpayers money. We are funding this. The Prison Service is not paying us a fee.
It is not a show about sexuality. Novello was sent to prison for eight weeks. He was the biggest thing in the West End at the time, and he thought he had lost everything. What goes on in the course of the opera is him trying to recover his mojo. It is about a gay character, but it is about other aspects of that character.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.