By Graham Chalmers
In a topsy-turvy turn of events Gilbert and Sullivan themselves might have turned into a hit show, two rival spa towns have been pulled into a minor tug of war over a major festival.
Having moved the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival from Buxton to Harrogate last year, like the very model of a “modern Major-General”, the Derbyshire town last week attempted to coax it back.
Things became a little heated but, like the heroic protagonist of H.M.S. Pinfore or The Pirates of Penzance, the festival organisers held their nerve and rebuffed their advances.
Speaking after the decision was confirmed in the dramatic setting of the House of Lords on Tuesday, the G&S Festival chairman and artistic director Ian Smith said: “The reason we are coming to Harrogate is the wonderful welcome we have had from everyone.
“The support we have had from the Royal Hall so far this year has just been amazing. Harrogate is a great town with great people.
“We want to involve the town and retailers and anybody who can benefit. We want to encourage everyone who comes to the festival to explore Harrogate.”
Simon Kent, director of Harrogate International Centre and The Royal Hall, said: “The fact that Ian has confirmed the festival will return in 2015, before we have even begun the 2014 event, is a great vote of confidence in the town, its facilities and its people.”
In a fresh blow for Harrogate’s rival in Derbyshire, the G&S director confirmed the event would also be coming to Harrogate for a second time in 2015.
The announcement was made Harrogate in the dramatic setting of House the Lords on Tuesday with Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones, the outgoing mayor of Harrogate, Michael Newby and Lord Crathorne, Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire among the VIP guests.
As they preparing for a photo shoot aftweward, real life peers were going into the House of Lords with their ceremonial dress preparing for today’s State Opening of Parliament like a scene from Iolanthe.
This August’s festival in Harrogate will be a district-wide affair, the 60 shows in 26 days utilising venues in Ripon and Knaresborough, as well as prime locatiions the Royal Hall and Harrogate Theatre.
In total more than 2,000 performers will be descending on the Harrogate area with many more numbers in the audience.
Previously, the festival had been held to worldwide acclaim in Buxton without fail every year since its launch in 1994.
But, having dipped their toes in Harrogate’s waters with an additional event CLASSICfest for a couple of years, last year saw organisers take the plunge and announce the entire G&S Festival would be moving home this year for its 21st annual event.
That seemed to be that until this comic opera took an unexpected twist when High Peak Borough Council unveiled new ‘sweeteners’ to keep tempt organisers to remain in the Pennines.
Peeved by the potential loss of visitors to Buxton, some of their own emotionally-charged statements to the press about the G&S organisers probably didn’t help their cause.
But the G&S organisers’ relationship with Buxton Opera House remains strong, as demonstated by the fact Tuesday’s announcement was a joint one with their original principal venue.
Ian Smith said: “The move from Buxton to Harrogate was one of the hardest decisions we have had to make in the 21 years of the Festival.
“The economic problems which everyone faced in 2012 and 2013 created major losses for the festival and to survive we had to make difficult decisions.
“We are delighted that our agreement with the Opera House means that we have not severed our relationship with Buxton and our many friends and supporters in the town. “
This year’s International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, which runs from August 2 to August 26, is a huge affair with a starry cast of participants and massive variety of shows.
But Smith also told the Harrogate Advertiser has even more ambitious plans for the future.
“We’re getting off to a flying start this year and we are really delighted to be returning in 2015, too.
“We not only want to attract more and more visitors to Harrogate each year, we want to create something permanent which not only recognises the importance of G&S but Harrogate’s role in terms of towns as the leading cultural centre in this country.”
The three major points on his wishlist are:
1. A 850-seater theatre within a theatre inside Harrogate International Centre inspired by London’s legendary Savoy Theatre which G&S made famous.
2. A Strictly Singingcompetition with a judging panel including Valerie Masterson, the former leading ENO soprano.
3. A ‘Gilbert Sullivan for All ‘ series round North Yorkshire schools and care homes led by young performers to introduce G&S to new audiences.
More information at www.gsfestivals.org
For tickets for this year’s G&S Festival, visit www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk