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Date: 01/02/09


After my little prod at opera the other day, I remembered something.

I've spent a fair bit of time over the last year or two transferring material from old cassette tapes on to disk in order to preserve it from decay or obsolescence. This is stuff that I'd taped down the years which appealed to me at the time for whatever reason. I've got a similar job in mind for the hours (days? weeks?) worth of open-reel tapes which I haven't been able to play since my trusty old second-hand Stella machine suffered terminal rubber rot about 12 years ago, but I'm having a hell of a job trying to find a machine which will do the job. I've looked time and again on eBay, but have been frustrated by the machines not being of the right technical spec for the job (four-track mono, speeds of 1⅞ and 3¾ inches per second and the ability to take seven-inch spools), or of them being sold by people who proclaim that they think the machine works because "...it worked the last time we switched it on" (which usually turns out to be 1979), or of them being 'buyer collects' from somewhere unfeasibly remote like Pontypridd or Keswick. Back in September I bid for a Stella machine which would have been ideal, but I came up 99p short.

Anyway, back to the story: one of the programmes I had recorded was called All At Sixes And Sevens. It was broadcast just after midnight on 1 January 1977 on BBC Radio 4. Presented by Ned Sherrin, it was a mélange of spoken items by such as Basil Boothroyd, Frederick Raphael and Wynford Vaughan Thomas, alongside musical items from Stephen Sondheim's Company, Hinge & Bracket and - relevantly here - Stephen Oliver.

Stephen Oliver was at that time a promising young composer, mainly of operas but also of music for theatre, radio and television. He was to go on to become a figure of great energy and erudition in the world of opera, before AIDS took him from the world in 1992 shortly after his forty-second birthday (there's a nice article about him in the Independent's archives from a few years ago) (*).

Oliver provided three short pieces for All At Sixes And Sevens, one of which was about the types of 'new opera' being staged at that time; written by composers with an ideological axe to grind and staged by theatres who were desperately trying to make the most of their taxpayer-funded subsidies.

The result was a piece which described something all too familiar to anyone who knew what was going on in theatre at that time, along with a heartfelt final section (written in the waltz time which was Oliver's preferred time signature) bemoaning the loss of the older style of musical theatre.

You can hear it (dubbed, remember, from a recording made on a cheapo radio-cassette recorder over thirty years ago, with all that that implies for quality and steadiness) by clicking this link.

(*) Historical Note: The article referred to seems to have been disappeared from the Independent's site. There is another piece from some years later by Simon Callow here, however, which will have to do for now.