Ian Wallace

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Ian Wallace


Ian Wallace

Ian Wallace, who died on October 12 aged 90, was one of the first opera singers in postwar Britain to breach the barrier between opera and the popular musical stage.

When he moved to Glyndebourne in 1948 as a bass baritone he consulted the opera company's administrator Moran Caplat on whether he might sing elsewhere. "As long as you return vocally unimpaired, why not?" replied Caplat. Thereafter Wallace, nothing if not versatile, acted and sang in whatever came his way with the same blissful, heedless hedonism with which he had rejected the chance of becoming a lawyer in favour of the theatre.

To his deep, resonant voice, warm smile, expressive eyebrows, merry face and portly build, Wallace added an engaging pawky humour and jovial temperament which helped to make him one of the most widely appreciated performers in British entertainment after the war.

He ranged from singer, character actor, comedian, compère and clown to radio and television panellist, scriptwriter and pantomime king.

What made Wallace a household name was the endearing way he had with silly songs about animals, especially one about an amorous hippopotamus with a chorus which went: "Mud, mud, glorious mud". First broadcast on a Henry Hall Guest Night in 1952, the song virtually became Wallace's signature tune.

Other songs by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, who wrote for Wallace before performing their own work, featured a rhinoceros, an elephant, a warthog, a gondolier and an income tax collector.

Whether in classical opera, musical comedy, plays, films, television, radio or on the concert platform, Wallace's readiness to perform on all kinds of occasion brought him an exceptional range of admirers.

Apart from opera, his dramatic credits included Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream; César in a West End musical version of Marcel Pagnol's Fanny (Drury Lane); and the Emperor of China in Cole Porter's Aladdin (Coliseum).

Wallace was also a regular on the Radio 4 panel game My Music and other quiz shows on radio and television in which he would, sitting down, suddenly break into snatches of opera. With his unpretentious affability he could always put audiences at ease.

Seldom was the gift better illustrated than in the West End revue, 4 To The Bar (Criterion 1960), when he happened for 20 minutes to hold the stage alone. At the end Noël Coward – whom he had never met – dropped in on his dressing room.

Having assessed every item in the show, Coward said to Wallace: "You have a very good command of your audience. Mind you, anyone who has the hardihood to allow the curtain to rise on them at the Criterion Theatre, sitting in a wing chair with a glass of brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other, has bloody well got to have command of his audience."

It was Wallace's delight in simple, comic songs which spurred him into the musical theatre; but it was a delight that was not always shared.

After a satirical Gerard Hoffnung concert in which Wallace sang a series of Bournvita commercials in the style of Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the Manchester Guardian's music critic Sir Neville Cardus began his notice: "Mr Wallace, surely a congenitally unfunny man... "

The only son of Sir John Wallace, a Scottish businessman and MP for Dunfermline between the wars, Ian Bryce Wallace was born in London on July 10 1919 and christened in the crypt of the Houses of Parliament.

With a Lord Chief Justice as godfather, Ian was intended for the Law. But at Charterhouse and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he found himself repeatedly drawn to the stage rather than to his law books.

As a child he had often been taken to music halls by his mother, whose sister had been a professional mimic of the great popular singers of the day. Ian believed himself to be following in his aunt's footsteps in his desire to find fun in every song.

At Charterhouse he became a noted jester, and in concerts and plays a popular victim of practical jokes. At the Cambridge Footlights and the Amateur Dramatic Club the Law student developed a distaste for his studies but a devotion to the stage.

While serving with the Royal Artillery in the Second World War he continued his amateur theatrical activities. For two years his back had to be encased in plaster because of a tubercular spine, and in 1944 he was invalided out the Army.

Wallace made his first professional stage appearance at the Park Theatre, Glasgow, in the title role of Ashley Dukes's The Man With A Load of Mischief, winning what his aunt described as "rave notices from everyone".

His first invitation to sing came in an unpaid entertainment for Glasgow Corporation in which he was billed as "Ian Wallace with a Smile and Song". He sang Sweet Rosie O'Grady and whistled a chorus. He made his London stage debut at Sadler's Wells in 1945 in a musical version, with Alastair Sim, of James Bridie's The Forrigan Reel. This was followed by a Christmas play, The Glass Slipper (St James's).

Although opera had never occurred to Wallace as a dramatic career – such "highbrow entertainment" had never held any appeal – he was encouraged to attend a preliminary audition at the Royal Opera House; and being more of a bass than a baritone, he sang an aria by Handel from his opera Berenice called "Love That's True Will Live For Ever".

Before the qualifying auditions, however, he joined the New London Opera Company as a replacement for the part of Schaunard in La Bohème (Cambridge 1946).

Aware of "appalling" gaps in his musical education and repertoire, and lacking a voice teacher, he rehearsed with his aunt and sang principal roles with the NLOC for the next two years, including Dr Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.

As principal buffo for Glyndebourne, both in Sussex and at the Edinburgh Festival from 1948 to 1961, his performances included Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola at the Berlin Festwoche in 1954.

Wallace made his Italian operatic debut as Massetto in Don Giovanni at Parma (1950); and was La Cenerentola at Rome (1955), and Dr Bartolo in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Venice (1956). From 1965, his regular appearances for Scottish Opera included Leporello in Don Giovanni, Pistola in Falstaff and the Duke of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers. For the Welsh National Opera (1967) he sang Don Pasquale and for Glyndebourne Touring Opera (1968) Dr Dulcamara in L'Elisir D'Amore.

Among his books were Promise Me You'll Sing Mud (1975), Nothing Quite Like It (1982), and Reflections on Scotland (1988).

Ian Wallace married, in 1948, Patricia Gordon Black, with whom he had a son and a daughter.


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