Beginners Guide to HMS Pinafore Songs

Gilbert and Sullivan songs are beloved around the world, and the songs from HMS Pinafore are no exception. Take a look at some of the most well known HMS Pinafore songs and how they have influenced popular culture.

Gilbert and Sullivan are renowned for their comic operas, and this humour is also prevalent in their songs. ‘I am the Captain of the Pinafore’, sees the Captain making bold claims to his crew that aren’t always true.  He makes various statements like ‘I’m never, never sick at sea!’, which the chorus of sailors question by responding ‘What, never?, until the Captain admits, well ‘Hardly ever!’. This humorous idea of a respectable, high ranking officer of the sea being sea sick, encapsulates the light-heartedness of the whole opera that pokes fun at the Royal Navy.

It’s no surprise then that this opera song has begun to infiltrate comedies in popular culture. For example, it was parodied in US sitcom Family Guy, in a song titled ‘I’m The Greatest Captain Of The Queen’s Navy’, which again focuses on satirising the Royal Navy.

‘I’m Called a Little Buttercup’ is one of the most famous songs from HMS Pinafore. It is a waltz tune that introduces the character of Buttercup to the audience, and is subsequently played throughout the opera when she enters the stage. 

However, Buttercup is not her real name, but a nickname the crew members assigned to her. It’s ironic as a buttercup denotes something delicate and sweet, which is the complete opposite of Buttercup’s character. Instead, she is a type of hard-hitting, wheeler dealer that sells all kinds of contraband, objects and food to the sailors, who actually find her a little annoying.

A British Tar is not only a common name for a ship, but a nickname for British sailors. The popular song, ‘A British Tar’ depicts the idea of the perfect British sailor. It lists all the requirements that a man should meet in order to achieve ‘British Tar’ status, although not the things you would think would be necessary. For example, ‘his nose should pant and his lip should curl, his cheeks should flame and his brow should furl’. There have even been sketches demonstrating what this ‘ideal’ sailor would like.

This HMS Pinafore song has famously been featured in Star Trek: Insurrection to distract a malfunctioning android, supposedly at the request of actor Patrick Stewart. It is also well known for being sung by Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) in Raiders of the Lost Ark before Indiana Jones departs by, you guessed it, a ship!

 

‘For He is an Englishman’ is the final song at the end of Act 2 which features the entire cast. It is a reflection of the good-natured way Gilbert and Sullivan poke fun at patriotism throughout the opera, as after all, “in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman”.

Despite being a shorter piece of music, it has had quite the impact on popular culture. It has been featured in films such as Chariots of Fire (although admittedly not the most famous piece of music from this film), during the montage of protagonist Harold Abraham at Cambridge University, positioning Abraham as the quintessential ‘Englishman’. It has also taken over the small screen, with references in TV shows like The West Wing where the characters argue over which Gilbert and Sullivan opera the song is from.

The most famous example of HMS Pinafore in popular culture is in the Simpsons. In an attempt to distract Sideshow Bob from killing him on a boat,  Bart Simpson asks him to perform the entire score of HMS Pinafore. Sideshow Bob, voiced by TV and theatre star Kelsey Grammer, agrees via the classic line ‘I shall send you to heaven before I send you to hell’, in reference to his hearing angelic voice before he murders him. He then proceeds to sing, starting with ‘We Sail the Ocean Blue’ and finishing with ‘He is an Englishman’, with the productions getting more elaborate with each song.

The songs from HMS Pinafore are some of the most famous opera songs in the world. Their fast pace, humour and quintessential Britishness have established them as some of the most beloved opera songs in the canon, still popular with audiences today. To experience the joy of Gilbert and Sullivan’s score for yourself, book tickets to HMS Pinafore at the London Coliseum 29 Oct–11 Dec 2021 now.

Want a sneak peak? Take a look at our trailer for HMS Pinafore.