Happy 100th birthday to opera legend

Thomas Round as Ralph Rackstraw in HMS Pinafore.
Thomas Round as Ralph Rackstraw in HMS Pinafore.

A world-famous tenor who lives at Bolton-le-Sands celebrates his 100th birthday this Sunday.

Thomas Round was famed for singing with the D’Oyly Carte and Sadler’s Wells opera companies and toured all over the world.

A legend with fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, Tom performed in the 1958 Royal Variety Performance alongside such stars as Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe and The Beverley Sisters.

He appeared in the first full-length opera to be shown on BBC television in 1955 - La Traviata.

He performed in Australia, Canada and the USA, including at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 20,000 people.

Tom also flew Spitfires during World War Two and as a policeman, guarded the house where Lancaster’s most notorious murder took place.

Thomas Round and Yvonne Marsh in the film The Gilbert and Sullivan Story.

Thomas Round and Yvonne Marsh in the film The Gilbert and Sullivan Story.

A friend of his said: “This is a man who has lived four lifetimes.”

Today Tom lives in his house in Bolton-le-Sands, surrounded by his memories.

He is frail and no longer sings, although he only stopped performing in public a few years ago.

And while his memory isn’t as sharp as it once was, Tom still has a terrific sense of humour and great humility about his many achievements.

Thomas Round with a copy of his autobiography.

Thomas Round with a copy of his autobiography.

Tom was born at Cemetery Cottages, Barrow-in-Furness, on October 18 1915.

As a child he began singing as a baritone in the nearby St Paul’s Mission church choir, where he met his future wife Alice.

They would eventually marry in 1938 and enjoyed 72 happy years together until her death in 2010.

One of Tom’s first singing successes came in the Morecambe Music Festival where he took second in the tenor class.

He fared even better in the Lancaster Music Festival, winning first prize of a certificate and 10 shillings.

As a young man he joined Lancaster police force.

His first job was to stand guard at the house in Dalton Square where Dr Buck Ruxton murdered his wife and housekeeper in 1935.

Tom then signed up for the Royal Air Force with fellow policeman and good friend Eddie Thacker, an ex-Coldstream guard.

“I wanted to go in the navy but for some reason they wouldn’t have me, I can’t remember why,” he said.

“As a policeman, I didn’t have to join up. But Eddie was called up and I thought if he’s going, I’m going!”

During the Second World War, Round became a fighter pilot. He flew three different types of Spitfire and later served as a flight trainer in the US Air Force in Texas.

While still in the RAF, Round auditioned for the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company who performed Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas all over the world.

He joined the company in February 1946, which he says was the highlight of his career.

His first role was as Luiz in The Gondoliers but eventually he became the company’s principal tenor.

“I just pushed myself forward, as you do,” said Tom.

He played roles including Ralph Rackstraw in H.M.S. Pinafore, Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance, Earl Tolloller in Iolanthe and his favourite, Nanki-Poo in The Mikado.

In 2008 the critic of The Gramophone, John Steane, wrote that, of Gilbert and Sullivan tenors, Round was “surely the best we’ve had.”

Tom was never afraid to take a risk during his career and in 1949, he did just that, deciding to leave D’Oyly Carte.

At the time his agents were famous theatre and TV impresario Lew Grade and his brother Leslie.

“I was in their office in Oxford Circus and they said they had booked me for a long summer season in Southsea,” said Tom.

“I said, well I don’t want to do that, I’ve already auditioned for Sadler’s Wells!”

His roles with Sadler’s Wells included Don Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.

Tom also appeared in countless radio broadcasts during the 1950s and ‘60s, and was a regular on the BBC’s ‘Friday Night is Music Night’.

He also had a part in the 1953 film ‘The Gilbert and Sullivan Story’ and aside from La Traviata, had TV roles in The Merry Widow and The Bartered Bride.

Around that time, he was sent a script for a role in an MGM musical version of The Prisoner of Zenda but the film was never made.

Tom twice performed for the Queen, once in the Royal Variety show of 1958, which was a star-studded bill.

He has a framed programme on his wall which includes a photo of himself, as well as Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe, The Beverley Sisters, Roy Castle, Norman Wisdom, Tony Hancock, Pat Boone, Rex Harrison, Max Bygraves and Frankie Vaughan.

Tom next appeared in front of Her Majesty and Prince Philip in a stage version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard at the Tower of London in the early 1960s.

He had returned to D’Oyly Carte from 1958 to 1964, before leaving again, then co-founded his own touring company ‘Gilbert and Sullivan For All’.

During the height of his opera career, Tom and Alice lived in London. But as his touring days began to wind down, they moved to Bolton-le-Sands.

Up until just a few years ago he would sing and give talks locally, and was president of Lancaster and District Choral Society from 2006 to earlier this year.

Up until very recently, fans of Tom’s who had followed his career for years would still write to him.

Tom will celebrate his 100th birthday with a party at the Midland Hotel. His son Ellis will be among the party of around 12 relatives and friends.

*Our video clip shows Thomas Round as the defendant in the 1953 film ‘The Gilbert and Sullivan Story’.