CONVERSATION at a supper party being held at the Haunch of Venison on March 1, 2008, will doubtless turn eventually to light opera, piratical goings-on and the unhappy lot of policemen.

Local legend has it that remarkably similar discussions took place in the same establishment a century ago, leading to a momentous meeting on July 23, 1908, which was "held at the Old Orderly Rooms, Market House Chambers, at 6.30pm, with the object of forming an Amateur Operatic Society for Salisbury."

From that meeting sprang the infant Salisbury Amateur Operatic Society and the proposal that a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance should be staged.

One hundred years on, SAOS is looking remarkably chipper as it enters its centenary year and girds its loins for a programme of celebrations, which will start with the afore-mentioned members' supper party in the place where it all began and include an anniversary production of The Pirates of Penzance, albeit the Broadway version, in May.

On June 28, a centenary gala dinner will gather together past and present members and anyone else who wishes the society well to toast its very good health.

"I can't believe that we're 100 years old," says current chairman Joyce Bowden, herself a veteran of nearly 60 years with the society.

"It's quite an achievement for a local society to reach its centenary."

Nothing was certain in April 1909 when that first production of Pirates was staged over three nights at the County Hall in Salisbury.

The rights had been acquired directly from Mrs Helen D'Oyly Carte for twelve guineas, the total cost of the production was £222, and no one knew if it would be a hit at the box office.

The committee "resolved that if the performance was a financial success, the cost of the dresses should be paid out of the proceeds but if it resulted in a loss, members should pay for their own dresses".

In the event, the show was so popular that a further performance had to be staged.

Mr W H Jackson, the society's first chairman, was the Pirate King, the conductor of the 23-strong orchestra was Mr George Sands, who continued to serve in the dual role of conductor and stage manager for many years, and the acknowledgements included one to the Chief Constable of Salisbury for loan of police uniforms.

Productions of Pirates have been staged on nine subsequent occasions, many of them milestone moments.

In 1921 and 1945, the show re-established the society after war had interrupted productions and it was the choice for its 50th production, in 1957, and its 70th anniversary, in 1978.

That 1978 production was the first of four shows that the society took to France.

"The French don't understand that we are amateurs with day jobs," says Joyce.

"They could not comprehend that the Mikado was an ironmonger and the leading lady a medical secretary."

At the beginning, SAOS served Salisbury with a diet of Gilbert & Sullivan, which the city received with delight.

This included a production of Iolanthe in 1912, during which news came through that the Titanic had sunk.

Mr Sands immediately proposed a benefit performance, on April 27, in aid of the Titanic Disaster Fund and the society later determined that the donation made should be specifically "for the relief of those dependent on the members of the band who perished in the wreck of the Titanic".

Mr Sands and his colleagues could have had no idea that more than 90 years later, Titanic - The Musical would be the society's production for December 2007.

Other charitable causes have benefited over the years, including Salisbury Infirmary and the Victory Fund.

In 1991, a hugely ambitious production of Jesus Christ Superstar set the Cathedral rocking and raised £5,500 for the Salisbury Spire Appeal.

The Cathedral is not the only unusual venue to serve as a theatre for the Society - the Oak Court in Salisbury Guildhall became the setting for Trial By Jury in 1985.

Other stages have been in more conventional theatres.

Early performances were at the County Hall, in Endless Street, which became the Palace Theatre, but a remark by society president, Lord Radnor, upset the management there prompting a move to the newly refurbished Victoria Hall, in Rollestone Street, in 1925.

When war broke out in 1939, productions temporarily gave way to revues and a concert party (Blitz and Pieces), which toured the area to raise morale.

With peace in 1945, SAOS had its fourth bash at Pirates, starting rehearsals with nowhere to perform.

A decision to reopen the old Picture House (as the Arts Theatre) provided a venue and a happy home for the next 19 years.

Conditions were not always ideal and rumour had it that when it rained, the orchestra was forced to wear wellies or risk wet feet from rising waters in the pit.

In 1949, 17-year-old Joyce Bowden, then Joyce Lever, auditioned for Iolanthe with her friend, Buffy Gordon, and the two caused a riot when they walked off with leading roles, which was almost unheard of in those days.

"When I joined, it was all Gilbert and Sullivan and a pecking order in the dressing room," says Joyce.

"People would turn up in evening dress on a Saturday evening and you'd really made it if you got invited to the after show party."

Joyce carried on playing leads for the next two decades and fondly recalls talented leading men like John Pinder, Jack Roberts and Fred Jones.

The society seems to breed loyalty among its members and many of them, both on stage and behind the scenes, have put in years of dedicated service.

Current musical director John Dempster took up the baton in 1983, the longest serving MD in the society's history.

Nowadays, the directors are professionals, paid on a per show basis - unlike Avalon Callard and Ashton Sly, who produced many of the society's shows prior to 1963, when SAOS took up residence in the City Hall, which remains its home today.

The move to the City Hall sparked a stage direction of another sort - from English light operas to big American musicals.

Oklahoma, in 1963, has since been followed by Kiss Me Kate, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Annie Get your Gun, Hello Dolly, South Pacific and many more.

Each has brought new challenges - 1997's Barnum saw the whole cast perfecting circus skills as they risked life and limb to bring the thrills and spills of PT Barnum's big top to the stage.

Encouraging youngsters to get involved in the shows, getting the audiences in and balancing the books remains the tightrope act that SAOS is still trying to perfect.

What cost a few hundred pounds to stage in 1909 is more likely to cost upwards of £30,000 today, says Joyce, but she is hopeful about the society's future.

"It's more of a team and the people backstage are just as important, if not more so," she said.

"You can't put on a show without a good crew and we've got an excellent crew."

Joyce herself is thinking of passing on the reins.

"I shall see this year out and then it might be time for me to hand over," she says wistfully.

"I was stage-struck at 17 and I've loved it.

"They will not get rid of me completely, but I'm passing on a very stable, talented and dedicated society."