This Channel Four documentary dates from 2001 and is now released
by EMI in unchanged form. It was produced by Oxford Film and Television
and produced and directed by Teresa Griffiths. It’s divided into
three ‘acts’ or as the film has it a ‘love story in three pieces’.
The first is Grimes, the second the War Requiem and
finally Death in Venice. Around these three works coalesces
the film documentary’s narrative.
We hear from a number
of expected people; Pears’s niece Sue Phipps makes sensible
points throughout; James Bowman says Britten was very much the
‘prep school master’ and represented a vanished kind of Englishman,
adding that Pears was more a man of the world and the stronger
in his sexuality. Donald Mitchell is an authoritative source,
John Amis too. Rather cleverly the famous Auden letter to Britten
is read by Mitchell but in stages. It’s only as the biography
advances that one hears the famous second section in which Auden
anatomised Britten, to his great discomfort and, possibly, humiliation.
Its opening affirmative tone is reflected in the generally untroubled
earlier years. Mitchell only reads the second part after we
have heard of the success of Grimes – which is quite
wrong historically but conveys a degree of narrative tension
and retrospective plangency.
There are plenty
of evocative contemporary shots. The Pathé newsreel of the preparations
for Peter Grimes is well worth seeing, though it’s been shown
often enough. The confluence of Grimes and Britten/Pears is
referred to but lightly and not in oppressive detail; the idea
of the ‘outsider’ is advanced with reasonable caution.
Perhaps less happily
there are a lot of shots of the fine tenor Robert Brubaker in
his dressing room, the better to convey the pent up feelings
of excitement of the Sadler’s Wells premiere of Grimes; didn’t
work for me.
The War Requiem
section advances the case for Britten turning inexorably from
outsider to Establishment figure. Lord Harewood and John Amis
genially admit to becoming famous Britten ‘corpses’ (Charles
Mackerras was another among so many but he wasn’t interviewed)
in which a perceived indiscretion led to permanent ostracising.
To reduce the possibility of slights from the hated music critics
there were no newspapers at the Red House.
and Rostropovich are interviewed, Heather Harper as well
– her precise thoughts on the Lachrymosa are well worth hearing.
No side from her. There is black and white film of a Royal Albert
Hall performance with Britten, Pears and Harper.
The final section
charts the ‘neglect’ that began to afflict Britten. Amis says
that the composer seemed something of a ‘back number.’ John
Evans of Radio 3 offers the thought that this was the period
when he wrote his most autobiographical work. Britten’s increasing
frailty and his increasing dependence on Pears are movingly
got across. The letters the two wrote to each other – in particular
the ‘Darling Heart’ letter Britten wrote to Pears in the last
years – are affecting and indeed of the kind that no one could
ever write now.