“…Nadia Nerina and David Blair [are] like
gods from Olympus… as Lise and Colas, [they] have
never been so good before, or had such wonderful steps to do…
His amazing corkscrew turns, her joyous écarté,
their pas de ruban in which they wind each other into
a cat’s cradle, his lifting her at one arm’s length
above him like a shining prize, her tripping runs, their tenderness
and gaiety together - these are a few memories from a triumphant
- From Richard Buckle’s 31 January 1960 review of the
original Royal Ballet production, quoted in Buckle at the
ballet: selected criticism by Richard Buckle [London, 1980],
Sir Frederick Ashton’s production of La fille mal gardée
has been one of the Royal Ballet’s crown jewels ever since
its premiere on 28 January 1960. Hugely popular whenever it
is scheduled, it has also proved a worldwide success and has
generally displaced rival versions of the story that use different
choreography set to music by other composers.
The importance of this BBC film, recorded for broadcast at Christmas
1962, is that it preserves the performances of the original
Covent Garden cast, all still at their prime.
At the same time it utilises the BBC’s own considerable
resources to showcase the production to finest effect. The unnamed
director and cameramen, in particular, are obviously skilled
at working on full and busy sets to achieve the best and most
inventive camera angles and to offer plenty of visual variety.
Note, for example, how the action in the farmhouse courtyard
at the very opening of the first Act is shot through an open
barn door by a camera positioned inside Widow Simone’s
outhouse, rather than merely filmed unimaginatively straight-on.
Admittedly, this film may not match the Nerina/Britton/Helpmann
here), when it comes to using cameras to whizz excitingly
in and out of the action all around the set. That continual
visual energy was the right fit for Delibes’s more consistently
lively score, while the more sedate camerawork accorded to La
fille mal gardée is certainly more appropriate to
its gentler pastoral mood.
The dancing here is, as Richard Buckle observed, outstanding.
Ashton choreographed the ballet specifically to play to his
principals’ strengths and characters. Pocket spitfire
Nadia Nerina is all flighty runs and cheeky grins, while David
Blair proves equally adept at both romantic ardour and, especially,
communicating a sense that he is having great fun. Needless
to say, both of them display virtually flawless technique too.
It was a sad twist of fate that Nureyev’s defection to
the west in 1961 effectively derailed both their careers. Blair
was expected to replace Michael Somes as Fonteyn’s regular
partner but found himself overshadowed by the superstar Russian.
Simultaneously, Ms Nerina’s anticipated succession to
Fonteyn was stymied when Dame Margot’s own career was
unexpectedly prolonged by her collaboration with Nureyev.
Two other points are worth making about the members of the cast.
First, there is some surprisingly effective acting going on,
as well as the dancing. Nadia Nerina, as was also evident in
that Coppélia performance, is very adept at conveying
convincing emotions. Her interpretation of Lise - less sugary-sweet
and more of a rather naughty, spoiled brat who’s deservedly
spanked on several occasions during the course of the story
- is a very compelling one.
I also enjoyed Alexander Grant’s portrayal of Lise’s
simpleton suitor Alain. He conveys even more pathos than Jonathan
Howells in the 2005 Nuñez/Acosta Royal Ballet recording
that I enjoyed some years ago (see
here). Another unexpected treat was Royal Ballet stalwart
Leslie Edwards’s contribution as Alain’s father,
Thomas. Watch him closely, for example, as he sits down with
Widow Simone to sign the marriage contract (73:14 - 73:59).
His body movements, facial expressions and - especially - his
eyes are used to superb effect to create, in less than a minute,
a real character out of nothing very much at all.
At the time of the premiere, Richard Buckle took issue with
Stanley Holden’s portrayal of Widow Simone, considering
the interpretation too broad and pantomime dame-ish. He suggested
that the older Russian performing tradition, where the Widow
was a more sympathetic character, would work even better. Over
the past fifty years, however, Holden’s caricature Donald
McGill/Les Dawson mother-in-law template has won the day and,
of that type, its originator’s performance has yet to
The second point worth making about the cast members is their
collective skill as a company, especially effectively
demonstrated in the closing scene where all the main characters
are on stage simultaneously.A very brief and quite delightful
sequence occurs between 74:47 and 75:15. Widow Simone, Thomas,
the notary and the notary’s clerk all dance briefly to
a jaunty tune in celebration of what they imagine to be a forthcoming
union between Lise and Alain. They line up together with linked
arms but each character is expertly individually characterised
by constantly changing facial expressions - keep an eye on the
widow as she is accidentally jostled by the notary - and highly
individual styles of movement. At the same time, however, they
interact to telling effect with the others. If you watch this
very brief sequence four times - concentrating each time on
a different character - you will see an impressive demonstration
of the company’s strength in depth in such character roles.
Sadly, comparison with that 2005 Royal Ballet recording suggests
that the tradition has not been maintained: the later performance
of that brief episode is, by comparison, bland and under-characterised.
The corps de ballet have a great deal to do in La
fille mal gardée and, in this film, they do it very
well. Assorted peasants of both sexes harvest and deliver crops,
go picnicking, dance around maypoles, run for shelter in a thunderstorm
and join in wedding celebrations, all with appropriate gusto.
John Lanchbery, who arranged the score for Ashton, directs the
Covent Garden orchestra stylishly and his musicians sound as
if they are having a great time - whether supporting Widow Simone
in her famous, show-stopping clog dance or, just once
or twice, veering close to Mantovani territory during some deliciously
lush melodies for the two lovers.
The black and white film is clearly of its time - though, oddly
enough, the most striking difference in fifty years is the quality
of the opening and closing credits which were very poorly done
in those days. It is, though, certainly never less than adequate
and is frequently a great deal better than that. In any case,
the content more than makes up for any occasional technical
deficiency. The “enhanced mono” sound quality is
One final query ... In the last minute or so of the ballet,
as a long continuous stream of dancers exits the Widow’s
house, the final few of them - the principal characters, in
fact - burst into singing the melody vigorously (“la-la,
la, la-la, la-LA!...) as they dance away through the doorway.
That certainly does not happen in the 2005 Covent Garden recording.
Was it, I wonder, a detail of the original Ashton production
that has subsequently been dropped? Was it adopted just for
the TV film? Perhaps there may be someone reading this who was
in the theatre audience in 1960 and who can enlighten us? I’d
guess, after all, that if you were privileged to have possessed
a ticket all those years ago, you’d probably have retained
your memories of such a wonderful and historic occasion right
up to the present day.
Thankfully, with the release of this wonderful performance on
disc, the rest of us can now sample the experience too.