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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars HISTORICALLY DATED, BUT MOVING DOCUMENTARY, 10 Feb 2010
This review is from: Benjamin Britten - A Time There Was [2006] [DVD] [2008] [NTSC] (DVD)
It would be easy to dismiss this film, made within a few years of Britten's death, as a piece of uncritical hagiography. It starts with a memorable piece from Leonard Bernstein where he expands in his usual articulate way on the ever-present dark side in Britten's music - the `gears constantly clashing' as he describes it. But the film itself touches relatively little on that side of the composer. There's nothing here about his reprehensible tendency to cut close colleagues and friends out of his life the moment they expressed the least criticism or even just became superfluous to his needs (Britten's `corpses' as he himself called them): there's also nothing here about his always controlled but undeniable paedophilia, movingly explored in John Bridcut's much more recent documentary: nor anything of his intolerance of performances of his own music that strayed too far from the way that he (and Peter Pears) saw it - e.g. the Vickers Grimes - or of new music that strayed too far from his own style - e.g. the walkout from Punch and Judy at his Aldeburgh Festival. All these less than attractive aspects of his personality are avoided.

Nevertheless, Tony Palmer conjures his familiar magic in constructing what is still a vivid and enlightening film study of his subject (cf. his musical biographies of Wagner, Walton, Arnold, etc.). As in much of his work, Palmer demonstrates the deftest of hands in combining archive footage plus his own original material with lengthy, illuminating interviews with family, friends and contemporaries. There is much delightful stuff from the archives - seeing the wonderful and humorous rapport between two keyboard masters as he plays 2-piano Schubert with Richter at Aldeburgh for example - as well as elucidating looks at Britten's rehearsal techniques for a performance (the premiere?) of The Building of the House - he was, it would seem, strict and workmanlike but friendly as a conductor, always concentrating on practical musical matters.

Among the interviews there is much that must now, nearly thirty years on, count as primary biographical material. Brother, sister and cousin are all interesting on his precocious childhood, egged on by an ambitious mother. His housekeeper on his dining tastes, the nurse from his final illness on his fears and acceptance of death, Imo Holst on the incredible speed of his writing, are all fascinating. But Pears, of course, is the primary source having been the composer's musical and personal partner for most of his adult life. Here, for the first time, he comes `clean' about the nature of their personal relationship - `gay' was apparently a word Britten didn't approve of in this context - and is deeply moving about his lover's death in his arms.

Musically, there is much to intrigue, too. Clips from BBC productions of Grimes and Billy Budd are reminders that these are notable historic performances that deserve to be issued on DVD. Janet Baker is riveting in the cantata (really a super-concentrated opera), Phaedra: the climax of Curlew River with Dickerson as the Madwoman, too, shows a master dramatic composer at the top of his form. The familiar, but still relevant, thread of `innocence outraged' is followed through the whole canon of works. The fascinating corollary - Britten as a Peter Pan who never wanted to leave his childhood (A time there was...) behind - is left hanging as a thought, one that others have subsequently pursued more fully.

Palmer can also be deeply moving in his use of cameras roaming round Britten's homes and especially his work areas. This is particularly so at very the end of his film where we pull slowly back from the desk and chair in Britten's last composing cottage in Sussex (bought to escape the noise of planes from the military airfields in his beloved Suffolk) to the desolate, lonely sound of his final orchestral work, the folksong arrangements he called A Time There Was... which Palmer adopted as the title for this film. The phrase itself, of course, is taken from the Hardy poem that Britten had previously set so memorably as the final song of Winter Words.

Inevitably there is much biographical material that has come to light since the making of this film. But Tony Palmer's piece still remains a moving tribute to one of the great composers of the last Century and is much recommended to anyone with an interest in its subject.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 31 Mar 2011 18:51:40 BDT
nogginthenog says:
good review but there is no evidence to support your assertion that Britten was a pedophile in the sense that he physically preyed or attempted to prey on his young associates. David Hemmings is quite clear about this in several interviews.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Apr 2011 12:11:27 BDT
There is a huge mass of evidence that Britten was a paedophile (i.e. someone who is attracted to children), but - as I say in the review - it was always (with one early and always regretted exception) kept under complete control.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Oct 2011 15:41:20 BDT
simon mack says:
thks for yr detailed review BUT i agree - i think to mention the "P" subject is at best in poor judgement, nevermind taste + only tarnishes the great man's memory IF such allegations are actually true, can we not concentrate on the music + legacy Britten has left instead?

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Oct 2011 17:45:48 BDT
I sympathise but, since this is a docu about the life as much as the music, I think the matter should have been covered - particularly since his attraction to and affection for young boys does play such a crucial role in the music he wrote and his casting for it. The whole matter was most sensitively dealt with in John Bridcut's much later documentary and book, Britten's Children.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Oct 2011 18:02:12 BDT
simon mack says:
mm ok at least we're both big fans of Britten's music at least . as a huge fan od Shostakovich also - i wouldnt thank a biographer to uncover potentially unsavourary facts about DSCH . the maxim :"never meet yr heroes" springs to mind but it does not detract from the scale of achievement of the men's music + legacy. we're all human with our various achilles heels alas.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Nov 2011 10:56:22 GMT
I'm sorry. I know it's comfortable and reassuringly safe to separate the music from the man but, in this case in particular, I think it's impossible. Just look at the list - from Grimes' apprentice to the Little Sweep to the Convict and the Boy with the Violin (At the Railway Station, Upway) to Isaac to poor little Miles to the lovely boy plucking fruits by moonlight in the wilderness to the little Changeling Boy to Isaac again (in War Requiem) to the Madwoman's son to the Cabin Boy of the Golden Vanity to Blake's Chimney Sweeper to the juvenile refugees of the Children's Crusade to Tadziu. 'Who are these children gathered here out of fire and smoke that with remembering faces stare upon the foxing folk?' So many children, most of them victims in one way or another. I can think of no other composer (or probably writer, painter or whatever) where the much debated theme of innocence outraged ('The ceremony of innocence is drowned) is so predominant. I really don't think you can ignore the roots in the nature of the artist of where that came from.

I also think, incidentally, that Britten comes out of the real life situation particularly well. He always exercised severe self-restraint (with that one early and much regretted indiscretion I mentioned). Indeed, such was his rapport with these boys that they all - without exception - look back on their time with him with the very fondest of memories.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Nov 2011 11:44:30 GMT
simon mack says:
well you clearly know Brittens works in detail. if you say that all look back on their time with him with the v fondest of memories. this is a relief frankly. if his "demons" were exorcised via his works - i can live with that + still admire BB's music.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Jun 2013 10:40:08 BDT
Now a thief is someone who steals, not someone who thinks of stealing, a murderer is someone who killed not who wanted to kill, a rapist is someone who raped not who wanted to, a.s.o. The definition of "paedophile" should be reconsidered: the same word should not be used for the supposed intention and for the fact, it is extremely misleading.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Jun 2013 11:04:27 BDT
I'm sorry, but the derivation is clear: '...philia' a liking for, 'paedo...' children. That he didn't practise any of the outrages we hear about in the news seemingly everyday, that all his favourites adored him and said he never interfered with them in any way, is irrelevant; he still displayed a manifest taste for young boys from his time at South Lodge and Gresham's onwards - a taste that has no little relevance to his artistic output.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Jun 2013 11:41:27 BDT
Last edited by the author on 11 Jun 2013 11:43:05 BDT
You are right about the etymology, but words are not always used in their eymological sense and the current sense of this word isn't the etymological one - if so, then every mother could be called a "paedophile".
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