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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 September 2013
Tony Palmer's film on Benjamin Britten was produced in 1979 at the request of Peter Pears. Pears provides much of the narration but does not dominate the tale. Palmer's is not a hagiographical account; rather, it is chronological, matter-of-factual, and yet full of insight. (But the film was made before Humphrey Carpenter's eye-opening biography of the man.)

Members of Britten's family are also interviewed and it is interesting to hear about Britten's childhood from them. Other contributors include not only the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Imogen Holst, and Rudolf Bing, but also a housekeeper, his final nurse, and those with whom he stayed during his sojourn in the US.

There are extensive wonderful extracts in this film, both of his music and of archive film. Perforce, much is missed out; notable by their absence are his `Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra', `Les Illuminations', the `Serenade', `Gloriana', the `Sinfonia da Requiem', and the `War Requiem'. There are extracts of some of these, played over film, but they are out of context with no discussion given to them. It is all the more strange as the first and last in my list are referred to as key pieces of this composer in the DVD's sleevenotes. Missing too is what other composers (apart from Bernstein) thought of his music.

But what we do have here is one hundred minutes of the man and his music. The end is moving (though not as moving as the DVD `The Hidden Heart'), and - given that much of the film is told from Pears's angle - the DVD is a `must-have' for anyone with an interest in the life and music of this often-superb composer.

There are no extras.
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on 19 October 2012
I have recently bought Benjamin Britten- A Time There Was. My motivation was simply an abiding love of his music but I was reminded by the hype surrounding his forthcoming centenary. This film stitches together a lot of archive footage to build the story of his life. I found it interesting but not as satisfying as Humphrey Carpenter's biography which I felt gave me more of an insight into the man. So, for me, it was an interesting addition to the story of this wonderful music's creator, and had the advantage of peppering it with extracts, but, ultimately, not as satisfying as the written biography.
Clive Cotton
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on 18 March 2013
Plenty of archive material, excerpts from concerts and interviews with colleagues, musicians and people who knew Britten. A useful document as an assessment of Britten's life and work which was made a few years after the composer's death.
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on 18 August 2014
A perfect portrait, painful at times but made with insight and understanding.
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on 7 January 2013
This outstanding film provides a very important record of one of the greatest British composers and the people with whom he worked.
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VINE VOICEon 10 February 2010
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 Mozart 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 Horham (bought to escape the noise of planes from the military airfields near his beloved Aldeburgh) 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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 August 2010
I agree with every word of Klingsor Tristan's review of this important and absorbing film, and I write an additional review only because I think the film deserves it and, perhaps, to provide a slightly different perspective. The film does not attempt to be comprehensive as far as Britten's work (or indeed his life) is concerned. There is little or no mention of 'The Turn of the Screw', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', the 'Cello Symphony or the War Requiem, for example. As Klingsor Tristan makes clear, some aspects of the composer's personal make-up are not present. I think that is natural in view of the time at which the film was made, and I do not think it is a weakness. However, the 'feel' of Britten's music and his priorities as a creative artist, as well as his approach to composition, are well represented. All are both interesting and important. There is wonderful archive film of his family and some friends, evocative home movies from the States and Suffolk, some film of his conducting and his piano playing (with Richter, serious and focused, Britten is an absolutely equal partner who has time and inclination to glance at his prestigious companion and smile at a slightly fudged note in the final chords). Extracts from key performances are there too, and from some recording sessions.

Above all there is the narrative of Peter Pears, who appears many times, speaking or performing, always with a dignity, intelligence and openness which add a very great deal to this film. Dry-eyed when many would find this impossible, and the more eloquent for that, he gives a most moving account of Britten's death (in his arms), and that section of the film is quite wonderful. Palmer knows (as Britten did) when to allow words to speak for themselves, and when a series of silent or near-silent images are the most appropriate. This is the climax of the film and enormously effective in a slightly understated way ; less, here, means more.

Elsewhere,we hear from Britten and Pears's housekeeper in Aldeburgh, whose family up till then had thought 'concert people' not quite a respectable class, but who found Britten and Pears 'very clean - they were always having baths' and Britten fond of 'nursery food' like milk puddings. His nurse through his final illness, with him when he died, is likewise sympathetically direct and professional in what she says, though a liking for the man is clearly evident. There are scenes from Britten's funeral, with a solemn-faced Rostropovitch, and much more that is interesting and revealing.

In sum, this film does the composer justice. It informs, and provides a good introduction for those who want to know more about the man and the music. It captures the atmosphere of Aldeburgh, the Suffolk coast and the sea which were so important to him. Through Pears's presence and testimony it gives us an insight into what was the most important relationship of Britten's life, and because Pears was such a fine musician himself and such an intelligent commentator, does so wonderfully well. It is not a complete or comprehensive account, but it does not set out to be, and what it does, it does very well indeed. As such, it makes for compelling viewing.
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