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Customer Review

20 December 2013
Britten's involvement with children, boys in particular, is well-known: this fascinating documentary, first aired on the BBC, focuses on this aspect of the composer's personality and the way in which these relationships fed into central themes of his work, most notably the pre-occupation with the corruption of innocence.

At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing: one is torn between a deep anxiety about some of the accounts given by the now adult 'boys', the obsessiveness, the overt physical, though not by any account explicitly sexual, nature of the affection expressed by the much older man to these young people, and a sense that none of them would have missed that relationship for the world, that it was one of the richest times of the boys' lives, and that it also fed into the richness of some of Britten's best music.

Much is made of the difference between our current perfectly reasonable anxieties about abuse and a 'more 'innocent' time ('a time there was') when we were less pre-occupied with sex and psychologising. It is, frankly, astonishing that with only one exception, all the parents seemed quite comfortable with Britten's interest in their children: indeed, Wulff Scherchen, now in his 80s and a grandfather, perhaps the first of these intense friendships which punctuated Britten's life, seems equally shocked by revisiting his past and being reminded of the intensity of the (mutual) affection. Of course, Wulff and Britten were relatively close in age: as the composer grew older and his stature and influence increased, we become conscious of an increasingly uneven power imbalance. However, not one of these men accuse Britten of anything traditionally regarded as improper - they focus on his generosity and kindness, the child-like qualities of much of Britten's personality, as though his love for them is an expression of a man perennially childlike, who in some senses is still a boy like them, with his love of 'nursery food', his maintenance throughout his life of a prep-school, almost Molesworthian vocabulary ('chizz') and love of the games and escapades of childhood. Yet, of course, he was a man, a talented, important and charismatic figure.

Much of this is deeply moving in a strange way: most powerfully in the unbridled affection and admiration for Britten, pride in the association both professionally and personally that David Hemmings expresses in an interview recorded a few years before the actor's death. He dismisses any sense of sexual impropriety completely, though he acknowledged Britten's astonishing emotional brutality in turning what seemed like deep affection for the boy into absolute rejection as soon as Hemming's voice broke during 'The Turn of the Screw' in Paris. They never spoke again and Hemmings weeps both with pride at his involvement with such music and such a figure, as well as with the deep hurt Britten so cruelly dispensed. All the 'boys' interviewed acknowledged that the moment came when there was a replacement more or less painfully ejecting the previous chum. Yet none would have missed the relationship for the world.

Perhaps Britten needed this sort of proximity to youthfulness to motivate his creative talent: certainly he wrote many wonderful pieces both for and about children and innocence. Charles Mackeras testifies to Britten's horror at being thought a lecher or anything remotely like it with regard to his youthful friends. But it is hard (or should I write 'I find it hard'?) to reject the view that Britten in some way exploits the relationships in a way which is not entirely 'right', albeit by also giving them enormous gifts of affection and friendship.

The documentary is wonderful and avoids the hysteria which the subject could potentially elicit. As an admirer of Britten's music, I found it far more thought provoking than a more censorious approach would have achieved, deeply puzzling and very moving. Strongly recommended.
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