Sunday 5 January 2014

Benjamin Britten - Peace and Conflict

Benjamin Britten - Peace and ConflictTony Britten's Benjamin Britten - Peace and Conflict is a new film which takes a somewhat sidelong-view of Britten's life. Comprised of scenes re-enacted by actors, sections narrated by John Hurt, talking heads and performances of Britten's music, Tony Britten takes as his starting point Britten's schooldays at Gresham's. It was here, in a highly liberal atmosphere, that the origin of many of his adult attitudes can be detected. A most potent symbol of this is the fact that a fellow school-mate of Britten's was Donald Maclean, the communist spy.

The backbone of the film is a series of re-enactments of Britten's school days at Gresham's, with young actors including Alex Lawther as the young Britten. These are presumably speculative, but informed not only by Britten's letters but also by the school magazine to which the boys contributed. The school had a very liberal atmosphere in which the boys were encouraged to think for themselves. Britten developed a number of relationships which had strong influences on his later attitudes. Whilst a number of contemporaries such as Maclean became communists, these attitudes came out in Britten in his strong commitment to the peace movement.

But the film was not entirely a drama, there was a substantial vein of narration from John Hurt which was intercut with archive footage and images, as well as interviews with people. Those taking part included Joseph Horowitz (from the Royal Academy of Music), Sue Phipps (Britten's agent), the cellist Raphael Wallfisch, Anita Lasker Wallfisch (who saw Britten performing with Menuhin in the concentration camps at the end of the war) and pianist Iain Burnside.

The story that they told was fascinating, made all the more engrossing by the way the Tony Britten interleaved Britten's school days with his adult life, showing how the one developed from the other. I have to confess that, as usual with such reconstructions, I found myself a little uneasy when listening to the dialogue as I wondered how much was actually known and how much imagined. But the young actors were impressive and convincing, with Alex Lawther certainly having a look of the young Britten.

The thread of pacifism was the linkage between the scenes of the young Britten and the adult. Not only was Britten a member of such groups as the peace pledge union but he was also involved in writing music for such groups and in fact remained in correspondence with the composer Alan Bush (a lifelong communist) throughout their lives. This concern crops up in various of Britten's mature works such as the War Requiem and Owen Wingrave and it is on these that Tony Britten concentrates rather than the whole output.

The music is present in significant amounts in the film, not only the well known pieces but lesser known ones from Britten's school days and from his time as a young composer. Performances are specially recorded for the film by Iain Burnside, James Gilchrist, the Benyounes Quartet, musicians from Gresham's School

This is a sidelong glance at Britten's life, rather than an attempt to encompass the whole. But by concentrating on certain elements, Tony Britten creates something highly illuminating. The influence of the liberal atmosphere of Gresham's was clearly something which carried over in all sorts of ways. And who would have thought that one of Britten's school mates would have been the young Donald Maclean.

Benjamin Britten - Peace and Conflict
Written, produced and directed by Tony Britten
Narrated by John Hurt
Benjamin Britten - Alex Lawther
Contributors: Joseph Horovitz, Simon Kinder, Sue Phipps, Raphael Wallfisch, Iain Burnside, Anita Lasker Wallfisch
Performers: James Gilchrist, Jake Arditti, Gerard Collett, Iain Burnside, Raphael Wallfisch, The Benyounes Quartet, Mark Jones, Gresham's Brass Group, Gresham's Senior Choir

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