Saturday October 20 2018

During the open season at The Red House the Britten-Pears Foundation’s Archive is open to the public. Once a month we select a box of interesting items from our collection to show to visitors, known as the Box of Delights. Anyone is welcome to see this box in the Archive, 1–5pm Tuesday – Friday.

This month’s Box of Delights has the cryptic title Britten not on Film. The composer’s connection with film is established through his work for the GPO Documentary Unit and his score for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. However, visitors to the Archive will be able to see some intriguing items from the correspondence, annotated score and art collections that explain his absence from film.


Letters from Gielgud and Attenborough

Letter from John Gielgud, November 1965

Letter from Richard Attenborough, November 1969

John Gielgud corresponded with Britten in 1965 about potentially collaborating with him and Orson Welles on a film version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Although discussion fell silent for a time interest in the project was shown some four years later by Actor/Director Richard Attenborough who was enthusiastic about joining Britten and Gielgud in bringing it to the screen. Unfortunately a combination of factors, which included Britten’s obligation to complete other scores and his increasing ill health, put paid to the possibility of writing the music but Gielgud’s and Attenborough’s correspondence show us a glimpse of what might have been.

Letter from Schlesinger

Letter from John Schlesinger, November 1965

In 1965 Director John Schlesinger approached Britten to write the score for his forthcoming film version of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Again other work prevented Britten, a Hardy enthusiast, from being able to compose the music. Instead, the score was provided by Richard Rodney Bennett, who first wrote to Britten as a student and remained in contact with him and Peter Pears throughout his career. Bennett’s 1965 opera The Mines of Sulphur is dedicated to Britten.

Pears and Britten’s copy of Winterreise

Britten and Pears’ Breitkopf and Härtel edition of ‘Winterreise’

In 1961 Imogen Holst presented Peter Pears with a birthday gift, the Breitkopf and Härtel edition of Schubert’s Winterreise which he and Britten performed during that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. However, as the markings of the score show, Britten clearly appropriated Pears’s gift and made it his own!

Set designs for Winterreise

David Myerscough-Jones set designs for ‘Winterreise’

In September 1970 the BBC recorded Britten and Pears performing the song cycle. However, producer John Culshaw and Britten both decided that Britten should not appear on screen. The focus, Culshaw believed, should be on the lover’s suffering so Pears was filmed on his own in nineteenth-century costume in the Maltings in front of a set designed by artist David Myerscough-Jones. The Foundation has eight of these set designs in its collection and three of them will give you some indication of the task Myerscough-Jones faced in creating the mood for each of the songs. And each design, as it happens, is a unique record of Britten not on film.