Tuesday March 31 2020
The theme for our first Box of Delights of the year is ‘World Premieres’. It contains a selection of items that have been newly catalogued over the winter closed season and are making their first public appearances. The items are taken from two collections: the papers of Colin McPhee and the papers of Basil Coleman.
Letter from Colin McPhee to Elizabeth Mayer, 1941
This item comes from the papers of Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist credited with introducing Britten to Balinese music. After living in Bali to study gamelan music during the 1930s, McPhee returned to North America and stayed at Yaddo Artists’ Retreat in Saratoga Springs, where he wrote books about Balinese music and culture, composed, and met Britten and Pears through their mutual friends, Elizabeth and William Mayer. McPhee later lived in the Brownstone ‘February House’ in New York, although not at the same time as Britten and Pears.
In this 1941 letter to Elizabeth Mayer, McPhee describes an article about Britten and his music that he was in the process of writing – an article Britten allegedly ‘winced’ at upon reading. McPhee outlines the main thrust of his criticism in his letter, writing:
‘If he is only wanting a career (and I know that is not it), and a career that I know would be very short, he need not change. But if he wants to survive, [and wants his music] to be played with love later on, even during the later years of his life, he must search deeper for a more personal, more interesting idiom.’
McPhee’s letter also mentions two members of Britten’s circle of illustrious American friends: Aaron Copland – the only other person who would ‘pick certain things in Ben to pieces’ – and Carson McCullers, another ‘February House’ resident who had also come to Yaddo to write, whom he asserted was ‘much nicer than Ben would make her out’.
Items from the 1939 Old Vic Tour
These items come from the papers of the television, theatre, and opera producer Basil Coleman, who directed, among others, the first productions of The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd, and Gloriana. Before starting his career as joint director with Tyrone Guthrie of Britten’s realisation of The Beggar’s Opera in 1948, Coleman worked as an actor with the Old Vic Company. In 1939, The Old Vic embarked on a tour of Italy, under the auspices of The British Council, designed to disseminate British values throughout fascist Italy using theatre. Famous British plays, including Hamlet (‘Amleto’), Henry V (‘Enrico V’) and Man and Superman (‘Uomo e Superuomo’) were performed across Italy by a cast that included Coleman, Alec Guinness, Andrew Cruickshank, Anthony Quayle, and Robert Christie.
In Milan, the Old Vic Company received a public address from the President of the ‘National Fascist Federation for Show Business’ welcoming them to the country, but also using the art of theatre to endorse his own political beliefs, claiming:
‘It was one of the first points to be considered by the Fascist Government, as soon as it took the lead of the nation, to find in the theatre a foundational element for the spiritual education of the people…’
Robinson’s Nautical Notes, 1966
In addition to directing Britten operas on the stage, Coleman also produced the televised version of Billy Budd in 1966. Among his notes for the production was this letter, signed ‘Robinson, 1966’. Sadly, because the first page of the letter has been significantly degraded by light exposure, much of the context surrounding it has been lost, but the letter’s content makes it clear that ‘Robinson’ was an expert in nautical life, perhaps an ex-sailor. The letter was written to provide ‘guidance for reference at various stages of the action of the piece’ and describes in great detail many aspects of life on a ship, including routines, the roles of each crewmember, ship designs, and – especially relevant for Billy Budd – the punishment of ‘delinquents’ (Billy Budd is hanged for killing John Claggart). The letter ends with several labelled diagrams of ship-parts, including rigging, sails, and the mast, accompanied by notes about how one might adapt these elements for filming.
Billy Budd Viewmaster Slide, 1966
Very few colour photographs of the production of Billy Budd (1966) exist, but this photo slide, taken by Colin Stone, is vividly coloured and, unusually, includes the production staff and filming equipment. Although it is difficult to tell whether the film’s production design was influenced by Robinson’s advice, the ‘buntlines’ and ‘leachlines’ in this photograph do appear to resemble Robinson’s diagram.
Basil Coleman won a ‘Specialised Programme’ Bafta Award for Billy Budd in 1967, which currently resides in one of our archive strongrooms.
BBC Set Design Stencil
This item, also from the Coleman collection, is a BBC Television Apparatus stencil from 1961. It was used to draw filming equipment, like cameras, microphones, and wind machines, to scale when laying out set designs on paper. Although stencils like this one are no longer in use today, having largely been replaced by computer software, this stencil would have certainly been an invaluable tool for Coleman during his long career as a director of BBC television productions.