Monday June 8 2020

Wonder what the above could possibly have in common? In three words: David Myerscough-Jones. Discover more about the work this artist did when he envisioned Britten’s Borough and ghosts for television

Following studies in his native Lancashire this talented artist embarked on a career in designing for theatre first in Scotland and later in London. In 1965 he joined the BBC where his imagination flourished in a diversity of projects. He recreated the London Underground, the environment for dormant yetis in The Web of Fear, a 1968 Dr Who adventure. He achieved this so effectively that it led some figures in London Transport to wonder whether the Corporation had flouted their refusal to film in unused Tube lines. Who fans will be interested to know that Myerscough-Jones worked twice more with the Doctor: once in The Ambassadors of Death (1970), and in The Day of the Daleks (1972). Among his other achievements were designs for the BBC Shakespeare series: All’s Well that Ends Well and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both 1981). As much at home with designing for opera, he won a Royal Television Society Award for a production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (1976).

In 1969 the BBC agreed to film Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, with Pears in the title role and Britten conducting. Myerscough-Jones was commissioned to design sets for the project. Having worked with spacious television sound stages in mind, he was now faced with the challenge of thinking again in terms of theatre. In addition to sets, the Maltings would also have to accommodate cast and chorus, production crew, sound and camera engineers. The Hall also had fit in members of the London Symphony Orchestra—and its conductor.

Myerscough-Jones believed that movable plastic clad flats could recreate both interior and exterior of two key scenes: the Moot Hall and the Boar Inn. Abstract images projected onto a gauze background represented the sea and sky (a pivotal consideration for inside filming). This material covered the Maltings’ brick walls and allowed the sound to reverberate freely.

Britten conducting during the recording of Peter Grimes in the Maltings, 1969.

The designs for Grimes reveal the scope of Mysercough-Jones’s imagination, and they express the drama and tension inherent in the music. A good example is his sketch for the mob scene from Act III. A rotational ramp was used during the Borough’s hunt for Grimes. The artist used ‘mixed media’, a combination of colour pencil, ink, wash, bodycolour, paint, chalk and crayon. These were applied to thick, black paper to capture the mood of the crowd and the chaos within the title character’s mind as he hears their shouts from a distance. Light blazing from The Boar and the spiralling, haunting moon symbolises the mob’s anger.

Design for Peter Grimes © David Myerscough-Jones Association.

In September 1970 Myerscough-Jones was given the task of designing again for the Maltings. He was asked to create a backdrop for a BBC television recording of Britten and Pears’ recital of Schubert’s Winterrese. Only Pears would be featured on screen—television producer John Culshaw believed it would heighten the idea of loneliness and suffering the cycle’s story conveys. Pears is dressed in period costume, and in voiceover he summarises in English the content of each of Wilhelm Müller’s poems about unrequited love before launching into song. The backdrops Myerscough-Jones prepared reflected in abstract the bitterness of the singer’s winter journey. The imagery for Im Dorfe, (‘In the Village’) for instance, indicates the framed roofs of snow-covered cottages where the inhabitants sleep oblivious to the lover’s suffering.

Design for Winterreise, ‘Im Dorfe’ © David Myerscough-Jones Association.

Myerscough-Jones was asked to help tell a very different tale in November 1970, when cameras again filled the Maltings to film Britten’s BBC television opera Owen Wingrave. With this adaptation of a Henry James ghost story Myerscough-Jones returns to invoking a hint of the eeriness he achieved with the Tube-dwelling yetis of Dr Who.

Like the London Underground, the eerie setting of a gothic country house grows ever more fearsome under the yoke of a family curse. Myerscough-Jones modelled the Wingrave’s family seat of Paramore on some aspects of Broughton Castle and Audley End. Paramore is a Jacabean house and creating a forbidding atmosphere was a key ingredient to conveying the presence of ghosts.

Not only do the designs for the opera instil a notion of the sinister, but also a sense of antagonism. The title character has withdrawn from the idea of career as a soldier, something that appals his proudly militaristic family and they resent him for it. Paramore, therefore, had to suggest hostility—as well as the supernatural. The rigour of set construction made the Maltings’ interior look “like Clapham Junction,” according to director Brian Large. That notwithstanding, the effect was worthwhile. In James’ short story the spirits have a covert presence, but in Britten and Myfanwy Piper’s adaptation they appear in a pivotal scene where Owen challenges them—and thus his family—confronting and opposing their violent past. Mixed media again is used to great effect showing the literal contrast between a dark past and enlightened future. But enlightenment comes at a cost.

Design for Owen Wingrave © David Myerscough-Jones Association.

Mr Myserscough-Jones and his wife Pelo generously donated thirty-two designs for the historic BBC productions of Grimes, Winterreise, and Wingrave to the Britten Pears Archive in 2002. Several of these imaginative depictions of Britten and Schubert’s work are sometimes on display in our exhibitions, and are available to anyone who is interested in the career of this extraordinary artist.

See how Myerscough-Jones’ designs and other items from the collection inspired student visitors from special schools to The Red House in Christopher Hilton’s APAC blog post.