Monday November 9 2020

The papers of Basil Coleman have been newly catalogued and are now available to researchers. Details of the collection’s contents can be found on our online catalogue. The papers represent the life of a noted opera, theatre, and television director, who was an essential part of the Britten story and a pioneer of television operas.

Basil Coleman.

Coleman was born in Bristol in 1916, but spent his childhood in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Encouraged by their stepmother, Gwen Givern Chambers, a dedicated pacifist and suffragette, Coleman and his siblings were involved in theatre at a young age, and were deeply influenced by Chambers’ views throughout their lives. As a teenager, Coleman moved back to Britain to attend Frensham Heights School followed by the Central Drama School. Coleman continued his acting training under Esme Church with the Old Vic Company, which he subsequently joined as an actor.

Programme for Henry V, 1937, with Coleman as the Governor of Harfleur.

Numerous programmes and press reviews from Coleman’s time with the Old Vic can be found in the collection, including materials relating to a 1937 production of Henry V, where Coleman acted alongside Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and Jessica Tandy and a 1940 production of King Lear starring John Gielgud. The collection also includes programmes and other materials from the Old Vic’s 1939 tour, when the company were sent by the British Council to fascist Italy to disseminate British values using theatre.

Like Britten and Pears, Coleman was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Initially working on fruit farms in Sussex, Coleman was later enlisted by a theatre company touring morality plays across the country. After the war, Coleman rejoined the Old Vic under Tyrone Guthrie, who encouraged Coleman’s development as a director. Coleman began his directorial work with the Midland Theatre Company in Coventry and the Thames Valley All Professional Theatre Company. Programmes and press reviews for these productions can be found in the collection.

Coleman’s contribution card for unemployment, health and pension insurance, 1940.

Guthrie also introduced Coleman to Benjamin Britten, beginning Coleman’s long association and friendship with the composer. In 1949, Coleman directed Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera at the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, subsequently directing the first productions of Billy Budd in 1951, Gloriana in 1953, and The Turn of the Screw in 1954 at Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The collection contains Coleman’s original production scores, complete with detailed notes and diagrams, for these works and many others.

The Turn of the Screw production score with Coleman’s directing notes.

In 1954, Coleman began work as a director at the Crest Theatre, Toronto, before continuing his international directing work with Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in San Francisco in 1961 and Buenos Aires in 1962. Later in his career, Coleman would also direct plays in Turkey, Bulgaria, Finland, and Iceland, in addition to his work in the UK. Coleman’s annotated play scripts, along with press reviews, programmes, and related correspondence for these productions are included in the collection.

Coleman began his work directing television operas in 1966 with the film adaption of Billy Budd, featuring Peter Pears as Captain Vere, which won a ‘Specialised Programme’ BAFTA award. Following this, Coleman directed television versions of other operas, including La Bohème in 1966, Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve in 1968, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in 1967, Verdi’s Otello in 1969 and Falstaff in 1972, and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in 1973. Coleman’s television version of La Vida Breve was the first such broadcast in colour.

Slide of the filming of Billy Budd, 1966.

Coleman was intended to direct the television production of Peter Grimes in 1969, but withdrew due to Britten’s insistence that it be filmed at Snape Maltings rather than at the BBC Television Centre, leading to a rift between Britten and Coleman. The two reconciled in 1975, when Coleman spent Christmas at the Red House. Britten’s decision to film Peter Grimes on stage predicted a growing trend in television opera, which changed from studio-based production to recording pre-existing stage productions. As a result of this, Coleman turned to directing television plays and adaptions of literature.

Notable television productions directed by Coleman include the 10-part adaption of Anna Karenina in 1977, his television version of As You Like It in 1978, as part of the BBC Shakespeare Series, and an adaption of Iris Murdoch’s An Unofficial Rose. Coleman also directed seven BBC plays of the month, the TV mini-series Husbands and Lovers, and numerous other productions. Coleman spent his later career directing student productions at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Britten-Pears School, and continued directing professional opera and stage plays internationally through the 1990s.

Promotional brochure for the 1977 BBC adaptation of Anna Karenina directed by Coleman.

Press reviews, programmes and working materials from Coleman’s television and stage career can be found in the collection. The collection also includes a correspondence archive consisting of over two hundred correspondents, as well as Coleman’s diaries, important publications, and a range of personal and biographical materials.

The collection can be viewed here