Britten’s Children

2004   BBC Two

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WINNER OF ROYAL PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY CREATIVE COMMUNICATION AWARD 2005   (picture, below right: John Bridcut receiving the award from Sir Andrew Davis)

SPECIAL MENTION IN GOLDEN PRAGUE FESTIVAL’S DOCUMENTARY AWARD: ‘a strong but carefully balanced film confronting a provocative subject in a remarkably clear-eyed way’


Benjamin Britten's music for and about children: how the composer's affinity with boys coloured his music, and how his favourite theme of lost innocence tied in with his own childhood.  A book of the same title was published by Faber & Faber in June 2006.

The film featured the last interview given by the actor David Hemmings, discussing his childhood role of Miles in The Turn of the Screw.  Another seminal interview was with Wulff Scherchen (aka John Woolford), who for the first time described the passionate relationship he had with Britten in his teens.  This relationship is documented more fully in the book (the recent obituary of Woolford published by The Times is shown in the thumbnail picture on the right).

Specially-filmed performances by the choristers of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, conducted by Stephen Darlington, with Victoria Davies (harp); the Britten-Pears Orchestra, conducted by Paul Kildea, with Louisa Duggan (harp); Philip Langridge (tenor) and David Owen Norris (pianoforte), with Nicholas Daly (alto); Ronan Magill (pianoforte);  Oldham Boys’ Choir, conducted by Eileen Bentley;  Salisbury Music Partnership, conducted by David Halls; Oxford Youth Percussion Ensemble, conducted by Sue Lawrence.  The film was produced by Mentorn (1 x 90’)


Photography Dirk Nel
Sound Paul Vigars
Archive Research Alex Cowan
Dubbing Mixer Damian Reynolds
Assistant Producer Adam Lively
Film Editor David Richards
Executive Producer for the BBC Peter Maniura

Written, narrated and directed by John Bridcut

This film is now available on a Decca DVD (all regions), which has been made possible by the support of the Britten-Pears Foundation.  See the YouTube trailer 


‘...a brave and beautiful film... It not only illuminates Britten himself, but throws much-needed light on to a subject of excruciating delicacy’

Libby Purves  The Times

‘...a remarkable film, wonderfully shot...  It never fell over into sensationalism or prurience. To take something which in the wrong hands could have been embarrassing and to turn it into a further explanation of what Britten’s music was about, was a real achievement’  

Sir John Tusa,  Radio 3


5.0 out of 5 stars

A fascinating, moving but troubling documentary  20 Dec 2013   By S. J. Williams

Britten's involvement with children, boys in particular, is well-known: this fascinating documentary, first aired on the BBC, focuses on this aspect of the composer's personality and the way in which these relationships fed into central themes of his work, most notably the pre-occupation with the corruption of innocence.


At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing: one is torn between a deep anxiety about some of the accounts given by the now adult 'boys', the obsessiveness, the overt physical, though not by any account explicitly sexual, nature of the affection expressed by the much older man to these young people, and a sense that none of them would have missed that relationship for the world, that it was one of the richest times of the boys' lives, and that it also fed into the richness of some of Britten's best music.


Much is made of the difference between our current perfectly reasonable anxieties about abuse and a 'more 'innocent' time ('a time there was') when we were less pre-occupied with sex and psychologising. It is, frankly, astonishing that with only one exception, all the parents seemed quite comfortable with Britten's interest in their children: indeed, Wulff Scherchen, now in his 80s and a grandfather, perhaps the first of these intense friendships which punctuated Britten's life, seems equally shocked by revisiting his past and being reminded of the intensity of the (mutual) affection. Of course, Wulff and Britten were relatively close in age: as the composer grew older and his stature and influence increased, we become conscious of an increasingly uneven power imbalance. However, not one of these men accuse Britten of anything traditionally regarded as improper - they focus on his generosity and kindness, the child-like qualities of much of Britten's personality, as though his love for them is an expression of a man perennially childlike, who in some senses is still a boy like them, with his love of 'nursery food', his maintenance throughout his life of a prep-school, almost Molesworthian vocabulary ('chizz') and love of the games and escapades of childhood. Yet, of course, he was a man, a talented, important and charismatic figure.


Much of this is deeply moving in a strange way: most powerfully in the unbridled affection and admiration for Britten, pride in the association both professionally and personally that David Hemmings expresses in an interview recorded a few weeks before the actor's death. He dismisses any sense of sexual impropriety completely, though he acknowledged Britten's astonishing emotional brutality in turning what seemed like deep affection for the boy into absolute rejection as soon as Hemmings’ voice broke during 'The Turn of the Screw' in Paris. They never spoke again and Hemmings weeps both with pride at his involvement with such music and such a figure, as well as with the deep hurt Britten so cruelly dispensed. All the 'boys' interviewed acknowledged that the moment came when there was a replacement more or less painfully ejecting the previous chum. Yet none would have missed the relationship for the world.


Perhaps Britten needed this sort of proximity to youthfulness to motivate his creative talent: certainly he wrote many wonderful pieces both for and about children and innocence. Charles Mackerras testifies to Britten's horror at being thought a lecher or anything remotely like it with regard to his youthful friends. But it is hard (or should I write 'I find it hard'?) to reject the view that Britten in some way exploits the relationships in a way which is not entirely 'right', albeit by also giving them enormous gifts of affection and friendship.


The documentary is wonderful and avoids the hysteria which the subject could potentially elicit. As an admirer of Britten's music, I found it far more thought provoking than a more censorious approach would have achieved, deeply puzzling and very moving. Strongly recommended.  Comments (4)




5.0 out of 5 stars

A good buy 16 Jan 2014  By Robert Attewell

Having loved the book I bought the DVD and was just as impressed by John Bridcut's film version. The interviews with 'Britten's children' - now old men - were very moving and revealing. Britten's friendship with them is something many people find sinister and uncomfortable but they all say they enjoyed and benefited from the experience. "I adored him." "He was the centre of my life." "I wouldn't have missed it for the world." These are not the comments of children taken advantage of. The friendships inspired Britten to write some of his greatest music. He comes across as a kind and giving man, a complex man and a superb composer of every form of music. I very much enjoyed John Bridcut's sensitive portrayal of him on this DVD.

Reviews posted on Amazon

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