Benjamin Britten’s personal life has been well documented – his relationship with Peter Pears in a period when homosexuality was still illegal, his pacifism and years in America and his friendships and fallings-out. But two documentaries by John Bridcut will rate as indispensable for the full picture of the man – both for the interviews and with the people who knew him best and for their impeccably performed musical excerpts.
Britten’s Children is, in the filmmaker’s words, “an edgy subject, full of danger”, these days perhaps even more than ever before. Bridcut’s fascination with the composer started when he took part as a chorister in Britten historic recording of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. His interviews with the various boys with whom Britten became “besotted” – including the late English actor David Hemmings for whom the role of Miles in The Turn Of The Screw was created – show these relationships to be innocent, if unusual, and without a physical sexual element. In a moving highlight Bridcut tracks down Wulff Scherchen, the German teenager whom Britten dumped for Peter Pears. Scherchen, now a grandfather living in Australia who was willing to be seduced, has kept all of Britten’s love letters is filmed revisiting the Red House for the first time in 60 years.
Britten’s Endgame, shown on SBS last year, deals with the composer’s final years and his race against time when his heart disease was diagnosed. Interviews include his heart surgeon and the wonderful Scottish nurse Rita Thomson who accompanied him to Venice and took care of him in his final months. We gain insights into his music from his godson Michael Berkley, composer Lennox’s son, and follow through the final dramas of his life including the fire at the Maltings and the battle to rebuild it. Musical highlights include archival footage of Britten and Pears and extended excerpts from his last opera, Death In Venice, and his sublime final string quartet.