DVD Review

The hidden heart

A life of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears


© Jonathan Woolf, August 2009

Also published by MusicWeb International



The hidden heart - A life of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Produced and Directed by Teresa Griffiths

Colour. NTSC System; 16:9 widescreen; Disc Format 1 x DVD9; Audio content LPCM stereo; region free NTSC DVD

EMI Classics 2165719 • 78' •



This Channel Four documentary dates from 2001 and is now released by EMI in unchanged form. It was produced by Oxford Film and Television and produced and directed by Teresa Griffiths. It’s divided into three ‘acts’ or as the film has it a ‘love story in three pieces’. The first is Grimes, the second the War Requiem and finally Death in Venice. Around these three works coalesces the film documentary’s narrative.

We hear from a number of expected people; Pears’s niece Sue Phipps makes sensible points throughout; James Bowman says Britten was very much the ‘prep school master’ and represented a vanished kind of Englishman, adding that Pears was more a man of the world and the stronger in his sexuality. Donald Mitchell is an authoritative source, John Amis too. Rather cleverly the famous Auden letter to Britten is read by Mitchell but in stages. It’s only as the biography advances that one hears the famous second section in which Auden anatomised Britten, to his great discomfort and, possibly, humiliation. Its opening affirmative tone is reflected in the generally untroubled earlier years. Mitchell only reads the second part after we have heard of the success of Grimes – which is quite wrong historically but conveys a degree of narrative tension and retrospective plangency.

There are plenty of evocative contemporary shots. The Pathé newsreel of the preparations for Peter Grimes is well worth seeing, though it’s been shown often enough. The confluence of Grimes and Britten/Pears is referred to but lightly and not in oppressive detail; the idea of the ‘outsider’ is advanced with reasonable caution.

Perhaps less happily there are a lot of shots of the fine tenor Robert Brubaker in his dressing room, the better to convey the pent up feelings of excitement of the Sadler’s Wells premiere of Grimes; didn’t work for me.

The War Requiem section advances the case for Britten turning inexorably from outsider to Establishment figure. Lord Harewood and John Amis genially admit to becoming famous Britten ‘corpses’ (Charles Mackerras was another among so many but he wasn’t interviewed) in which a perceived indiscretion led to permanent ostracising. To reduce the possibility of slights from the hated music critics there were no newspapers at the Red House.

Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich are interviewed, Heather Harper as well – her precise thoughts on the Lachrymosa are well worth hearing. No side from her. There is black and white film of a Royal Albert Hall performance with Britten, Pears and Harper.

The final section charts the ‘neglect’ that began to afflict Britten. Amis says that the composer seemed something of a ‘back number.’ John Evans of Radio 3 offers the thought that this was the period when he wrote his most autobiographical work. Britten’s increasing frailty and his increasing dependence on Pears are movingly got across. The letters the two wrote to each other – in particular the ‘Darling Heart’ letter Britten wrote to Pears in the last years – are affecting and indeed of the kind that no one could ever write now.