Humphrey Burton on the commissioning of Owen Wingrave

Humphrey Burton, distinguished arts broadcaster, gives us an insight into the commissioning of Owen Wingrave. He writes:

One of the sadnesses of my professional  life is that by making a career switch to ITV, I missed out on the chance to produce Benjamin Britten’s so-called “television opera”. 

Here’s the background. Benjamin Britten’s genius received early recognition from the BBC. Before the war, when he was in his twenties, Britten wrote a great deal of incidental music for radio plays and features. His compositions were often broadcast from festivals and the Proms. Britten had less to do with television; he did not possess a television set and felt no need for one, given the extraordinarily busy life he led. Paradoxically, the first television company to take an interest in his operas was not the BBC but Associated Rediffusion, who taped The Turn of the Screw as early as 1959. (Sadly this ghost story, effectively translated to the screen by Peter Morley, was shown in two parts; Act One went out at 11pm  on Christmas Day and the second half followed…three days later! So much for building up suspense! And in those days there were no home recorders. Still, it was a grand gesture!)

The 1960s was an important decade in the history of television. The Pilkington Report resulted in the BBC being allotted a second channel, BBC 2, which opened in April 1964; from the beginning  it was transmitted in higher quality PAL (625 lines). And three years later came colour television. This is where I began to have some influence; the new channel was going to need lots more programmes and classical music (in those days) was held to be an important element in the mix. Departments were shuffled, new staff were recruited (among them two future stars, Melvyn Bragg and Tony Palmer) I was taken off the BBC’s flagship arts magazine programme Monitor, which I had worked on for five years, ever since leaving BBC Radio, and assigned to a new task of devising music programmes for the new network, documentaries, master classes, rehearsals, workshops and so on. I had done a “special” on BBC1 for Britten’s 50th birthday the previous November and one of my first decisions for the new network was to televise Peter Grimes from Sadler’s Wells. Within the year we had persuaded Britten and Pears to perform in a television version of Music in Miniature and to give an informal studio recital which was a great success – even though they didn’t enjoy the dry acoustic.

In those days the BBC made several studio opera productions a year. Menotti’s operas were especially popular but the net was cast wide and ambitiously: I remember Salome, Otello and Mahagonny to name but three. Studio opera was at this time in the remit of Drama Group, run by a Canadian named Sydney Newman. Mid-decade he recruited Basil Coleman to his team. Basil had  spent a decade in Toronto learning the craft of television drama direction but earlier in his life he had been closely associated with Britten and had directed several operas including (working backwards) The Turn of the Screw, Gloriana, Billy Budd and Let’s Make an Opera. What a pedigree! The BBC was now mounting a benevolent but aggressive two-pronged attack on Britten. I was asking for a new television work especially for children – we were hoping for a successor to Menotti’s  Amahl and the Night Visitors; Britten gave serious thought to the project but it never came to fruition. Instead he agreed to a  documentary – one of the very first BBC films in colour, helped along by American co-production funding; this was made in 1967 (Benjamin Britten and his Festival) and includes priceless footage of the Queen declaring open the Maltings Concert Hall and Opera House (my italics) – opera was very much part of Britten’s concept for the hall.

Meanwhile Basil and his producer Cedric Messina persuaded the BBC to mount Billy Budd in the studio. It is a magnificent production – to my mind the most successful of all television adaptations of Britten operas. You would have thought that Coleman would be the obvious choice for BBC TV’s next Britten opera project, Peter Grimes, indeed his name was in the frame in the early negotiations. But Britten threw an immense spanner in the works. He had not enjoyed sitting in on the studio production of Billy Budd. He didn’t like the set-up whereby the conductor (wearing headphones)  and orchestra were in one studio and the singers in another. Who can blame him? But  Budd was state of the art technique and the end product was splendid. Nevertheless Britten insisted that he would only conduct Grimes in the Maltings. A new factor in the negotiations was the arrival at the BBC of Britten’s record producer over the previous decade, John Culshaw. When I left in the summer of 1967 as a founder member of London Weekend, the new ITV company, John was recruited to take my place. Part of his deal, I imagine, was that he should be in charge of all Britten projects. At any rate he threw his weight behind Britten’s condition that Grimes should be done at the Maltings, where the acoustic was warm and generous and he would be at home. Basil Coleman had the courage to stick to his guns; he told Britten that television opera should be undertaken in a  modern studio and refused to work on an outside broadcast, where technical conditions – cameras, lighting, sound – would inevitably be inferior.

The Peter Grimes recorded in colour at the Maltings has many splendid aspects, not least the brooding presence of Peter Pears as Grimes. And it served as a test run for  Owen Wingrave. Another of the big developments in the 1960s had been the coming together of the major public service stations all over Europe in an organisation called the European Broadcasting Union. Sport was the EBU’s principal concern but cultural union was also on the cards. The Eurovision Song Contest was one of its babies. And an EBU opera commission was another. The BBC proposed  Britten’s  Owen Wingrave and it was duly mounted at Snape in 1970. Colin Graham was in Britten’s high command, with the choice of camera shots entrusted to the outside broadcast music director Brian Large, then at the beginning of his  illustrious career. The fact that Owen Wingrave has been shown to work very well in conventional theatres (and  the Maltings “Opera House” !) suggests that the “television ” element in the opera  is of only secondary importance. Somehow I doubt whether any television organisation will ever produce a studio version. I only wish I had seen Basil’s staging at the Maltings in 1984.

Humphrey Burton

June 2014