Making the film of ‘Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach’

On Sunday 24 May, Aldeburgh Music’s unforgettable staging of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be shown on BBC4. Tune in at 7pm or watch on iPlayer. The broadcast has had the Aldeburgh Music staff reminiscing about the all-encompassing production that sat at the heart of the Britten Centenary celebrations. Here’s a few photos and an account by the film director, Margaret Williams, of bringing the outdoor production to the screen.

Ever since I was in my primary school hall, listening to the sounds of ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, my life has been affected by the music of Benjamin Britten. While I was at Art School, Aldeburgh and the marshes around Snape, were my locations of choice to ‘be alone’, to wander with my thoughts; to think about life, relationships, things. 

As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Britten’s magnificent String Quartets for the television series ‘Music and the Mind’ and to make a fully dramatised film version of Britten’s opera ‘Owen Wingrave’, with Gerald Finley in the title role. 

In 2012, Jonathan Reekie – Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Music – asked me if I’d like to make a film version of Peter Grimes, a landmark project with open-air stagings on Aldeburgh beach. I felt honoured to be asked and accepted immediately. Jonathan has been an exceptional and exemplary Executive Producer, supporting us every step of the way.

At a meeting with stage director Tim Albery and designer Leslie Travers, Tim talked me through the opera with Leslie’s beautiful set model. The 40 metre long set was a ‘storm destroyed’ promenade, designed as a metaphor for the turmoil in Peter Grimes’s mind. The inspired Lucy Carter was the lighting designer. The set stood right on the pebbles, on top of the slope of beach that led directly down to the sea; the audience sat watching from the beach. The staging was set in 1945, the year the opera was first performed at Sadler’s Wells to great acclaim, in the aftermath of the Second World-War.

Grimes on the Beach set

Rehearsals began in London 29th April 2013; then from 27th May, rehearsals were on Aldeburgh beach. From these rehearsals I wrote the camera script. For the multi-camera recording of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach, the first performance on 17th June was our camera rehearsal. We filmed the two remaining performances 19th and 21st June, with one ‘pick up’ day (only 4 hours filming) on 20th June with cast and chorus, plus additional crane/jib and tracking camera.

The Britten-Pears Orchestra recording Peter Grimes for Grimes on the Beach

The Britten-Pears Orchestra recording Peter Grimes for Grimes on the Beach, photo by Rob Marrison

 

The Britten-Pears Orchestra, conducted by Steuart Bedford, were recorded live at the concert performances in Snape Maltings in early June, prior to the performances on the beach. Mike Hatch, Recording Engineer of Floating Earth, who I’ve worked with on many different operas, supervised our sound and provided us with edited orchestra tracks for playback on the beach. In addition to conducting the singers and chorus, Steuart had to ‘conduct’, in real time, the many different orchestra playback files provided by Mike. Steuart conducted from a ‘literal’ pit – dug into the pebbles – in front of the stage.

For shooting the performances we used five Sony HDC 1500 cameras, we shot progressive at a ratio of 2.38:1. It was important to me, and for the film, to see the sea behind the set as much as possible, so three cameras were high on scaffolding rigs, while Senior Cameraman, James Day stood behind the audience on the beach with his camera on a tripod, the fifth camera was in a pit, dug out next to the conducting hut. We also had 2 Canon 5Ds placed in different parts of the set for each performance.

I asked John Walker, a cameraman who lives locally, to shoot material to accompany the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. From January until May 2013, John set up his Canon 5D camera to capture time-lapse images of amazingly vivid, beautiful skies, seascapes, changing weather states and the landscape of Britten’s “composing walks”, in the marshes around Snape and along the Suffolk coast.

Filming Grimes on the BeachAn amazing cast gave extraordinary performances under Steuart Bedford’s brilliant baton. Their performances too, occurred in the most varied, challenging climate conditions. As film makers, something you learn very early in your career is how to deal with weather. We are not afraid, we live in the British Isles.

Making ‘Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach’ was a terrific, exhilerating experience made possible not only by our exceptional crew; my producers Anne Beresford, Debbie Grey and Jonathan Reekie but also with generous support from Aldeburgh Music, the Britten Pears Foundation and kindness and patience from the people of Aldeburgh.

Margaret Williams, 30 October 2013