Backing Britten: Sky has commissioned a new documentary on the composer by Tony Palmer
It is pretty unfashionable, with good reason, to praise Rupert Murdoch these days, but before we throw him completely into the wastepaper basket of history it may be well to remember two things. The first is that the national printed press would probably not have survived so long as it has had he not taken on, and beaten, the trades unions who, until the mid-1980s, thought that they ran it. The second, more recent, contribution he has made to our national life are the two Sky Arts channels, on his digital television service. ITV killed The South Bank Show a couple of years ago; the BBC still attempts to provide something like cultural programming on television, but does so in the teeth of spending cuts, political correctness and a misunderstanding on the part of some of its executives of what true culture actually is. Sky Arts seems not to have very much money either, but it does seem to have a catholicity of view that is refreshing, surprising and innovative.
The channel announced last month that one of Britain's leading film-makers, Tony Palmer, would be making a new documentary for the network for next year, to mark the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. Mr Palmer's new film is entitled Nocturne, and will deal with the darker side of Britten's output, notably that substantial tranche of his works that deal with or touch upon death — notably the War Requiem, but also that early work of supreme genius, the Sinfonia da Requiem, written when the composer was 26 to mark the deaths, in quick succession, of his parents. Sky Arts plans to show the new film as part of a trilogy of Mr Palmer's work, the other two being his film of Britten's Death in Venice and his multi-award winning documentary A Time There Was, made in 1979 at the invitation of Sir Peter Pears, and quite simply the best film that will ever be made about the composer.
Those two films are about to be reissued in a boxed set with two of Mr Palmer's other Britten films: that of a behind-the-scenes audio recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace, and his very first work on the composer, Britten and his Festival, which dates from 1967; all are digitally restored. The first not only captures Pears in the lead role, but includes two other of the greatest interpreters of Britten, and two of the greatest voices of the last half-century — John Shirley-Quirk and the late Robert Tear. The second is the film of the original opening of Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1967 — it burned down, but was rebuilt and reopened within the subsequent two years — and so has the status of a historical document. It is an old cliché, but anyone remotely interested in Britten who does not already have these films should waste no time in obtaining them.