How British television sat upon a Britten filmmain
Tony Britten made a feature film about the schooldays of the great composer (who is no relation). It’s an absorbing work, focusing on an untouched aspect of the composer’s development. TV companies invested in the production. But British television? Here’s what happened, told exclusively by Tony to Slipped Disc.
There are only two mainstream broadcasters to go to with a project like this – ITV has virtually no arts coverage, Five has none and Channel 4 are quite clear that they are not interested in ‘the past’ – sad, but at least consistent. So that leaves the BBC and Sky Arts, a channel that I have been making music and arts films for some years. They were initially very enthusiastic and we agreed a deal in principle which would enable me to release in cinemas prior to Sky’s UK broadcast. This had always been my plan, since I wanted audiences to enjoy the film as part of a shared experience during the centenary celebration and I was sure that funds for a full broadcast commission would not be forthcoming.
Unfortunately, the senior Sky person charged with taking us through the next stage immediately went on extended sick leave. Responsibility for my project was handed to someone who didn’t seem quite so convinced of its validity and after many fruitless calls and emails, she decided that I couldn’t afford to make the film. This decision seemed to be more based on industry convention than reality – filming at Gresham’s School, where Britten was a pupil and where his pacifism was moulded was by far the biggest chunk of the budget and it cost us nothing, as Gresham’s are de facto co- producers and charged us no facility fees. The Sky editor asked me to make a ‘conventional’ documentary, I chose to make the film I wanted to make and we parted company, with our slot swiftly replaced by a Tony Palmer film.
I took the project to the BBC, but their music department does seem to stick to the same very small group of film makers – laudably loyal, but not much use for those not in that group. The BBC was clear that whilst they liked my idea, they were committed to two films already. These turned out to be John Bridcut’s soon to be broadcast ‘Endgame’ and Margaret William’s Britten/Pears love story, now postponed. (Why, we wonder?)
We were by now into early summer of last year and decided to go ahead regardless. My distributor, Reiner Moritz, passionate about the project, conjured up television pre-sales from STV Australia, NRK Norway and YLE Finland. The Britten Pears Foundation gave us a small grant and the balance came from the government tax credit, private equity and crucially – crowd funding. The shoot was a joy, from discovering the extraordinary talented Alex Lawther, who plays young Ben to filming artists James Gilchrist, Iain Burnside, Raphael Wallfisch and exceptional younger talents such as Jake Arditti, Gerard Collett and the Benyounes Quartet. All of these, as well as the Gresham’s school musicians gave unstintingly to the project. I was also encouraged immeasurably by the support of John Hurt, who agreed to narrate the film at script stage.
I was able to incorporate more factual detail, some of which has never been explored and interviews with people such as Joseph Horovitz, Sue Phipps and the remarkable Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker add considerable depth to the narrative.
To date, the film has been seen on 64 screens theatrically in the UK, including 14 of the Picturehouse cinema chain. It is due imminently to be released in German cinemas. It has achieved further broadcast sales in Mexico, Slovenia, Russia, Estonia, Croatia, Switzerland and Austria, with more to be confirmed after the Midem trade fair.
But in the UK? Unless you were able to see it at a cinema, ‘Peace and Conflict’ will only be available to you on DVD, released Monday 7th October. If we do very well with DVD sales we may just break even, if we don’t – we won’t. Do I regret going it alone? No – I made the film I wanted to make and I’m thrilled that it was part of such a wonderful celebration of Britten’s genius. Will I take future projects to broadcasters? Probably, but I do have concerns:
I don’t agree with Tony Palmer’s recent comments about the rudeness and arrogance of commissioning editors at the BBC – largely because I don’t seem to be able to get near enough to them to make a value judgement! (Some might say that Tony’s indictment is a little ironic). I also don’t necessarily agree that commissioners ‘would not know a good programme if it hit them in the face’. But it is the case that the recent increase in funding to Sky Arts is accompanied by a directive that ratings must be boosted – which is in direct contradiction to what Sky networks boss Sophie Turner Laing said in an interview only a couple of years ago. I think Sophie is very good news, but the core audience won’t be fooled by an increase in ‘star casting’ on the channel and film makers won’t be pleased by a further extension of the commissioning ‘hub’ whereby decision makers with limited experience of the arts are sometimes empowered beyond their remit.
I also worry that Tony Hall’s much vaunted announcement, due on Tuesday 10th October that there will be a substantial increase in BBC television funding for the arts may yet compromised by an increase in administration and a decrease in informed and impartial decision making. I would also contend that digging into the Shakespeare archives and piggy backing on to other institutions such as the National Theatre and the British Museum is emphatically not the same as creating an environment where original music and arts films can prosper. We shall see.
As for ‘Benjamin Britten – Peace and Conflict’, if people buy the DVD’s, we at Capriol Films will continue making passion fuelled projects until the forces of the ever more commercialised market finally force us out of the marketplace.
Tony Britten www.benjaminbrittenfilm.co.uk