18 June 2012

Review of Britten Films, Aldeburgh Festival

By Rachel Sloane

Britten Films at The Aldeburgh Festival, Snape  Maltings Concert Hall.

14 June 2012
“It was brilliantly done – and it is so nice to come to something so different!”  was the comment from an audience member  – and which I definitely agreed with. It isn’t often that you sit in Snape Maltings Concert Hall and watch on a giant screen 1930’s documentaries that were often really marketing films, with a top actor narrating, five percussionists undertaking all the sound effects and live musicians and singers performing soundtracks that were written by one of England’s top composers. 
Benjamin Britten was only 21 years old when he first began writing the music for the short documentaries that the GPO film unit produced; films that were destined for cinemas across the country. 
As with many of these black and white films The Night Mail (the only film I was familiar with) includes the poetry of W.H. Auden. Aldeburgh Music had arranged for actor Samuel West to put the films into context and be the narrator, reading the poetry and voicing the words of some of the characters on screen, lip-synching brilliantly. Conductor, Nicholas Collon, ensured that narration and music accurately kept pace with the film.
Night Mail tells the story of the steam train that ran between London and Glasgow with teams of postal workers on-board sorting the bags of post ready for delivery. The pace of the music and poetry gradually increases as the train gathers speed. Apparently this was a challenge even to the original narrator – and he had the luxury of being able to record re-takes. Samuel West had to get it right first time – and did!
At the Aldeburgh Festival production nine films were shown, including one about producing a new stamp (The Kings Stamp), with some sobering statistics of a long-gone industry (Coal Face), the slave trade (Gods Chillun), the electrification of a railway line (The Way to the Sea) ….and The Tocher, a delightful cartoon with dancing fairies that made the audience laugh aloud as it ended with the princess’s hand in marriage acquired by her suitor with the timely production of a Post Office savings card! 
Soloist Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, choirs (Aldeburgh Voices and the Jubilee Opera Chorus,) plus the twenty-odd musicians from Aurora Orchestra, obviously enjoyed the challenge of such an unusual musical performance excelling in the split-second timing involved.  
The films showed a long-gone era when there were horse and carts, men in caps and braces …and no-one had heard of reflective jackets or health and safety laws.  
In the audience we laughed when a “Mr Cholmondley -Warner” (the Harry Enfield  character) delivered his lines on screen in the 1930’s stilted style, were fascinated by the team of percussionists producing the sounds for the films,  synchronising their moves around the instruments and props like a ballet….. and we all held our breath when, as the unstoppable film, orchestra and choirs continued, Samuel West found, with seconds to spare, a missing page of script. 
A brilliant evening for music lovers, film buffs and historians, I decided that whatever Samuel West or Nicholas Collon were paid – it wasn’t enough! What an amazing feat by all concerned. A live concert like Britten Films may happen rarely but is definitely worth seeking out if it is ever repeated. 
Rachel Sloane (This review was written for www.onesuffolk.co.uk)