This year seems rather rich in anniversaries – or perhaps I’ve just noticed more of them – though I am still awaiting the JFK, Doctor Who and Benjamin Britten cross-over for which we are so obviously crying out.
Britten, of course, had a productive working relationship with W H Auden through much of the 1930s, so, it is perhaps not surprising that I encountered the pair of them twice over a (long) weekend.
The first encounter was at Turner Sims and covered rather a large number of my interests in a single gig. We had Britten’s music, the Aurora Orchestra, Auden’s words and the films of the GPO Film Unit – all topped off by the wonderful voice of Samuel West. I am far more likely to watch a TV documentary – regardless of subject matter – if Mr West is providing the voice over. I’m not sure what it is about his voice – there’s nothing obviously showy, but it is truly one of the greats. As a child of radio, I am a fan of a good voice – and that same weekend watching the final episodes of Fringe (a consistently entertaining, if barmy, series) reminded me of what a stunning voice Lance Reddick has (if I had such a voice, I’d be disappointed not to be ruling a significant portion of the earth’s surface).
Some of the films were splendidly dated with some of the most stilted “acting” you will ever see, but others were wonderfully fresh: a silhouette animation to sell Post Office savings was glorious (current advertisements couldn’t hold a candle to it – though may well be more successful at selling stuff). It was a truly great night out – it even offered a special Britten centenary beer in the interval – but provided almost too much to take in at a single sitting. It was also rather bittersweet as one film was about the coal industry (now virtually gone, but once a huge employer of men), another about electrification of the line to Portsmouth (with many references to the shipyards which had just received their death notice) and Night Mail (when the post was delivered by train).
The GPO was once a staggering organisation – it was heavily involved in the development of radio and made films which commissioned some of the country’s finest artists in the 1930s. When I was a boy, it still ran the phone service and a bank. Gradually, successive governments have whittled it away until the current incumbents recently ended 173 years of public service by flogging it off (for well below its market value) – what an ignominious end to organisation which has brought us so much. Monolithic organisations have their issues (the lack of a second stone, for one), but I wonder if we have thrown rather too much of the baby out with the bath water and will live to regret it (as we have following so many badly organised privatisations over the years).
My second encounter with the Auden-Britten axis was at the cinema, in my second play beamed “live” from the National Theatre. This was Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art – provisionally titled AB – dating from 2010 with the late, great Richard Griffiths playing Auden and Alex Jennings playing Britten. The aspect ratio seemed a little odd, but the play and performance more than justified the recommendation that had sparked my attendance. This is the third play Bennett has written for the National which I have seen, and if he chooses to write any more I shall try and see those too.
Southampton may not have quite the cultural scene of Cambridge – though may be rather better served for the DJ scene (and other young people’s music, much of which is an arcane mystery to an old codger like myself) – but there is still a lot going on locally and it’s a joy when I can be home less than 15 minutes after the (often metaphorical) curtain comes down.