What made the BBC want to show a series of eight of our portrait films rather a long time after they were made?
What made the BBC want to show a series of eight of our portrait films rather a long time after they were made?
There are several reasons and, happily, all of them seem to me to be good ones.
It begins with the fact that these films were both pioneering and very successful when they were new and the success came partly because they were so VERY new.
There had never been anything like them before because the cameras required to shoot such films had never previously existed. Those cameras started a new genre of film and the impact was far reaching.
That is how it happened that we came to make a whole string of portrait films with super-talented young musicians before they ever became known to the general public?
In fact, it was these films and television which MADE them known to the big public.
Historians reject the idea of historical accident but if David Findlay (Lighting Cameraman), Peter Heelas (Film Editor) and I had not found each other, by pure accident: no, more than that, by a sequence of the most unlikely events, and then, on top of it, found ourselves in exactly the right place at the right time in history, none of this would have happened. We were spectacularly lucky to be there at that time.
There were four new things in the world and they all played a part.
First, television was young, energetic, enthusiastic, full of hope that it could do something of real value for the arts in general and for music in particular.
Why music in particular? Because music is both aural and visual and that offers wonderful possibilities for lively television. Some of the best - occasionally - and some of the best remembered.
Second, that new camera had just been invented: a lightweight, silent - silent, please note - 16 mm camera which made it possible to follow musicians into places where the camera had never BEEN before and to put images on the screen that had never been THERE before, neither in the cinema nor on television: scenes that had previously been the exclusive, private, preserve of the most gifted musicians and their most intimate friends. And what these people do in the enjoyment of their gifts can be riveting stuff, even for people who have never been to a concert in their lives. We have suitcases full of letters in evidence of that.
That intimacy was dynamite and through television it brought more new people to music than anything else had ever done before. Hallelujah!
These films alone have brought hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, to music for the first time in their lives.
Third, a new generation of musicians appeared also young, energetic, enthusiastic, ebullient and different in kind, quite unlike their predecessors, at least in their relationship with the camera.
Fourth, we were young, energetic, enthusiastic and full of hope and, as far as I can tell, we have not yet grown old.
We thought that we were in the difficult pioneering years and we were right. We thought that everything would soon get better. We were wrong. They got steadily worse. The early years turn out to have been the golden years. We several times made films which started life on BBC2 and were repeated on BBC1 in the middle of the evening. On one occasion within a month of the first broadcast on BBC 2 and BBC1 was immensely proud of its achievements. Immensely proud. Can you imagine that today? No!
Because of that very unusual constellation of circumstances we were able to make a kind of film that had never been made before and it would not have been possible to make a film of that kind with the older generation anyway. One cannot imagine a film with Sir Malcolm Sargeant beginning like any one of our early films?
The first of them began with a shot of Daniel Barenboim jumping on Vladimir Ashkenazy's back backstage at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon immediately after that first concert together. They had played Mozart's concerto for two pianos with the English Chamber Orchestra and we made a film about it called Double Concerto.
That film began life on BBC2, thanks to David Attenborough, and was repeated on BBC 1. Our second film started with Jacqueline du Pré, in a train on the way to Gatwick airport, singing a French folk song and accompanying herself, pizzicato, on the cello. That film was also broadcast on both BBC 2 and BBC 1 within a short space.
Those scenes were dynamite in 1966. We are now accustomed to seeing footballers leaping on each other in excitement, but not in those days and, certainly, nothing like that had ever appeared in a music programme before.
We were having fun, and it showed. There is nothing more important in film making of this kind than intimate knowledge of the subject and affection for it. THAT is what enables the film maker to be in the right place at the right time - and that, in turn, governs everything that follows. It also enabled us to create an atmosphere in which the musicians could, quite unashamedly, play up to the camera while still being true to themselves. The most extreme example of it is the famous backstage scene from our Trout film with Jacqueline du Pré doing an imitation of Pablo Casals playing Jazz on the cello and then Zubin Mehta and Itzhak Perlman playing the opening of the E minor Mendelssohn concerto together on a single violin.
All this was new in the world and nothing like it had ever been seen on television before. It has not lost its charm. On its eighth broadcast in Germany, 25 years after it was made, it gained the biggest audience figures of all music programmes broadcast on the Arte Network during the whole of that year.
In fact, with the years, these films have acquired two additional qualities which they did not have when they were new. An historical quality and the quality of nostalgia.
More than that, as Itzhak Perlman said recently, they have become the emblems of a time in music that has gone - and seems to be forever gone.
But there was more to it than just the fun. We very soon discovered that
with the invention of those silent cameras film had become capable of remembering our artists, of remembering the artistic personality - of remembering the artistic persona - which is such an essential ingredient in the alchemy - in a way that had not only never been done before but in a way that not one of the other media is quite able to match. That was the most significant element in the new equation and it had real historical significance.
We are in the audiovisual age, for good or ill. As we know there is much about it that is lamentable, people are reading less and less, and that seems to be shortening their attention span but the process, for the moment at least, seems to be irreversible and what WE have tried to do is to use it for something worthwhile, BECAUSE film can tell us so much about the artistic spirit. Something famously ephemeral and paradoxically famously enduring.
You cannot adequately describe it but you can film it.
What would we give now to see a really well-made film with Wolfgango Amadeo Mozart or Johannes Brahms or Niccolo Paganini or Franz Liszt or a host of others from the past. If we want to know what they were like as people or as artists we have to read what somebody else thought in a book or in a fiction film. If we want to know what sort of an artist was Jacqueline du Pré, 35 years after she stopped playing, there are five films with the real person which keep her art alive in the world in a way that was never before possible in history. That is quite something.
And so the first film in the BBC series is a film called Jacqueline du Pré And the Elgar Cello Concerto. It begins in colour with an account of what she did after multiple sclerosis abruptly halted her glorious career at the age of 28. Can you imagine that? 28. The film then continues in black and white, (which seems actually to enhance the historical nature of the material). It continues as a typical Allegro portrait of a young artist but it ends with a complete performance of the Elgar cello Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim in a live performance - with not a single note retaken. That was something which the BBC told me could not be done. I quote Humphrey Burton, "Christopher you cannot combine documentary and performance. It has never been satisfactorily done".
You never know what's around the corner and you never know what you can do until you try ! That film won DVD of the Year Award (Documentary Category) at Midem in Cannes three years ago and that performance of the Elgar concerto has already passed into legend.
It was also SHOT live, very dangerous, there were no backup tapes in those days and it was the first time that I had ever directed live television cameras, (as distinct from shooting on film and cutting in the cutting room) - but we were all inspired by Jackie. I really mean that. Even the crew came and said that to me, quite spontaneously, and they were still saying it 6 weeks later when I bumped into any one of them at BBC Television Centre.
Jacqueline du Pré brought out the best in every body and every thing that she came into contact with. I was there, I saw it for 26 years and I was holding her hand when she died.
There is not much to be said about that performance of the Elgar Cello concerto. In fact the more one tries to say, the more one is likely simply to reduce it but how could one ever forget that face in the closing bars of that melancholy music?
It goes without saying that since the series runs for eight hours I can give you a fleeting idea of what it is all about but I hope that one thing will be clear when the series is broadcast, just how different the films are from each other as the Oxford philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin was the first to see. Even we were not properly aware of it until he pointed out because it seemed natural to us that the films should all be different.
The reason is that we build our films around what the artists give us. We do not build them on ideas or plans or treatments. We have made more than 80 productions and never once made a serious treatment. That has given us a bit of what the South Africans call uphill with broadcasters from time to time and the more so as the broadcasters have become more and more nervous and manager-ridden. Television was not nervous like that when it started - nor should it be. Hugo von Hoffmannsthal once said that strength in art is with the joyous, if ever there was a proof of how that can be so, it was in the early days of television.
In any case ideas are 10 a penny. Huw Wheldon, the best man that British television ever had, once said to me that in his opinion, 40 top quality ideas are born in the BBC every week but he could remember no week in the preceding 25 years that had seen the broadcast of more than three top quality programmes. And that, he said, was a very good week.
It's all in the making. It is not in the plans or the treatments.
Fellini taught me that if filmmakers know what they are doing the film itself will tell them what to do, not some plan hatched in advance of the event or some treatment made for a manager. That was just about the most helpful thing that we ever learned. The film will tell you what to do. But you have to watch out and you have to watch very carefully and you have to know your craft.
And so next in the series comes something completely different and much of it completely unplanned but with Jacqueline du Pré 's very dear friend, Pinchas Zukerman. In some ways he was the closest to her because he is a string player and because they had an uncanny musical communication that neither of them could ever explain. To this day Pinchas says that he is in awe of something that seemed like telepathy. Quite beyond rational explanation.
Most of the opening sequence of Pinchas Zukerman: Here to Make Music was unplanned. It was shot at Caesarea in Israel and it was much too cold for fiddle playing which is why Pinchas was wearing David Findlay's kangaroo skin coat with one of the sleeves coming off. And it certainly was not planned that John Maskall should get his finger caught in the clapper board which added a useful laugh at the beginning of the film. You never know what is going to happen next in filming of this kind and you have to remain open to the winds of change.
We couldn't have Pinchas Zukerman without his friend Itzhak Perlman even if only because so many people mix them up. Both have been harangued by enthusiastic fans telling them how much better they were than the other and the devoted fan was actually talking to the wrong one. That was the extent of the mix-up. They were both born in Israel, both studied with Ivan Galamian and both at the Juilliard School, both won the Leventritt Award and both lived at 173 Riverside drive so its not surprising despite their manifest and very striking differences but it was worth trying to put the record straight. And so next in the series comes Itzhak Perlman: Virtuoso Violinist (I know I played every note).
The whole of the opening sequence of that film was not only unplanned but came about by real accident - or real mistake. One of the best camera assistants that we ever had, Fred Bagwell, somehow managed to put the wrong gears in one of the cameras and so the film in that camera was running at the wrong speed and would not synchronise with the other camera or with the sound track. We had to invent the whole of that sequence just to get out of trouble. You can never know where a film of this kind is going to lead you and it your treatment seduces you into thinking otherwise, you are heading for big trouble.
And we couldn't have Itzhak Perlman without Vladimir Ashkenazy with whom he played so many memorable concerts and made so many famous recordings. And so next in the series comes Vladimir Ashkenazy: The Vital Juices Are Russian which will be included in our next DVD release Vladimir Ashkenazy Master Musician which comes out on the first of October, on our own label, (The Christopher Nupen Films).
After Ashkenazy come two more Russians, putting the Rusky total in the series up to three. Evgeny Kissin: The Gift of Music.
I can't say that this film introduced Kissin to the big public as some of the earlier films did but when it was shown in France, in two parts on consecutive Sundays, his French agent said to me, "Christopher, you have transformed him in the space of a week from a famous pianist into a national hero" That is television when it really gets going.
Watching Kissin in close-up with the camera only a metre from the end of the keyboard in a live, public performance (you can only do that with friends who really trust you) is a breathtaking experience. What did I say earlier about how riveting these gifts can be on film? It is almost unbelievable, even when you see it. I do hope that when we all finally get to heaven or hell, we will be given an opportunity to film Franz Liszt himself playing that piece of his.
After Evgeny Kissin comes a film in two parts on two consecutive Fridays with another Russian and the only artist in the series who is not young. On the contrary he is spectacularly old but in the film he plays, at the age of 82, better than most of the world's leading violinists are able to play at any age.
If that sounds exaggerated to you believe me that that is what the musicians think. Isaac Stern, was once asked to comment on the fiddle technique of this Russian and he said, "That's not technique, that's radar"
Nathan said that he never understood what Isaac was trying to say.
Nathan Milstein was described by Harold C. Schonberg, America's leading critic at the time of Nathan's death, as perhaps the most nearly perfect violinist of the 20th century and his career spanned 73 years of that century. Perhaps the longest in the history of top level fiddle playing. He was admired by every leading musician in the world but not widely known to the big public because he never once did a single act of publicity in the whole of his life. His mother told him, when he was eleven, that if be publicised himself he would taint his art and he remained true to that injunction throughout the whole of his career.
I admired him for it but, when he died, I realised that in the world as it is now, that was a mistake. When Yehudi Menuhin died there was a whole big affair in Westminster Cathedral with thousands of people. When Nathan Milstein died there were only about 20 of us and I gave the address, not some big shot from the establishment.
When I asked him to make the film with us he said, " I don't make publicity" and refused. It took me three years of Sunday afternoon teas to persuade him that it was not publicity but a gesture to his public and a gift to posterity. I wish I had space to tell you HOW I persuaded him, because it is a very entertaining story, but it's a bit too long for here.
Getting to know him intimately is one of the great benedictions on my life and I thank the gods that Nathan Mironovich Milstein, who has left this world, lives on in these films because he did almost nothing for television in the whole of his 73 year career.
Finally, and hot from the press, a new film in the style of the first five in the series. A new film that took us seven years to shoot.
I met Karim Said, through Daniel Barenboim, when Karim was 11 and saw a chance to make the first film ever to follow the development of an exceptional musical talent from childhood to early maturity. That seemed to me to be something worth trying to do - BECAUSE film remembers our artists as nothing else can do and because I was so taken by both his music and his personality.
He is not a Wunderkind like Kissin or Zukerman, he is much more like Edwin Fischer or his mentor Daniel Barenboim, I am not talking about the LEVEL of his achievements. I am talking about the musical character.
The film was chosen to open the Palermo Festival and competition, on the twentieth of July, just a few weeks ago, where it won a prize but that is not the best of it.
What matters much more is that when Karim played his Italian debut recital on the following evening, the 21st of July, in a 12th century cathedral of much splendour, he played to an audience of more than 900 people. The first appearance in Italy of a totally unknown 19 year old Jordanian pianist and, because of the film, he played to an audience of more than 900 people.
But that is STILL not the best of it. He is a true performer and he rose to the occasion like a master. He played at the highest level which he has ever achieved - as he had never played before - and I have been watching intently for 8 years. When I said that to him, afterwards, he replied, "Yes, it felt different."
And then, at the end, three quarters of that audience gave him a standing ovation - because of what he had given them.
That was a most wonderful moment.
That is what can happen if the artist really has something to say and the filmmakers really know their craft and really care.
He is still in his first year at the Royal Academy of Music in London but is already playing some important concerts, including first piano in the Mozart triple concerto in Berlin recently with Daniel Barenboim playing third piano and conducting from the keyboard.
And so we hope to make a sequel. All we have to do is to persuade the BBC and find a sponsor. Help us if you can.
I do not want to say anything about the film itself except to say that in it Karim appears, in the space of an hour at the ages of 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17.
Not so easy.
© Christopher Nupen, 18 September 2008