Review: Britten Films; Snape Maltings; Aldeburgh Festival; June 14

The work of the GPO Film unit under John Grierson in the mid 1930s is well known and rightly celebrated and it certainly helped Britten’s development as well as spreading his name. This splendid and fascinating concert brought together Aldeburgh Voices, Jubilee Opera Chorus and Aurora Orchestra with Samuel West as narrator, all under the assured baton of Nicholas Collon.

Naturally Britten’s music was a major feature of the evening but the quality and purpose of the film making was equally absorbing and rewarding. Perhaps even more profound and sobering at the end of the evening was to realise how much – and how irrevocably- Britain has changed in those 75 years.

The Men behind the Meters was made by the British Commercial Gas Association and Britten composed two short movements, the second an uneasy waltz already foreshadowing the piano concerto.

Coal Face proved particularly interesting, not least for its from-another-era statistics, 750,000 employed in the coal industry in 1935, 137,000 in South Wales. Britten used the piano and percussion to excellent effect to mimic the sounds of cutting and winding gear and when the film turned to the mining village he produced a chorus remarkably prescient of the Borough in Grimes and well sung by Aldeburgh Voices.

God’s Chillun, a more ambitious piece about the Slave Trade was Britten’s first major collaboration with WH Auden. It looks somewhat dated in parts today but involves a setting of songs by William Blake, well sung by Joanna Forbes L’estrange.


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Night Mail needs no introduction or comment other than to applaud Samuel West for coping splendidly with the tongue-twisting ‘letters for the rich, letters for the poor….’

The second opened with a fascinating short piece of pacifist sentiment which was originally banned by the censor. Tocher made an amusing case for the PO Saving’s Bank and Sixpenny Telegram did as the title suggested. The King’s Stamp, a rather sprawling film gave Britten more trouble than any other commission but elicited some fine ideas, particularly in the music to accompany the stamp manufacture.

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By the time of their final collaboration on ‘The Way to the Sea’ both Auden and Britten had gained in confidence and were able to treat the electrification of the London-Portsmouth Railway with a degree of wry detachment and off-beat humour.

Full marks are due to the concert planners and all performers and technicians for this superb evening, highlighting a long-gone era but memorably captured by its brilliant contemporaries.

Gareth Jones

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