Last year as part of Heritage Open Days, I accompanied the Northcott Theatre’s technical manager on a fascinating behind the scenes tour of the theatre building. This year I decided it was my turn to give you a sneak peek at the history of the building through some of the photographs and other materials held in the Northcott Theatre Archive.
Working on camera is a whole new experience for me (my colleagues know that I tend to try and keep out of shot!) so I hope you enjoy the video and can overlook the shaky presenting skills. Why not get in touch and share some of your own memories of the theatre with us in our comments section or on twitter @UoEHeritageColl.
[Due to size restrictions the video had to be uploaded in two parts. The second will start playing automatically after the first ends]
As an Archivist it is always a perk of the job to share our collections with a new audience. GCSE student Cate Horrell came on a tour as part of a placement and was kind enough to write us a short blog below about her impressions on visiting an archive for the first time.
While visiting the University of Exeter for work experience, I was lucky enough to be taken around the special collections archive. I’d never been to an archive before and I wasn’t even sure exactly what it would be like.
My first impression was that it was like the huge, historic libraries you see in films. I was shown around the archive, and I found the strong rooms particularly interesting. They hold some of the oldest and most valuable items; my favourites were an old atlas of England and Wales created by Christopher Saxton, and a first edition of Dracula. The books range from the beautiful, old style that have been bound in vellum to more modern books that look more like the typical ones we would read today.
The archive has a huge range of items, and I really enjoyed seeing some different examples of the kinds of things it stores. I also saw an old sketch book which had drawings of Devon in it, alongside an old theatre set plan and a case of glass photographic negatives.
I really enjoyed looking around the special collections archive and seeing some rarities. It was a new experience for me and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
Nicholas Toyne worked as a photographer for the Northcott Theatre from its first production until the mid 1980’s; capturing thousands of beautiful photographs from the first two decades of performances. His archive of negatives, donated to Special Collections, has now been fully catalogued as part of the Northcott Theatre Archive cataloguing project. The clips below share some of Nicholas’s reminiscences of his work at the Northcott in his own words.
Negatives from the Nicholas Toyne Archive (EUL MS 383)
Having worked as a stationary rep in London, Nicholas Toyne’s photographic business began when he moved to Devon with his wife Shan. Shan had previously worked for the BBC on schools broadcasts with Tony Church who was to become the first artistic director of the Northcott Theatre, and who offered her a job as Theatre Secretary. When the Northcott began looking for photographers Shan suggested that her husband should be part of the auditions and in the clip below Toyne describes a blind audition taking photos of a dress rehearsal for the Northcott’s first production “The Merchant of Venice” in 1967.
The process of photographing the Northcott Shows could be extremely demanding. In the early days Toyne often attended a number of rehearsals in order to identify the best scenes and positions for a shot but competing time pressures eventually meant he was forced to take photos during dress runs. In the clip below Toyne talks about his process of taking photographs and the fun of working with Tony Church.
Often staying in the theatre until midnight to get photos from the final dress run, Toyne’s job was then to process the photographs ready for display on the first night and use by the press. Below Toyne talks about the challenges of processing the images overnight in time for display for the first night of each production.
After an almost twenty year run as photographer for the Northcott, Toyne began to concentrate his photography business on other clients, such as his aerial photography for the National Trust, and the last negatives in the archive date from 1986. Despite the late nights and gruelling time frames Toyne remembers his work at the Northcott with fondness, and his enjoyment is clear from the beautiful images he achieved.
Keep your eyes peeled as work continues on our Northcott Theatre Cataloguing Project as we will be digitising a number of these negatives and making these fascinating glimpses of local theatre history available online for the public to view. You can explore the Nicholas Toyne Archive using our online catalogue here
The tradition of pantomime is hundreds of years old; thought to have originated in the 16th century Italian street theatre tradition of commedia dell’arte before spreading through Europe and gaining popularity in England by the mid 17th century. The 18th century saw the commedia character ‘the Harlequin’ emerge to precedence as the star of the pantomime, along with his wooden slap stick (a wooden bat which produced a loud smacking noise but little force, allowing actors to hit one another without injury). In the 19th century the 1843 Theatres Act lifted the restrictions on using spoken word in performances (previously only allowed in theatres with a royal patent) and allowed Victorian pantomime to flourish. The resulting addition of verbal dialogue, puns, social commentary and audience participation provided a format that would be recognised by many theatre-goers today. The 19th century also saw the gradual replacement of harlequinades with pantomime story lines taken from folk tales, fairy stories and nursery rhymes. Mother Goose is often hailed as the grand old dame of pantomime; with the story dating back to an ancient Greek legend. It first appeared in 1806 as ‘Harlequin and Mother Goose or The Golden Egg’, though bearing little resemblance to the story we know today. It may also be in the running for the most popular pantomime ever; being rumoured to have opened on Boxing Day 1806 and played for 92 consecutive nights! The modern version owes its origin to the 1902 version created for Victorian pantomime’s most famous dame: music hall star Dan Leno, who performed as the Drury Lane Theatre Royal’s pantomime dame for 15 years, from 1888 until his death in 1904.
In recent years the Northcott Theatre’s pantomime has become synonymous with Christmas for many theatregoers in Exeter, resurrecting the strong tradition of pantomime set by it’s predecessor. Exeter’s Theatre Royal often put on several pantomimes a year (the current view of pantomimes as specifically a Christmas show being a relatively recent development); in fact a search of our Theatre Royal playbills collection (EUL MS 202) shows 126 playbills for pantomimes performed between 1893-1953! However, despite this long history, the yearly pantomime is a relatively recent trend for the Northcott, which historically put on a family show or musical each year.
Theatre Royal playbill for Little Red Riding Hood (1900)
Theatre Royal playbill for Sindbad
After opening in 1967, the Northcott Theatre’s christmas show for it’s first two years (with a reprisal in 1975) was ‘Big Noise at Fortissimo’. This eclectic show followed the story of a troop of abandoned toy soldiers reclaiming their fort from the new toys that had taken it over, and was written by the Northcott’s writer-in-residence Bernard Goss and actor Paul Starr. These family friendly productions, part musical, part play, and with pantomime elements, continued with ‘The Adventure’s of Noah’s Ark’ and ‘The Fantastic Fairground’ (also by Bernard Goss) until Artistic Director Tony Church stepped down in 1971 and Jane Howell took the reins.
Jane Howell, Artistic Director from 1971-74, is often credited with the introduction of the Christmas musical production. This tradition began in 1971 with ‘Guys and Dolls’ and was continued by subsequent artistic directors. As with many of the Northcott’s early shows these musical productions often contain fun glimpses of famous faces early in their careers. If you look closely at the last two photos of ‘Guys and Dolls’ below you can make out a young Robert Lindsay playing the role of Benny Southstreet.
During the late 1970’s and 1980’s fairy tales and children’s stories began to become common choices for Northcott Christmas shows. Many of these shows revolved around the same fairy tales that form the basis for much loved pantomimes and. despite being primarily billed as family shows or musicals, many of these shows embraced some pantomime elements, particularly with regards to staging and illusion. Flying systems, trapdoors, elaborate scene changes and the perilous star trap are all used to contribute to the illusion and suspended reality of pantomimes; far from being a cheap show, pantomimes often have some of the most complicated and costly set design, and the smooth performance of scenes relies on perfect timing by both the actors and stagehands. Many of the stage plans and set designs in the Northcott Theatre Archive show a similar level of intricacy in these Christmas family shows and musicals, with complex sets used to create mystical lands. A quick look at these shows again reveals a number of famous names, with Raymond Briggs (creater of ‘The Snowman’) making his debut as a theatre designer for the Northcott’s production of ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ (1984). Sadly my personal Christmas wishes have failed to come true and the archive has so far failed to reveal a picture of Celia Imrie in what i’m sure would have been a seminal role as ‘The Christmas Pudding desirous of remaining in tact’ in ‘The Adventures of Alice’ (1976).
EUL MS 348 - Part of stage design plans for Peter Pan (1988)
EUL MS 348 - Programme for Toad of Toad Hall (1984)
EUL MS 348 - Extract from a programme for Toad of Toad Hall (1984)
EUL MS 348 - Programme for The Adventures of Alice (1976)
EUL MS 348 - Programme for The Adventures of Alice (1976)
Despite the pantomime elements of the Northcott Christmas shows in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, actual pantomimes were uncommon, with only two shows being billed as such before the 1990’s. The 1978 production of Cinderella has the honour of being the first Northcott pantomime, with all the traditional trappings including a principal boy, pantomime dames, a fabulous transformation scene for the ugly sisters, a real horse pulling a carriage on stage and Imelda Staunton starring as a sugar-wouldn’t-melt Cinderella. Despite a successful run, there would only be two more pantomimes performed at the Northcott in the next 17 years; Aladdin (1981), starring prominent black actor Thomas Baptiste as the Genie, and Sleeping Beauty (1990).
In 1991 John Durnin took over as Associate Director for the Northcott and the Christmas shows became firmly routed in fairy stories and folk tales. In 1996 Durnin wrote the book for the Northcott’s pantomime ‘Cinderella’, a success he repeated again the following year for ‘Jack and The Beanstalk’. After his departure in 1998 the new artistic director Ben Crocker, a graduate of the University of Exeter’s Drama Department, carried this on and the yearly tradition of the Northcott Christmas pantomime was born. From 1996-2009 a Christmas pantomime has been put on every year at the Northcott theatre with the books for these years usually having been written by John Durnin, John Crocker or Ben Crocker. A particular style of panto has emerged, helped by the long service of pantomime dame Steve Bennett. A local actor, Bennett has acted in many Northcott productions but began his career as a pantomime dame in the 1996 production of Cinderella, playing the dame each year until 2009, a consecutive run of 14 years, almost as long as famous Victorian pantomime dame Dan Leno.
With the Northcott Theatre being placed into administration in 2010 the yearly pantomime came to an end. It’s last outing, rather ironically, being that grand old dame of pantomime ‘Mother Goose’ (2009). But we end with a happily ever after as after after 6 years of absence the pantomime returned in 2016 with ‘Peter Pan’ under Artistic and Executive Director Paul Jepson, and even Steve Bennett has reprised his role as pantomime dame.
It’s Love Theatre Day and what better way to celebrate than delving into the Northcott Theatre archives…
In December 2007 the Northcott was about to re-open after a 2.1 million pound refurbishment when it was hit with a blow out of the blue: the Arts Council had recommended that it’s £547,000 funding package be withdrawn. Without this money the Northcott faced potentially having to close it’s doors not long after re-opening them.
Newsletter from December 2007 announcing the re-opening of the newly refurbished Northcott Theatre
Headlines covering the cuts to the Northcott Theatre's grant
In reaction to the news the theatre staff, local politicians, community groups, schools and the residents of Exeter and it’s surrounding towns mounted a ‘Save the Northcott’ campaign to show how much they loved their theatre and to persuade the Arts Council to reverse it’s decision. The records from the campaign are a poignant display of the theatre’s loyal audience: petitions comprising a total of more than 17,000 names were collected, along with hundreds of letters and emails written in support of the theatre. Theatre-goers from all over Devon, and many from further abroad, voiced their personal connections to the theatre, their support for it’s writing and acting talent, and their worry that one of the few professional theatres in Devon would be lost.
Save the Northcott campaign t-shirt
Book signed by 630 children supporting the Northcott Theatre
Book signed by 630 children supporting the Northcott Theatre
Tree from Save the Northcott campaign - each leaf has the reason why the Northcott is important to the writer on it
Living in Newtown Ward myself, I was particularly pleased to see a letter from Richard Branston, councillor for Newtown ward, to the chair of the Arts Council enclosing a petition which all but 12 of the ward’s residents had signed. A turnout of 99%. Local schools and community groups that worked with the theatre also collected their own petitions, with one group assembling a book in which 630 young children signed their names on stickers in support of the theatre. My favourite item in this part of the collection however, has to be a tree assembled out of leaves on which people have written what the Northcott means to them. A striking visual representation of the support for the theatre.
Though the Northcott Theatre has faced a number of challenges in it’s fifty years of productions it is clear from the collection that it has loyal supporters in it’s theatre-goers. Love Theatre Day is the perfect day to celebrate both the Northcott Theatre and those who love it; the theatre-goers of Devon.
Halloween may be over but i’m in the middle of an Archivist’s nightmare. Along with the other treasures in the Northcott Theatre Archives are 13 wallpaper sample albums crammed full of press cuttings. These albums are not only unwieldy due to their size, but many of the volumes have also had the cuttings taped onto sheets of plain paper which have then been taped into the albums.
As many of you will know, any kind of adhesive tape is a poor choice for long term preservation. The adhesive from the tape has stained the cuttings leaving brown discolouration and over the years the tape has dried out and many of the cuttings have come loose from the albums. At it’s worst this degradation has left us with some albums where there is simply a pile of loose cuttings in the front and in other cases the movement of the cuttings has caused significant creasing and tearing.
Staining from old tape and adhesive
The majority of the albums are not in a fit condition to be handled as they are without causing more damage and so the decision has been made to remove the cuttings from the albums where they are already coming loose. Once removed the cuttings will be stored in the order they were in the album (if this is still discernible) and the albums will be retained separately. It sounds simple but it’s delicate work and rather time consuming. With five albums completed I have enough loose tape in my bin to remake several rolls.
Loose tape from one album
The cuttings are a fascinating read: containing reviews and general news relating to Northcott Theatre productions, arts funding and other west country theatres, particularly the Plymouth Theatre Royal. The albums themselves are also incredibly interesting, I feel like I have taken a journey through wallpaper history in the past weeks. I’ve even recognised wallpaper from my parents house – further proof, if any were needed, that it’s time for them to redecorate. The presence of the albums is still a little bit of a mystery though. Were they simply a useful receptacle for the cuttings that someone happened to have lying around (perhaps from a second job moonlighting as an interior designer), or were they perhaps used by the set designers? The range is vast; spanning William Morris designs to the bobble textured wallpaper of the 1980’s and the office has had great fun revisiting the wallpaper highs and lows of the past. Only 8 more to go….
EUL MS 348 – Programmes from the Northcott Theatre Archive
It’s new cataloguing project time here at Special Collections and I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be cataloguing the Northcott Theatre Archive as part of our 21st Century Libraries initiative. It’s a fascinating collection spanning from the theatre’s opening in 1967, to its threatened closure in 2010. Quite simply, everything about it is appealing (alright, I’ll stop with the show tunes now!).
Exeter has a long history of theatre; with evidence of a possible Roman amphitheatre on Dane’s Hill. In 1721 the first regular theatre venue in Exeter opened in the Seven Stars Inn and a series of theatres followed (often destroyed by fire) until the Theatre Royal opened in 1889. Many Exeter residents still remember this theatre, which was demolished in 1962, and a small amount of records survive in the Northcott Theatre Archive relating to its productions.
EUL MS 348 – Printing plate for Theatre Royal jubilee production of Mother Goose
After the demolition of the Theatre Royal, G.V. Northcott was offered a site at Exeter University and the Northcott Devon Theatre and Arts Centre, as it was originally known, was established. The theatre opened its first production on 2nd November 1967, presenting The Merchant of Venice, which starred the theatre’s first Artistic Director Tony Church. The abolition of the official censor in 1968 enabled a new artistic direction and early directors fostered new writing talent. Edward Bond’s controversial play ‘Bingo’ was performed in public for the first time at the Northcott under Artistic Director Jane Howell. The theatre also fostered acting talent and many famous actors performed there early in their careers: including Honor Blackman, Celia Imrie, Robert Lindsay, John Nettles, Diana Rigg, Imelda Staunton and David Suchet.
EUL MS 348 – Production photographs by year from the Northcott Theatre Archive
In recent years the theatre has faced the threat of closure twice, in 2008 and 2010, both sparking community campaigns to save the theatre. On 5 June 2010 a new company was set up as the Exeter Northcott Theatre Company, formed with the University of Exeter, and the immediate future of the theatre is now more secure, with its fiftieth anniversary celebrations taking place last year.
EUL MS 348 – Tree from a campaign to save the Northcott Theatre with leaves written by the public saying what the theatre means to them
The archive contains a wealth of records relating to the Northcott’s productions and administration. Show files, prompt books, administrative records, programmes, posters, photographs, press cuttings, and much more illustrate the work behind bringing a production to the stage and the changing trends in theatre going. The archive is a wonderful piece of South West theatre history and I look forward to sharing more gems with you as the project progresses.
EUL MS 397/568 Programme for Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride 1965
EUL MS 397/10/1/4/23 Ronald Duncan with horses
EUL MS 397/1041 Schedule for Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride 1965
This weekend will see endurance riders from across Britain descend on Exmoor for the challenging Golden Horseshoe Ride. The first ride took place on 4th September 1965 supported by the Sunday Telegraph, British Horse Society and writer Ronald Duncan. Now in its 53rd year, having survived a serious threat to its future in 2016, we delve into the archives of the Ronald Duncan Collection to find out more about how the ride came into being.
Two letters held in the archive from 19 January 1965 show Duncan’s early impetus for the race. A letter to Colonel Mike Ansell of the horse society thanks him for an article on long distance riding (sent 9 December 1964) which Duncan claims “quite convinces me that the long distance race which I envisage could be undertaken”. Duncan clearly wasted no time in getting to work on the event as a draft letter asking for sponsorship for “an open annual event run over a distance of 100 miles, terminating at Welcombe” was composed the same day. By 16 June 1965 the Sunday Telegraph is involved, and on 1 August 1965 Duncan drafted a letter to a Mr Etheridge of the Sunday Telegraph proposing various points on the route. A hand written list of points on the route also survives.
EUL MS 397/1041 Letter from Ronald Duncan to Colonel Sir Mike Ansell (19 January 1965)
EUL MS 397/1041 Letter from Ronald Duncan asking for sponsorship (19 January 1965)
EUL MS 397/1041 Letter from Ronald Duncan to Mr Etheridge of The Sunday Telegraph (1 August 1965)
EUL MS 397/1041 Handwritten list of location points for the Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride
A number of drafts of material for publicity, entrance forms and programmes survive showing the evolution of the event; its name going through several iterations as The Welcombe Marathon Race, The Welcombe Long Distance Ride and The Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride. In addition, an Agenda for a meeting on 4 August 1965 concerning the ride also survives, complete with scribbled annotations. These documents show the decisions made on route, vet points, entrance fees and start dates, and all show the marked focus on horsemanship and animal welfare that continues in the ride today.
EUL MS 397/5/6 Annotated proof of prospectus for Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride
EUL MS 397/1041 Page from a draft introduction for Welcombe Marathon Race
EUL MS 397/1041 Page from a draft programme for Welcombe Long Distance Ride
EUL MS 397/1041 Page from a draft programme for Welcombe Long Distance Ride
EUL MS 397_1041 Annotated agenda for a meeting of the Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride committee (4 August 1965)
The first ride comprised on 120 riders with 80 reserves, mostly from the West Country, with some from Wales and the Midlands, nearly 2/3rds of whom were women, with a large number of the men coming from the armed forces. In 2018 there will be 260 riders taking part in more than 7 classes. A sight that I am sure Duncan would have been thrilled to see.
In a draft of Duncan’s introduction for the programme, he mentions the International Marathon Ride as one of the historical impetuses for starting the ride, and a typescript of an article by the Inspector of Calvary on The Grand International 1906 seems to bear this out. However, Duncan’s love of horses would also have been a large part of his motivation, particularly the Arab horses that he bred with his wife Rose Marie Duncan. This love of horses led to his connection with Colonel Sir Mike Ansell for whom he wrote ‘The Horse’ in 1964, which is still recited annually at the Horse of the Year Show. As with the Golden Horseshoe Ride, this poem still inspires horse lovers today and the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation receives many requests to use it in books, magazines, conferences, calendars, artworks and funerals.
EUL MS 397/1041 Draft introduction for Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride Programme
EUL MS 397/10/8/119 Photograph of Bunny Duncan with Ronald Duncan's favourite horse Dil Fareb
EUL MS 397/10/8/119 Reverse of photograph showing Dil Fareb's pedigree
Duncan explains his deep love of horses best in his programme introduction, stating “People sometimes ask my why, I as a poet should be so fond of horses? My answer is: a horse is a poem on four legs.”
‘The Horse’ by Ronald Duncan
Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
Here where grace is laced with muscle and strength by gentleness confined.
He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;
University of Exeter Special Collections is lucky to have a number of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. In this blog post our Volunteer Rhiannon McLoughlin talks about her experiences volunteering with the Ronald Duncan Collection.
When I say I work in a library people often respond with “Oh do you like reading?” Whilst I do like reading this doesn’t tend to be part of the job description! However, my time volunteering at Exeter University Special Collections during 2017 in order to gain some insight into the differences between library and archive work did, I am happy to report, involve a lot of reading.
When I found I was to work alongside Project Archivist Caroline Walter on the Ronald Duncan Collection I was intrigued as he is not an author I had come across before. Caroline kindly loaned me the first volume of his autobiography and I enjoyed getting to know this colourful character alongside the work.
I started out cataloguing the Ronald Duncan book collection. Cataloguing books for an archive is a far slower process than the new library books I normally deal with but can be much more fascinating. I found myself leafing through items looking for anything that made them singular – notes, dedications, markings, edition numbers, or inserts of letters, press cuttings, even a risqué postcard!
I was impressed by the wide variety of writings Duncan produced. Writer, poet, playwright, librettist and editor the collection shows his interests lay in many directions. As a Devonian I particularly enjoyed the local connection and could not help but stop occasionally to read bits and pieces about North Devon life. Whilst his former home and rented buildings may look idyllic now it sounded a far more hardy existence then in wartime and winter months. The tales of pouncing on items washed up on the beach particularly made me chuckle whilst his “Guide to housebuilding and smallholdings” and volume on tobacco farming demonstrated his determination to turn his hand to self-sufficiency.
The book collection contains not only his own writing career but writings and responses by others to his work- from letters in journals to student theses about him. There are works in progress, annotated books, proof copies and newsletters pieced together. There are a large number of different literary journals he contributed to and programmes for his plays. There are anthologies where his verse was included – “The site: choose a dry site…” seems a particularly popular choice. There are also items translated into other languages including Polish and Turkish and of course various musical scores and items relating to his work with Benjamin Britten.
I found some of Ronald Duncan’s self-published items by his own Rebel Press to be of especial interest. These are often short limited edition runs such as the volume “Auschwitz” with sobering illustrations and a volume of poems by Virginia Maskell under a pseudonym [Leaves of Silence by Simon Orme].
The book collection indicates the important relationships in Ronald Duncan’s life. Most copies of his own work are signed by him and many are also signed “desk copy” so were clearly his own personal copies – one amusingly “if anywhere else it was stolen”! But many of his books are variously inscribed to friends and family – including a multitude to his wife Rose Marie – usually loving inscriptions but some hinting at more challenging times in their relationship. A particular marker of his friendship with Gandhi are gifts of tiny books of silvery woody paper with Gandhi’s writings – one complete with woodworm holes spiralling throughout.
Once I had finished cataloguing the book collection I began to read through some of Rose Marie’s diaries in preparation for digitisation and also to sort photographs into archival wallets. Rose Marie’s diaries are written in a lively and readable style and give a real sense of the challenges of their North Devon lifestyle (including having the band Deep Purple stay in their rental property) and provide a further window onto Ronald Duncan’s work. Repackaging photographs offered pictures of their life I had been getting to know through words – family members, the house, the coast and their beloved horses.
I volunteered to get experience of archival work but found myself equally glad to have gained experience of Ronald Duncan. Working on this collection I got drawn in by the writing and whilst I found myself often having to record that there were signs of damp in the condition note of the books I rather liked the sense that gave of somebody working away at the edge of the sea in his little writer’s hut.
The 22nd of November 1963 was the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The first broadcast assassination of a world leader, the murder of the President of the USA at the height of the Cold War, this was the epicentre of a political and media cataclysm the resultant ripples of which are still present in our thinking.
The 22nd of November 1963 was also Benjamin Britten’s 50th birthday – occurring on the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Despite some public fanfare, Britten’s birthday must have been all but forgotten in the furore emerging from the USA.
In her diary entry for the day, Rose Marie Duncan, Ronald Duncan’s wife, noted both events:
‘Bunny rang up in evening to say Kennedy had been shot. State of shock and amazement and real sorrow – watched T.V – news etc – and also tribute for B[enjamin] B[ritten]’s 50th birthday – rather boring and sententious – shot of R[onald] in very long floppy shorts, going off to play tennis, flanked by Ben and Peter like warders.’
The next entry continues the connection in the most unexpected of ways:
‘Still upset about Kennedy’s death. Watched 1-0 news on TV – pictures of Mrs K and general mix up – also the assassin – looking like a young Benjamin B[ritten]!’ (Rose Marie Duncan, 1963 Diary, EUL MS 397/18/1/9)
At 50, and a year on from his completion of his seminal War Requiem, Britten was no longer the ‘promising young composer’ to whom Ronald Duncan had been introduced, probably in 1936, by his college friend Nigel Spottiswoode. (Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands, Rupert Hart-Davis 1964, p. 130) Facilitated by the interest of all three men in the Peace Pledge Union and by Spottiswoode’s involvement in the production of the GPO Film Unit’s enduringly popular Night Mail (for which Britten wrote the score), the introduction led to a fast friendship between the two writers and instigated a creative exchange that would interest them for the remainder of their careers.
The first buds of this exchange appeared in the form of the Pacifist’s March, a ‘youthful’ work which Britten apparently showed little interest in revisiting later in life; (Duncan, 1964, p. 131) their creative engagement blossomed more fully in the late forties, following Duncan’s intervention in the libretto for Peter Grimes. This period saw the creation of The Rape of Lucretia, which was swiftly followed by works including a wedding anthem (Amo ergo sum) for their mutual friends George Lascelles (Lord Harewood) and Marion Stein, and music for the plays This way to the tomb, Stratton, and The eagle has two heads. Not all of their ideas were to come to fruition, and it is tantalising to know of works that were never realised, including at least one opera (based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), a large work referred to in correspondence as St Peter, and a response to the bombing of Hiroshima (referred to as Mea Culpa), which Duncan lamented as the potential War Requiem that never was. (Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1992, pp. 242, 405; correspondence, Benjamin Britten to Ronald Duncan, EUL MS 397/644)
The traces of their friendship and collaboration kept in the Ronald Duncan Collection include photographs, libretti, news-cuttings, programmes, letters, copies of musical scores, and audio recordings including elements of the rehearsals for This way to the tomb. Amongst the more touching items is Lament for Ben (EUL MS 397/1046), a song contrafacted by Duncan from the trio of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A minor (No. 16, D. 845). Duncan underlaid the score in minute and heavily revised scrawl with a new poem lamenting the passing of his great friend, and signed it at the foot of the page ‘RD. 4.XI.76’ (Britten died on the 4th of December 1976, rather than the indicated November). The choice of Schubert is a poignant one: not only was Schubert Ronald Duncan’s favourite composer, but Britten himself performed and recorded a not inconsiderable number of Schubert’s works, and would play some of them for Duncan in the early days of their friendship. In his autobiography, All men are islands, Duncan wrote: ‘Britten and I were now constant companions. He used to play Schubert to me. I had been looking for Britten for ten years. Sometimes he would play Chopin, but it was Schubert that I would make him play over and over again.’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 132) And so, almost exactly forty years later, Duncan memorialised Britten through a piece that Britten may well have played for him in their youth.
The text of this appropriated song is barely legible in situ, but the poem Lament for Ben appears in the collected poems – albeit in a form that does not quite match the lyric so tortuously worked out under the musical score. Working from both the manuscript and the published poem, I have attempted to reconstruct this very personal tribute. In order to do so, I have blended the printed poem with that of the manuscript, adjusted one or two rhythms and word placements, and transposed the piece into a key more amenable to the average voice. Finally, I have made a recording of myself singing and accompanying the song to give a sense of what Ronald Duncan may have had in mind – possibly its first singing in any public sense.
And so, with apologies for the recording quality and my mid-November cold-filled voice, a musical offering from the Ronald Duncan collection in time for Britten’s birthday on the feast of St Cecilia: a song which, by coincidence, is not wholly inappropriate to the more lamentable events for which the date is sometimes remembered.
This post was written by our Digital Support Officer Andrew Cusworth.
Recorded in the Mary Harries Memorial Chapel, University of Exeter, with thanks to the chaplaincy and director of chapel music for permission for the use of the piano and chapel.
Lament for Ben (to Schubert’s Trio Opus 42)
Is life, this life, his life
now lost, was that a dream,
And death, a dream too?
Whose sleep, whose dream
Are we who live?
This death, his death
makes all of us die too.
His life was ours;
His death is ours;
We grieve, for whom?
We grieve for ourselves.
May Bach and Purcell
Bend down to this bier
But let music sing
to sing their song
Their song, their song
Though poetry’s dumb.
In this waste, this grief
these notes alone lend us
(Ronald Duncan, ed. Miranda Weston-Smith, Collected poems, Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003, pp. 226-7)
An adapted score for Ronald Duncan’s ‘Lament for Benjamin Britten’ set to the Trio from Schubert’s Piano Sonata D845
Why not try playing it for yourself?
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