Reach For the Sky

While woeful arts coverage on ITV and the BBC looks beyond saving, the two Sky Arts channels offer brave, and often unpredictable, film-making

Culture & Anarchy Music TV
Backing Britten: Sky has commissioned a new documentary on the composer by Tony Palmer

It is pretty unfashionable, with good reason, to praise Rupert Murdoch these days, but before we throw him completely into the wastepaper basket of history it may be well to remember two things. The first is that the national printed press would probably not have survived so long as it has had he not taken on, and beaten, the trades unions who, until the mid-1980s, thought that they ran it. The second, more recent, contribution he has made to our national life are the two Sky Arts channels, on his digital television service. ITV killed The South Bank Show a couple of years ago; the BBC still attempts to provide something like cultural programming on television, but does so in the teeth of spending cuts, political correctness and a misunderstanding on the part of some of its executives of what true culture actually is. Sky Arts seems not to have very much money either, but it does seem to have a catholicity of view that is refreshing, surprising and innovative.

The channel announced last month that one of Britain’s leading film-makers, Tony Palmer, would be making a new documentary for the network for next year, to mark the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. Mr Palmer’s new film is entitled Nocturne, and will deal with the darker side of Britten’s output, notably that substantial tranche of his works that deal with or touch upon death — notably the War Requiem, but also that early work of supreme genius, the Sinfonia da Requiem, written when the composer was 26 to mark the deaths, in quick succession, of  his parents. Sky Arts plans to show the new film as part of a trilogy of Mr Palmer’s work, the other two being his film of Britten’s Death in Venice and his multi-award winning documentary A Time There Was, made in 1979 at the invitation of Sir Peter Pears, and quite simply the best film that will ever be made about the composer.

Those two films are about to be reissued in a boxed set with two of Mr Palmer’s other Britten films: that of a behind-the-scenes audio recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace, and his very first work on the composer, Britten and his Festival, which dates from 1967; all are digitally restored. The first not only captures Pears in the lead role, but includes two other of the greatest interpreters of Britten, and two of the greatest voices of the last half-century — John Shirley-Quirk and the late Robert Tear. The second is the film of the original opening of Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1967 — it burned down, but was rebuilt and reopened within the subsequent two years — and so has the status of a historical document. It is an old cliché, but anyone remotely interested in Britten who does not already have these films should waste no time in obtaining them.

The commission by Sky Arts continues a relationship the channel has had with Mr Palmer, most notably in screening last June his epic film biography — it was 140 minutes long — of the life of Athol Fugard, the South African playwright and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner. The film — to be shown again in full on Sky Arts on October 27 at 9pm — not only includes extensive interviews with Fugard, who is the most-performed living playwright in the English-speaking world, but also extracts from many of his most notable plays. No mainstream network in Britain was interested in the film: which, given Fugard’s eminence and Mr Palmer’s international reputation (he has cabinets full of awards, including several Emmys) was a tragic comment on the assumptions television executives make about their audiences these days. South Africa is no longer a story in Britain: the great struggle is over there, and the same people who cheered on those who fought for liberty and democracy there are now disgusted or embarrassed by the violent, corrupt and increasingly primitive society that seems to have evolved there. When the time comes that South Africa is no longer out of sight and out of mind, perhaps its culture, and representations of it such as Mr Palmer’s Fugard film, will receive the attention and respect they merit.

The films on Britten, however, will not be buried, or have to wait for attention. The genius of A Time There Was lay in the way it captured the atmosphere of the closed circle of Britten and Pears in Aldeburgh; partly because of the use of location filming, partly because of the access Mr Palmer had to Pears and others who had been close to the composer, including members of his family; and partly because of the director’s implicit understanding of the genesis and message of Britten’s works. I was still in my teens when I saw its original broadcast on television over 30 years ago; it converted me from someone with a passing interest in Britten to one who yearned to hear more, explore more and learn more. It would be surprising if those yet to see the film for the first time, more than a generation after its premiere, did not find it had the same effect on them.

What, though, of the future of television as a medium for films about the arts? We passed through a golden age in the 1970s and 1980s, when Mr Palmer’s films were to be found on television, usually under Lord Bragg’s patronage on The South Bank Show, almost annually. Those days have gone. He made a superb film about Vaughan Williams, whose television premiere, on New Year’s Day 2008, was on Channel 5 before lunch. A subsequent relationship with the BBC was distressingly short, though it produced a ravishing film on Gustav Holst, shown last year: but the artistic disagreements between Mr Palmer and one or two BBC executives, who did not seem to understand the point of him in the way that Lord Bragg did, were well documented in the press.

That Sky Arts is prepared to back such film-making — film-making whose message might not always be predictable, and which cannot always be contained within the now, apparently, standard 47 minutes — is more than simply positive. Such films open the door to the wider world of culture that our education system no longer provides for. And for those of us who harbour the reactionary belief that broadcasters really are there to inform, educate and entertain, penetrating documentaries about the arts are essential to the process.