John Bridcut’s Dame Janet Baker documentary

Full disclosure: I’m a John Bridcut fanboy. I admire the documentary maker’s interviewing technique (the way he asks short questions and then holds the space for the respondent to think before speaking) and his resolute unapologetic approach to telling the story of classical music master practitioners.

The recent Dame Janet Baker documentary is a prime example. In the 90 minute exploration of the mezzo’s life, work and early retirement, Baker reflects on formative childhood events and key points in her career via a series of honest and sometimes challenging pieces to camera that do much to present the classical music in a much-needed authentic light.

Within the first ten minutes she articulates the experience of live performance so succinctly that one wonders why, given that classical music is in the ascendancy, no one else is saying the same thing to sell the genre. Answer: Baker and Bridcut May get it and are clearly unapologetic about it, but the industry as a whole is still cautious about scaring newcomers away. In this way, the Baker documentary reveals the distance we have to go to before classical music is written about authentically in the mainstream (where it needs to be).

That resistance or nervousness was what I thought was behind not making a big deal about the doc in the run-up to broadcast. Compared to the largely disappointing ‘Our Classical Century’, Bridcut’s work documents Baker’s life and represents classical music and opera with integrity. Perhaps not flagging Bridcut’s documentary was a way of not drawing attention to how OCC could be seen as lacking editorially.

But having watched to the end of the documentary I’m wondering whether there might have been another reason. Avoiding spoilers is key here if you’ve not seen it, but given the programme’s deeply touching conclusion I now wonder to heavily publicise such an emotional story might have invited criticisms of crass insensitivity.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve not seen it then consider this the pre-publicity for your viewing. Watch it. It will make you cry.

Review: Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages on BBC Four

I’m a big fan of John Bridcut’s documentaries. Deferential but never self-indulgent, Bridcut’s finished work treats audience and artist with equal respect.

The strong rapport between producer and contributor yields a willingness on the part of artists to share observations with ease, away from the conventional interview set-up. This combined with lingering audio tracks normalises the privilege of the behind-the-scenes access he and us have been granted.

Kaufmann is an affable contributor too, casting himself in the role of a good friend who we’ve dropped in to see at his place of work first, and opera singer second. In this way Bridcut avoids the temptation of cloying obsequiousness when referring to Kaufmann or opera. So far so good.

There is a lot of showing rather than telling that offers insights into the world of an opera singer. The risks of singing with a damaged voice are laid bare. This back-story makes the quality of the man’s voice even more precious when we hear it, especially during the Barbican residency rehearsal footage.

Some time is also spent explaining and defending Kaufmann’s active style in rehearsals where convention would otherwise dictate the conductor takes the lead.

The documentary has a lighter feel compared to the weightier Colin Davis tribute, or the brilliant Britten’s Children and Britten’s Endgame. It’s an interesting portrait of a captivating man whose personality combined with John Bridcut’s trademark documentary style, effortlessly demystifies the genre.

But, the Kaufmann doc lacks a driving question. I end up feeling a little like I’ve flicked through somebody’s photo album, rather than having immersed myself deep in a topic. I’m not quite sure whether that’s because there’s not much else to say about Kaufmann, or whether there wasn’t too much being given away by him.

The Proms sequence in particular jarred ever so slightly. Kaufmann’s appearance at the Last Night in 2015 for example felt like the focus slipped from the tenor to the BBC in a bid to underline the Corporation’s commitment to opera and classical music. Popular as the Last Night of the Proms is, I remain unconvinced that his brief appearance is as important a highlight in the man’s career as perhaps the BBC would like to think. Here it felt like the BBC was insisting it promoted itself.

And on a personal note (and this has nothing to do with the documentary, more to do with the person in the sequence), I am not sure I have felt quite so uncomfortable watching a Kaufmann fan ask whether she could just stand and look into his eyes. Kauffmann was charming as you’d expect him to be. I’m not I would have been able to muster it.

John Bridcut’s Jonas Kaufmann documentary deftly introduces newcomers to a range of operatic repertoire, demystifying it and those who perform it at the same time. Kaufmann lights up the screen with infectious enthusiasm and a hearty laugh. There are flashes of vulnerability that make the man adorable, and a down-to-earth nature a refreshing presence too.

BBC-restrictions stated content relating to John Bridcut’s Kaufman could only be published on the day of broadcast. This meant that only an early cut of the documentary was made available for review. It may well be that some sequences have subsequently been changed before broadcast. 

Watch the Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages on Sunday 14 October 2017 at 9pm on BBC Four, and for 30 days after that on BBC iPlayer.


Britten’s Endgame / John Bridcut / Crux / BBC

John Bridcut’s much-anticipated second documentary entitled Britten’s Endgame about Benjamin Britten focuses on the last years of the composers life, analysing the music of the period and detailing out the composers ill-health and eventual death.

Brimming with personal anecdotes from a variety of contributors including Colin Matthews (Britten’s assistant), Derek Sugden (Snape Maltings Concert Hall designer), Sue Phipps and for the first time, Rita Thomson (the composer’s nurse), the documentary should at the very least warm the cockles of any Aldeburgh fan’s heart. These are some of the last remaining individuals who had personal connections with the man and who can as a result throw light on what he was like and how he worked. Similarly, John Shirley-Quirke and Dame Janet Baker’s recollections are valuable and entertaining.

John Graham-Hall reprises the role of Aschenbach in a special series of extracts recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra for Britten’s Endgame.

The explores Britten’s last full-scale opera Death In Venice, and cuts first hand accounts with a studio-based part green-screen performance of extracts from the work with John Graham-Hall playing the lead role Aschenbach accompanied by the BBC Concert Hall conducted by Paul Kildea.

Many of the more amusing anecdotes present in the documentary have been heard before – most recently during Kildea’s recent discussion with Nick Higham at Southbank during The Rest is Noise Festival Britten Weekend. Similarly, the drawn-out coda detailing Britten’s failing health borrows heavily from Humphrey Carpenter’s similarly detailed account published in 1992. By the end of the two-hour documentary – it probably could have been an hour and a half – there was a real sense that there is really very little else to discover about Britten and as a result very little to say about him either.

Endgame – despite its musical backdrop and beautiful photography – doesn’t live up to its sister documentary Britten’s Children. But there’s some previous unseen footage of the composer, Pears and Aldeburgh which delights and a good serving of audio featuring the man himself which is engaging too.

Britten’s Endgame is broadcast on BBC Four during the weekend of 16/17 November 2013

This review was based on a public viewing at the BFI in mid-October 2013. Further theatrical screenings are scheduled in November, including one at Aldeburgh.  

John Bridcut’s Sir Colin Davis With Love: In His Own Words on BBC Four

John Bridcut’s tribute to conductor Sir Colin Davis who died in April is a touching addition to the former’s impressive filmography.

At times, Davis’ contributions show the 84 year old conductor as tired, aware of what was to come. In other moments, the man’s trademark charm, self-deprecation and momentary irascibility showed him as someone unlikely give up the fight willingly, unless it was immediate.

This was a three-dimensional profile which trounced many of the lazy narratives trotted out in a lot of obits at the time of his death: Davis wasn’t always an affable inspiring leader who had left his arrogance behind as he approached old age. Even in this final interview, there were moments of impatience, frustration and – albeit when referencing Britten and the critical response he received from the composer in response to Davis’ Peter Grimes – flashes of arrogance which contrary to what the conductor claimed, hadn’t been subdued with age.

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