Much has been written and several documentary films made about Britten’s life and his long and successful personal and creative partnership with the tenor, Peter Pears. But little has been made of another, and in our view just as important element, his lifelong commitment to pacifism. From writing an essay at preparatory school decrying hunting and all organised violence, including war, to his being a conscientious objector during world war two, his performances with Yehudi Menuhin at Belsen and the supreme emotional statement of the War Requiem, a fervent espousal of pacifism was a constant throughout the sixty three years of his life.
Benjamin Britten – Peace and Conflict, is a feature length drama documentary which explores the way in which Britten’s pacifist beliefs developed from a young man’s curiosity about communism and its links with pacifism, to a gradual realisation that politicising the peace movement, at the time a reaction to the fascist threat, was for him, not the answer. This led to Britten’s adoption of what might be called a ‘pure’ pacifism, which informed so many of his compositions from the mid-nineteen forties onwards, culminating in the War Requiem.
This is a truly revelatory story, which is brought to cinematic life by depicting the core of the narrative dramatically; Britten attended Gresham’s School, in Holt, North Norfolk from 1928 to 1930, where, no doubt due to the unusually liberal attitudes prevalent at the school, a significant number of his contemporaries were exploring communism as a solution to the appalling inequality and hardship that so many of the working class were suffering. These boys were also concerned about the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain. Many of them became party members in the early thirties and Britten could not fail to be involved as he started his career, writing with and for a number of radical communist writers, composers and directors.
Informed by recent extensive and meticulous research, the dramatisation of this often overlooked, but crucial period of the composer’s personal and musical development is interwoven with a documentary narrative. This element consists of interviews, archive images – moving and still, some never before shown and contemporary art works, including new montages and installations. The narrative is spoken by legendary actor John Hurt and there are also several specially filmed contemporary performances of compositions influenced by the composer’s pacifist ideals and experiences.
The majority of the drama is shot at Gresham’s School, a crucial partner in the film which is providing not only locations, but logistics, extras and musical performers. The cast will be a combination of the cream of up-and-coming young actors and established artists.
With this film, we intend to make a significant contribution to the centenary celebrations of the greatest English composer since Henry Purcell.