Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dudley Moore: Little Miss Britten

In the 1960s and 1970s it must have seemed clear that the two most important figures in the cast of Beyond the Fringe were Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. Miller was in demand all over the world as a director of plays and operas, and Cook was an acknowledged comic genius.

The picture is not so clear now.

Miller is not much heard of now, and when he was interviewed by Radio 4 at the Millennium as a Great Man, he had no wisdom to impart. He seemed to be the eternal student, still picking holes in the question to show how clever he was.

Though Cook was at one time a prolific writer, his reputation among his friends seems to have rested chiefly upon his scintillating conversation. It is hard for later generations to understand quite why he was seen as such an important figure.

Meanwhile, Alan Bennett has been elected to the position of the nation's teddy bear, which fell vacant at John Betjeman's death. It is far more prestigious than the Poet Laureateship, which Betjeman also held.

And Dudley Moore was a brilliant musician who also became a Hollywood heartthrob.

Today's video is a parody of Benjamin Britten's folk settings for the voice of his partner and lover Peter Pears. It is written and performed by Moore with enormous skill, capturing both Britten's compositional style and Pears's singing style. Yet it also shows affection for its subjects.

It is also telling that a West End audience gets the joke so easily. It is hard to imagine a modern audience laughing so readily at a parody of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle or Thomas Ades, But then Britten, if not classical music as a whole, occupied a far more central position in British culture in those days. The first recording of his War Requiem was to sell 200,000 copies within five months when it was issued in 1963.

It is said that Pears and the notoriously thin-skinned Britten were offended by the title of this piece. And perhaps today we do detect a note of homophobia in it.

But attitudes change. Today, Britten's creative and sexual partnership with Pears would be celebrated, quite possibly to a tedious extent. While his habit of forming intense friendships with small boys would have landed him on the front page of the News of the World, if not in court.

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