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I CAN't REMEMBER my mother ever giving me a hug, which prompts me to conclude that one forgets all too easily the pleasant things in life. However, I am sure I enjoyed a reasonably secure childhood, at least until I was eleven, when on April 27th 1942 a Nazi plane dropped a huge bomb (one of many that fell that night on what I had come to think of as my home city Norwich) in the garden of the house next door, blasting the roof off and blowing out the windows of our own home in Stone Road. We were inside but survived unhurt, thanks to the protective steel cage provided by the Morrison shelter which had been recently installed under the stairs. I remember my mother's gasp when she emerged in the morning and could see the sky through the shattered rafters.
It was only recently that it dawned on me that my parents’ marriage must already have been at breaking point for some years, since in August 1939, just before the Second World War started, my mother took me and my young brother Rodney to Salisbury to live with her pacifist friend Dorothy. The reason given me for our family ‘evacuation’ was that Norwich was too close to a possible invasion site, but in retrospect swapping one cathedral city for another does not make much sense. What I have since worked out is that the war coincided with a personal crisis in the Burton family. My mother, Kay, had a friend named Ted Harris. He was a conscientious objector whom I assume she had met in Norwich at a Peace Pledge Union meeting, since she was an active pacifist. Ted had left Norwich to work on a farm at Teffont Magna, not far from Salisbury. Later in the war I spent a summer working with Ted on that farm and a happy experience it was: riding on combine harvesters, helping with the threshing and chasing rabbits when they were trapped in the middle of the harvested field.
IN THE SUMMER of 1963 I was on the move once again, this time out of Monitor altogether. The BBC's new channel, BBC2, was to be launched the following April and to fulfil its expanded remit we needed many more programmes and more staff to make them. A new department entitled Documentaries and Music was hived off from Talks and housed in the recently completed Television Centre, with Huw Wheldon as its boss. Since Huw had a limited knowledge of classical music, I was promoted to be his number two and given the brand-new title of Executive Producer, Music Programmes (again without ever being asked if I wanted to do the job). The BBC's previous head of music productions, Lionel Salter, was an excellent all-round musician and administrator whose television experience went back to Alexandra Palace before the war. Although not a director himself, he had written a useful grammar concerning the televising of music performance, a style guide which is consistently ignored by today's rapid-fire practitioners. However, Lionel was unadventurous in his choice of repertoire for television and being of a somewhat combative nature he had crossed swords with rather too many high-ups in BBC Television. Indeed, I heard our abrasive new controller, Donald Baverstock, complaining caustically that after examining Salter's workload he had come to the conclusion that he had scarcely enough work to fill one afternoon a fortnight. The reshuffle of which I was part saw Salter sent to Yalding House to run opera for the Third Programme (a hefty assignment) and eventually become Assistant Controller under William Glock – not a comfortable berth, I imagine, but Lionel had great resilience and was a musician to his fingertips. Meanwhile, Huw gave up introducing Monitor, declaring later and to my mind unconvincingly that he had interviewed everybody he wanted to interview.
My main brief for BBC Television was to devise fresh ways of putting music on to the small screen. It was a good start that Michael Peacock, the newly appointed chief of programmes for BBC2, liked classical music and jazz.
ERNEST FLEISCHMANN HAD been at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1969. He had been a good friend with programme ideas all through his 1960s LSO days and he turned up trumps again at the turn of the decade. After I directed a video of his new orchestra in 1982, Ernest confided that he wanted a rest: he no longer enjoyed running the crowded summer season of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. He asked whether I would consider taking over for a year so he could enjoy a sabbatical; we would swap houses, he and his partner Rebecca Rickman going to our little French maison secondaire in the village of La Garde-Freinet (half an hour from the beaches of St Tropez) and we to his house in the Hollywood Hills, close to the Bowl and not far from the downtown freeway. I was curious and eager for new experiences so I agreed, fondly believing that Ernest, who was famous for his abrasive interventionism, would be 7,000 miles away. In the event there was a financial crisis at the orchestra, or so Ernest claimed, and he and Rebecca were unhappy with our not very mod-con French cottage. So after only a few weeks they were back in LA. Meanwhile, the Burton family had installed itself in their house, which meant they had to spend the summer living with friends in far-off Pasadena, but Ernest's presence in town meant Big Brother was watching my every move.
Happily, the Bowl was a marvel. Once a park and picnic place in Bolton Canyon, off Highland Avenue, the Bowl's natural amphitheatre was transformed into an outdoor concert venue back in the 1920s. The eccentric Australian, Percy Grainger, was famously married on its stage. The Bowl was beautiful, and because of its seating capacity it was also a tremendous moneymaker. A record 26,000 had crowded in before the war to hear Lily Pons: in my year, 1983, the top attendance was close to 20,000 and that was for another diva, Sarah Vaughan, singing jazz with Michael Tilson Thomas at the piano; wherever one sat that night it was an electrifying experience. ‘Music under the stars’ was one of the Bowl's branding slogans. Amplification played a big part in how one heard that music.
IN THE SPRING of 1986 the LSO mounted a festival at the Barbican Centre in honour of its president, Leonard Bernstein. The Queen and Prince Philip came to the final evening and heard Aled Jones sing the boy soprano solo in Chichester Psalms. At the reception afterwards the prince was in jocular mood. At the time Aled was the best-known boy soprano in the country. The prince looked him up and down. ‘Well, you haven't got much of a career in front of you,’ he observed cheerily, little dreaming that the adult Aled would become a much-loved presenter of Songs of Praise and a successful disc jockey for Classic FM. The Queen was more diplomatic. ‘Do you do this sort of thing awften?’ she asked LB. Rarely lost for words, LB was flummoxed: did she mean appear in London often, conduct an entire programme of his own music, preside over a Bernstein festival or what? By the time he was ready to respond, maybe three seconds, her majesty had moved on. I am not making this up; I was in the BBC Outside Broadcast van directing the cameras and surreptitiously listening in to the presentations. Earlier, at the concert, the BBC had taped Krystian Zimerman playing the jazzy passages in LB's The Age of Anxiety with phenomenal agility. He shared the soloist's platform with the violinist Gidon Kremer, who dug deep into LB's beautiful Serenade. It was a splendid evening of positive Bernstein.
In July 1986 I was in Bayreuth, not for Wagner but for the centenary of the death of Wagner's father-in-law, Franz Liszt. (Their relationship makes a good quiz question.) Bavarian Television hired me to direct their Liszt memorial concert which would be relayed all over Europe from the festival stage; it was only the second time that music by anybody but Wagner had been heard in those hallowed halls, the first being the post-war reopening of the festival in 1951, when Furtwängler conducted Beethoven's Ninth. It felt a privilege to be ushered into the presence of Wolfgang Wagner, the grandson who had been running the place since the death of his theatrically more gifted brother Wieland twenty years previously.
CONDUCTING THE VERDI Requiem for my seventieth birthday was a sort of last hurrah. I had achieved my biblical three score years and ten. Life-changes were afoot. Within a few days of the Verdi Requiem, on April 1st 2001 to be exact, Christina and I signed the rental agreement on a handsome 1930s house on the outskirts of Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Christina found it while I was working in Britten's archive at the Red House, exploring the composer's shaky friendship with William Walton. Our new home came with almost an acre of garden. Soon afterwards we managed to sell our Oakwood Court flat in Kensington for about nine times what we had paid for it nineteen years earlier, and in July we quit London. Christina and I definitely wanted this move to the country: we had had enough of traffic jams and permanent roadworks in Kensington High Street, not to mention intrusive year-round building work under our noses in Oakwood Court as wealthy foreigners with black Mercedes limousines manned by twenty-four-hour chauffeurs blighted the Edwardian charm of our much-loved apartment block.
Retirement has never for me been an attractive option but in the early years of the new century it became clear that the people running my stretch of television and radio had concluded that I did not fit into their forward strategy. When Radio 3 had to make financial cutbacks it dispensed with my programme, the enlightening Artist in Focus series, and replaced it with a bland classical music disc-jockey programme running from nine to noon. Verdi's Falstaff with Bryn Terfel in 2001 proved to be the last opera relay I was asked to direct for BBC Television. I had shown them how it was done at the turn of the century with my script for Graham Vick's elaborate production and quite sensibly the BBC then brought in staff directors to replace me (among whom Jonathan Haswell was outstanding). To be fair, I should add that the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, laid on a very handsome luncheon at which to bid me farewell: I was very touched by the gesture.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN DIED on October 14th 1990. Twenty years earlier he changed the course of my life by signing me up to direct films and videos of his concerts. From the start we also filmed documentaries which threw light on the music he was conducting. In the 1980s I persuaded him to widen the field by getting involved in autobiographical essays, although the first of these was actually his own whim – and LB had a whim of iron: his notion was nothing less than a session on Dr Freud's famous consulting couch, agonising as to why a good Jewish boy such as himself should be conducting the music of the grossly anti-Semitic Richard Wagner.
In 1985 LB was in Vienna because, as a quid pro quo for the Staatsoper's decision to mount his own opera A Quiet Place the following season, he had agreed to conduct a concert performance of the second act of Die Walküre on stage at the Vienna State Opera. LB had long been aware of Viennese anti-Semitism – on his first visit as a maestro, in 1966, he walked up and down the city's main street, the Kartnerstrasse, asking passers-by for directions to Mahlergasse, Mahler Street, knowing full well that the city had still not reinstated the street name that had been stripped away by the Nazis, because Mahler was a Jew, after the Anschluss in 1938. He loved conducting Wagner – indeed, had recently recorded a complete Tristan in Munich – but naturally, being Jewish, he felt uneasy about enjoying the music of such a rabid Jew-hater. His response was to propose that since he was in the cradle of psychoanalysis he should undertake a session in the most famous consulting room in Europe at Berggasse 19 in the Ninth district, the home for forty-seven years of Dr Sigmund Freud.
I was not free to direct the filming – I suspect for diplomatic reasons – so my regular Unitel producer Horant Hohlfeld took charge of the shoot. Lenny reclined on what was said to be the authentic couch (the Freud Museum in London boasts another) and poured out his soul to the camera.
LEAVING THE BBC after ten years of intense activity as a producer was a tremendous wrench, an unparalleled shock to my system. I had not even begun to prepare myself for the reality of going to commercial television because I did not believe that David Frost's consortium had any chance of winning the franchise. When the news arrived that it had, I immediately experienced profound guilt feelings about the shoddy way I had kept my intention to quit a secret from everybody (except John Culshaw), though at least I had shown a sense of responsibility to my alma mater by recruiting such an outstanding figure to replace me. It was a twisted logic. There was no smooth transition: Huw Wheldon was angry as well as wounded and he struck back by decreeing I should not work out my three-month notice period as I had hoped but instead should pack up my papers and quit my East Tower office within a week. When I said goodbye to my colleagues in Music and Arts I got the impression they thought I had taken leave of my senses.
My crisis occurred in June 1967, the weekend that the Israelis emerged triumphant from the Six Days’ War. Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré were so caught up in the excitement that they got married in Jerusalem on the day Jackie was scheduled to be playing a concert at the Bath Festival; this I knew immediately because I was in Bath for a television relay of her concert and could observe the festival's director, Yehudi Menuhin, becoming quite cross with his young protegee for putting her personal life before her professional commitments – something he never did, even when his sister was dying.
Menuhin was one of several collaborators to whom I wrote letters over the next few days explaining as best I could why I had chosen to leave the BBC and withdraw from the projects we were working on together. Since filming was already under way up in Suffolk, the first recipient was Benjamin Britten. ‘My reasons’, I wrote, ‘are personal and complicated’.
IN JULY 1965 Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia flew to England to attend the premiere of his Chichester Psalms, commissioned by Dean Walter Hussey and sung by the combined male choirs of the cathedrals of Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury. There had been a preview performance in New York a fortnight previously but I don't count that because it was with a small professional SATB chorus, lacking the unique tonal quality of an all-male ensemble featuring choirboys. When commissioning the Psalms, Walter Hussey said he hoped Bernstein would include a flavour of West Side Story. The story of how Bernstein managed to work several numbers dropped from his Broadway shows into his most popular choral work is told in my Bernstein biography.
Meeting Bernstein at his Chichester première was a pivotal moment for me, the start of the second half of my working life. I went down to Sussex quite early and spent the day with the Bernsteins in Chichester Cathedral. During a coffee break they had me laughing out loud with their account of how the mattress at the deanery where they were staying was so lumpy that it was like sleeping on grapefruit. The music-making was less cheerful. I never found out why but although Bernstein had been invited to conduct his new score he had declined, so the performance was in the hands of the local man, Chichester's organist John Birch. I didn't know Bernstein well then but I could see he was worried by what he was hearing. The choirs had spent weeks mastering the tricky rhythms, the irregular bar lengths and the Hebrew pronunciation of the texts. They were excellent but the players of the Philomusica of London (famous before the war as the Boyd Neel Orchestra) were – to use Bernstein's phrase – ‘all at sea’; it was evident as one watched the rehearsal that they had never seen the music before in their lives. The Psalms runs for only twenty minutes and British orchestras are renowned for their sight-reading skills but certain passages in that rehearsal made me acutely embarrassed.
BY THE TIME we moved back to our London home at Oakwood Court in 1994 our children had become adults. Helena had finished her degree studies in art history and was working in a nursery school with young children while studying art therapy; she lived in a Notting Dale flat we bought with the proceeds of selling our little terrace cottage in La Garde-Freinet. Lukas had achieved a Cambridge degree in classics but was intent on a career as a music producer – he was already working in the world of pop and ‘garage’ rock, for which I could summon up no sympathy though I admired his determination, and still do now that he is running his own company in Los Angeles, making trailers for major movies. I had just turned sixty-three, which is close to the conventional age for ‘retirement’, but I had no desire to stop working (nor indeed sufficient accumulated income) so I was intrigued when Revel Guest, a friend from BBC days, offered me a job as consultant for her new venture, a production company called Covent Garden Pioneer; with Japanese support, she was challenging the National Video Corporation's sphere of interest in opera and ballet but specialising in the brand-new format of LaserDiscs.
To the casual eye these 12-inch discs resembled long-playing records but they performed like CDs and needed a special player. Revel Guest is just a few months younger than me. She had been in Current Affairs at Lime Grove in the 1960s, directing films for Panorama, and soon after I left for ITV she also jumped ship and became an independent, founding an international production company called Transatlantic Films. I admired her independence and got on well with her ebullient Bostonian husband Rob Albert, a lawyer. Rob's sister Joy was married to a London dentist named Lionel Bryer. Together they created the much-admired European Community Youth Orchestra. I commissioned an Aquarius documentary about the orchestra, shot in Aberdeen by Tony Palmer in 1972. This gave the first hint on television of the musical excitements to come from that excellent initiative, notably when Claudio Abbado was its music director.
THE DAYS AFTER Lenny's death were desperate, so crowded that I had no time to grieve. Monday, the first day, was full of television interviews in London and transatlantic phone calls. On Tuesday I caught the early morning Concorde to New York and at 10.40 a.m. was walking up Central Park West with Christina to the Dakota Building on 72nd Street. Christina had arrived the previous evening and was staying, as usual, at the Mayflower Hotel. The funeral began in the Bernstein apartment: my account forms the prologue to the biography I was to spend the next three years writing. Later, out at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, we heard the Kaddish again and threw earth into Bernstein's coffin. He was buried next to Felicia; his score of Mahler's Fifth Symphony was placed in the coffin with him. That afternoon our hotel suite was turned into a studio and we videotaped appreciations from many friends, among them the composer Oliver Knussen, who had been receiving encouragement from Lenny since the 1960s, when his father led the double bass section of the LSO; other tributes came from the choreographer and closest creative collaborator Jerome Robbins; and from his beloved lyricwriting friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
That night I flew back to London with the interview tapes and over the next two days Peter Maniura and I prepared the hour-long Omnibus tribute televised by BBC1.
Harry Kraut asked me to produce the New York Philharmonic's tribute concert to be held a month later in Carnegie Hall. The date was November 14th, forty-three years to the day since Bernstein had made his unexpected debut with the NY Phil in the very same hall. No recording or video was made of the occasion so only the 2,000 people who were present can share the memories: supreme among them for me was that of Christa Ludwig singing through her tears Mahler's infinitely moving ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’) from his Ruckert songs.
VIENNA, EVEN WITHOUT Bernstein, continued to be my happiest overseas location. On the bicentenary of Mozart's death, December 7th 1991, I directed a telecast of his Requiem from St Stephen's Cathedral. It was a colossal occasion. The Archbishop of Vienna celebrated the Mass and a Jew, Georg Solti, conducted the music: he was replacing another Jew, the recently departed Leonard Bernstein. In advance the event was surrounded in controversy because the Austrian president would be attending. Kurt Waldheim (whom I had met several times when he was Secretary-General of the United Nations) was still embroiled in accusations that he had committed war crimes while serving in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War; he had even been declared persona non grata in the USA, where the Requiem would be relayed by public service television (PBS). We solved the dilemma by shooting the entry of the dignitaries at a great distance, in a discreet ‘long shot’. But our production had its own problem: the great American soprano Arleen Auger called in sick after the previous day's dress rehearsal and as a precaution the British singer Judith Howarth was flown out from London as a standby: she sat close to the performers throughout the Mass but as often happens on these tense occasions, Auger sang flawlessly. Only two months later, however, she was forced to retire; she died soon afterwards of a brain tumour. I count myself lucky to have had the joy of filming Arleen Auger in Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate a few years earlier for Bavarian TV: she was an artist on a par with Lucia Popp, another fine soprano who died terribly young.
At the end of 1993 I was back in Vienna when Austrian Television invited me to direct the New Year's Day Concert, which that year was to be conducted by Lorin Maazel. Decades earlier, in my Monitor years, I had taken Lorin and his young kids to a puppet show in London. I knew him to be an exceptionally gifted musician, a composer and a brilliant solo violinist in addition to his enormous talents as a conductor.
I KNOW IT's no guarantee of happiness or even of well-being, but the fact is I earned more money and was better off in the 1980s (my fifties) than in any other decade in my life. I had a regular basic BBC salary for my various jobs as director, producer and strand editor; my work as host of Omnibus was paid on a separate contract. On top of that came my Unitel fees for directing Leonard Bernstein's music films, to which I was soon adding freelance gigs with Bavarian Television in Munich, with Sony in Hamburg, with Eric and Katya Abraham's Portobello Films – all this for productions I directed in Budapest with Georg Solti and in Berlin with Murray Perahia – and, most lucrative of the lot, because the concert is transmitted to dozens of countries, with Austrian Television for the New Year's Day concert from the Golden Hall, which I first directed in 1988, when Herbert von Karajan was conducting.
My personal life survived a very sticky patch during this exceptionally busy period. In March 1981 my daughter Clemency was born. I am very proud of her work as a broadcaster, writer and musician, and though I see her rarely, I count her as a good friend. In amicable consultation with her I have decided not to write at length about the affair with her mother which brought her into the world. It was a long and intense friendship and my marriage survived only thanks to my wife's tolerance and fortitude.
A new start began when the Burton family left Richmond Hill and moved back across the river to a solid ten-roomed Edwardian flat in Oakwood Court, just a few yards west of Holland Park. Its hall corridor was exactly 22 yards in length and was occasionally used by my son Matthew as an indoor cricket ‘net’; at St Paul's School he developed into an excellent all-rounder, going on to play every summer with The Gaieties, Harold Pinter's touring club team. The flat's walls were so thick we could make music at any time without disturbing the neighbours – even if it were Gwyneth Jones giving us a post-prandial Liebestod or Barbara Bonney bringing in the new year with Strauss's Morgen.
I WAS THRILLED to be at Cambridge at last – it had been my goal for three years – but I soon perceived that I had entered a very rough-and-ready version of the dream: it was impossible to ignore the disappointing conclusion that, so far as Cambridge University life was concerned, Fitzwilliam House was not the real thing. The official position was that Fitzwilliam was a ‘non-collegiate’ institution, created in 1869 to look after the interests of students who either because of their religion or through lack of funds could not get a place at any of the colleges; it was not until 1969 that Fitzwilliam was granted what is called collegiate status. In my day, twenty years before that major change, the House had few signs of the traditional collegiate set-up: there were no elegant courtyards with ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs; no Perpendicular chapel; no Wren Library or Gibbs Building. ‘Fitzbilly’ was housed in a three-storey late-Georgian building situated on the corner where narrow Fitzwilliam Street joins broad Trumpington Street, almost opposite the great Fitzwilliam Museum. A chemist shop founded in Victorian times functions to this day on the ground floor adjacent to what in my time was the crowded dining room where we took our lunches and dinners in two rowdy shifts. The lack of style reminded me of early National Service days at Catterick and was a million miles from the candlelit elegance enjoyed at King's or Magdalene, where I sometimes dined with undergraduate friends.
Upstairs at Fitzwilliam there was a student common room with scruffy armchairs and a cluttered clubs’ noticeboard. A pleasant back room was named, in Victorian style, the Parlour: here the Fitzwilliam House Musical Society gave its concerts; there was a decent grand piano on which I composed a few songs and played duets with my contemporary John Parry (father of today's distinguished choir conductor Ben Parry). I made no attempt to form my own orchestra or to continue with the conducting I had enjoyed at school; the inferiority complex I was nursing held me back.
IT WAS IN March 1950, shortly before my nineteenth birthday, that I at last received joining instructions and a travel warrant. So the die was cast. I took a train from King's Cross to Darlington where regular soldiers, older men, met us. They shouted orders at all and sundry as if we were already in uniform and eventually corralled us innocents into 3-ton lorries for the short drive to the North Yorkshire moors and Catterick Camp: the reality of National Service was upon me.
The first days were the worst. Basic training was a total melting pot, all walks of life and social backgrounds lumped together in a vast stone barracks. Terrible coarse language. Impenetrable accents. A shock to the system.
Ikept my father in the picture throughout my National Service and will use excerpts from my letters to provide impressions of my army life, which was, to say the least, a formative experience.
Catterick Camp, Yorks 29.3 
I doubt whether the Army is as bloody as it was in your day, though these first few days have certainly been pretty dreadful. We suffer no real hardship: there is drill, and P.T., getting up at 5.45AM and eating pretty awful food; but I feel quite fit – the point is that there is absolutely no chance to sit down and really think, or even write letters. Every moment finds something to do, especially when you spend hours bullshitting boots you will only wear once or twice. At the moment I’m in with the mob, but on Saturday the elite transfer to a Potential Officer's Training Regiment, which is much tougher work, we’re told.
In these fairly modern barracks we’re well off in that we eat in the same building, wash-house next door, with lots of basins and generally boiling hot water; only 14 in the room, radiators, quite good beds, a Naafi next door. The Corporals to our Troops are quite fair, if you work hard, but they swear so much! (As do the other blokes in this room.) The routine at the moment is mainly drill alternating with weapon training; up at 6 or earlier; 5.30 onwards is spent cleaning, which takes ages.
IN JANUARY 1970, a few weeks into the first season of Aquarius, the phone rang at home and when Christina answered a sonorous voice said: ‘This is Gregory Peck. May I speak to Mr Humphrey Burton?’ It was my third great adventure as the new decade began, along with marriage and Aquarius, and it affected the course of my working life even more deeply than the establishment of my own arts series on ITV. Mr Peck invited me to come over to the Dorchester Hotel; he had a project he wished to discuss. When we met later that day he told me he was the emissary of a new production partnership masterminded by Roger Stevens, the American impresario who had produced West Side Story back in the 1950s. Stevens was now in charge of the not yet completed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington – but once a producer always a producer and he was currently backing Leonard Bernstein in a brand-new way. LB's inner circle consisted of his canny lawyer Abe Friedman, his literary agent Robert Lantz and his manager, previously an executive with CBS Records, Schuyler Chapin. Stevens joined them to form a new company called Amberson Productions, ‘amber’ being the English translation of the German word Bernstein, the much-prized gemstone derived from fossilised trees. Back in the 1940s when he first moved to New York and worked for a music publisher, LB had invented the nom de plume Lenny Amber for his transcriptions of jazz standards.
The witty and wily Robbie Lantz had his finger on the pulse of most important matters in the cultural world: Amberson, he insisted, must ensure that from now on LB's conducting performances would be recorded for distribution on domestic and educational videotapes. Home video was still several years in the future but these were visionary people and they wanted to be ahead of the curve. Their first project was to be a performance of the Verdi Requiem in St Paul's Cathedral given by four illustrious soloists and the LSO and Chorus, all under the baton of Maestro Bernstein.
I SPENT MUCH of my late sixties planning a concert I would conduct of the Verdi Requiem. It was an event I had dreamed of since hearing the Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall in the early 1950s. That key performance was conducted by the immensely tall Italian maestro Alberto Erede. Another inspiring performance I treasured (and televised) was Claudio Abbado's in the 1960s at the Edinburgh Festival with Margaret Price and Jessye Norman. What attracted me to Verdi's Requiem? The thrill of the four soloists entering the opening ‘Kyrie’ one by one, which I described earlier as resembling Atlantic waves rolling in to a Cornish cove. To that I would add the whiff of fire and brimstone in the ‘Dies Irae’; the distant trumpets calling across the depths in the ‘Tuba mirum’; the heart-turning melody of the ‘Agnus Dei’, sung in unison; the raw drama of the soprano's final, hushed, imploring ‘deliver me from eternal death’: Libera me de morte aeterna. It is a long list.
I wanted to conduct this magnificent work before I died. It would need stamina and untried conducting skills, the latter a risky assumption since I had last conducted a choir when I was still an undergraduate and had never conducted an orchestra in anything longer than a ten-minute Beethoven overture: my Turkish conductor friend Cem Mansur had invited me to try my hand at conducting the Egmont overture. That was with his Oxford orchestra in the Sheldonian. I followed that up on June 22, 1997 at St John’s, Smith Square with the overture to Mozart's The Impresario. The main attraction of this latter concert, a fundraiser, was Claus Moser playing a Mozart piano concerto. We had enlisted as our principal conductor that evening a Cambridge undergraduate named Daniel Harding, only nineteen at the time and rightly considered the best conducting hope to have appeared in this country since Simon Rattle. His Haydn symphony that evening was very stylish. I still have a recording of the entire concert on a miserable little sound cassette.
AQUARIUS MAY HAVE been a promising title on paper but in the autumn months of 1969 I had nothing to support it: no production team, no programme projects, no studio dates or cutting rooms. And yet everything fell into place like a charm. One blessing was that for the first season at least we were to transmit fortnightly rather than every week. Friday nights at 10.30 was our slot. Monitor had also been fortnightly; it was a civilised tempo of programmemaking. In 1970 the possibility of transmitting the new Aquarius show was merely an option for the other dozen companies which made up the ITV network and apart from Granada very few were willing to transmit culture, preferring to reach for their revolvers. But within the year, after we gained the confidence of the ITA, who declared the show mandatory, meaning every company had to screen it, we switched to a weekly schedule for thirty-nine weeks of the year, plus repeats on LWT in the summer months, so I was now a presenter, as well as an editor, regularly on the air hosting the show to audiences measured in millions rather than the meagre thousands with which arts programme producers have to pretend to be satisfied half a century later.
But in the autumn of 1969 I needed programmes and people to make them, and my cupboard was bare.
Having spent six years at the Monitor coalface, I guess I knew what was wanted. First I had to have a strong number two, a producer, somebody to keep an eye on everything, including me. It was in the videotape editing suite at Wembley that I got into conversation with Derek Bailey, who was then directing programmes for our adventurous education unit after previous work in Northern Island for Ulster Television. Derek had had a brilliant student career as an actor (Prince Hamlet) and stage director (Tiger at the Gates). Something told me on the spot that we could work well together and so we did, very happily, for five years. Derek was immensely proud of his Belfast heritage (the Troubles were just beginning), though politically he kept a neutral stance and it was years before I discovered that he was of Protestant stock – I’d never thought to ask him.
ON MARCH 1ST 1975, ten years to the day from when I was made Head of the new Music and Arts Department back in the 1960s, I resumed that post at the BBC. After my somewhat precipitate exit in 1967, the Music and Arts departments had been headed by separate bosses, John Culshaw and Stephen Hearst. I was originally wooed back to run BBC's Arts Features department, which was in disarray since the resignation of Stephen's successor in the post, Norman Swallow. Plans changed early in 1975 when John Culshaw decided he had had enough of being a BBC boss and would resign, so my old department combining Music and Arts could be restored to me in its entirety.
I selected John Drummond to be my overall deputy. Apparently he had applied to have the arts job himself but Huw Wheldon was not a fan (or so John felt) and what was worse (and unbeknown to me), a group of Kensington House producers had sent a round robin to management opposing John's appointment: nobody doubted his intellectual ability but in those days his man-management skills were still being polished. As a temporary measure Mike Wooller had been named Acting Head of Arts and my arrival did not go down well with him either: I was seen as the prodigal son receiving unduly favoured treatment when he came home. All things considered, it was important for me to establish my authority early on. My standing as a presenter was a known factor: I had been on the screen hosting Aquarius virtually every week for five years. But being a boss was a different ball game so I arranged to address the department a month before I took over. Inwardly I was terrified by the proceedings. About 120 producers, directors, researchers and PAs squeezed into the basement meeting room at Kensington House. I knew maybe a quarter of them from my first spell as departmental head back in the early 1960s. I asked in advance for everybody to write me a brief note about themselves, from which I learnt that the room was full of unhappy colleagues who distrusted the management, weren't getting the transmission slots they deserved and had wonderful programme ideas that were being ignored.
LIME GROVE WAS a far-flung corner of the BBC's empire, way out beyond Shepherd's Bush Green. It was rumoured to be dangerous territory, inhabited mostly by West Indian immigrants and Irish navvies. The pubs, crowded with rough trade, were no-go areas; the BBC Club, however, was always full. ‘Lime Grove’ sounds pleasant enough but there were no lime trees in evidence by the time I arrived in April 1958, only dull late-Victorian terraced cottages on both sides of an equally dull street, not a patch on London's bustling West End where I had been working for the previous two and a half years. What made Lime Grove unusual was the presence of a film studio complex, custom-built by Gaumont in 1932 and taken over by the Rank Organisation during the war. The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood, was made here in 1945, the same year that Yehudi Menuhin (whose biography I was to write forty years later) tested for the role of Paganini in The Magic Bow – a part eventually assumed by Stewart Granger, who was indisputably less gifted as a violinist but had a more impressive track record as a thespian. The BBC, bursting at the seams when housed at the even more remote Alexandra Palace in north London, moved to Lime Grove in 1956, creating four television studios and a sound suite as well as a rabbit warren of offices and cutting rooms. It was to be BBC Television's HQ for a decade, supported by a pokey little studio off Kensington High Street, where the Tonight programme originated in 1957, and by the Riverside Studios, next to Hammersmith Bridge, on the site of another former film studio complex owned pre-war by the film star Jack Buchanan. Hancock's Half Hour was made at Riverside and so was Rudolph Cartier's 1959 production of Verdi's Otello, which famously broke down on transmission so that for several minutes the only sound that could be heard was not of opera but of the production secretary meticulously calling the shot numbers over mute images of the performers singing their hearts out. It was a true disaster.