Monday, June 05, 2006

Britten's Children

John Bridcut has written ‘Britten’s Children’, a book about the composer Benjamin Britten and his relationships with boys.

Bridcut writes:

'In his dealings with children, Britten was at his most engaging and lovable - the adult friend and collaborator we would all like to be.'

Britten was sexually attracted to, and had close friendships with, handsome boys.

One of these boys was Ronan Magill who is now quoted as saying:

'If he did (feel attraction), then I'm glad that he did - if I could make him think that way for even five seconds.'

In 1936, Harry Morris, aged 13, took a holiday in Cornwall with Britten, Britten's brother and sister, and the brother and sister’s families.

Morris’s family have claimed that Harry, who died a few years ago, was alarmed by something that happened on the second night of his Cornish stay.

Reportedly, Britten came into Harry’s room and made what seemed to be ‘a sexual approach’. Reportedly, Harry screamed and hit Britten with a chair. Reportedly, Harry returned to London the morning after the incident. The strange thing is that Harry actually remained on the holiday for a fortnight.

Bridcut writes that 'the account is more about a sense of threat than about an actual incident'. Bridcut suggests that perhaps Harry 'was disturbed by the continual arguments within the Britten family and absconded to London, armed with a story to explain his departure'.

Harry's mother has said that she did not believe Harry’s story.

Bridcut writes: 'If there ever was a "moment of madness" that so distressed Harry Morris, it was not to recur.'

In 1934 Britten met a 13-year-old German boy called Wulff Scherchen and they became close friends. Bridcut interviewed Scherchen for his book. Scherchen seems to describe a purely platonic relationship with Britten.

Peter Pears became Britten’s chief friend. Britten and Pears were visited by a number of boys and parents did not seem to be worried by this. One boy, called Roger Duncan, spent a lot of time with Britten.

As a boy actor and singer, David Hemmings stayed with Britten; Hemmings appeared in Britten’s ‘Turn of the Screw’.

Bridcut writes:

Hemmings left school, left his home in the London suburb of Tolworth, and arrived in Aldeburgh for voice training and to learn his part in the opera. For the next two or three months, he lived at Britten's Crag House. He became the darling of the household. "It was one of the most wonderful times of my entire life", Hemmings told me shortly before he died...

Before long, Britten's friends began to notice that he was captivated by Hemmings. The infatuation (and it is Hemmings's own word) lasted for most of the two years he worked with Britten. Charles Mackerras, who conducted at Aldeburgh in the mid-1950s, saw it at first hand. "David Hemmings was an extremely good-looking young chap and he also very much played up to Ben's obvious adoration of him, and drank it in," recalled Mackerras. "Ben's behaviour was so much that of the besotted lover that one thought that maybe he might have behaved improperly with him eventually. But if we can believe David Hemmings (and I do), there was no 'hanky-panky' at all."

Basil Coleman was another house-guest. "Ben got very fond of him, of course," said Coleman. "[It] would ultimately draw out a brilliant performance from the boy, because he was safe, as it were." Coleman rejoices in the devoted friendships Ben had with boys, friendships that he feels would have been hard for him to sustain in today's more censorious climate. But he does admit that one singer was concerned that the composer was getting too fond of Hemmings. Asked if he felt that was a risk, Coleman paused for a while before replying: "Not really. No - I trusted Ben... no."

Half a century on, Hemmings himself had no reservations. "He was not only a father to me, but a friend - and you couldn't have had a better father, or a better friend. He was generous and kind, and I was very lucky. I loved him dearly, I really did - I absolutely adored him. I didn't fancy him, I did go to bed with him, but I didn't go to bed with him in that way." He admitted Ben was infatuated with him: "Everybody asks me whether or not he gave me one. The answer to that question, as I have often said, is no, he did not. I have slept in his bed, yes, only because I was scared at night... and I have never ever, ever felt threatened by Ben at all because I was more heterosexual than Genghis Khan!"

I asked him whether he felt Britten's feelings for him had been those of a father for a son, or whether he had been in love with him. Hemmings's response was elliptical: "I think both are entwined. If you are in love with a young man, certainly you can consider him your son. He certainly wanted to bring me up, he certainly wanted to send me to an appropriate school where I could learn music and learn to play the piano, and, yes, he loved me, he did, he did. But he loved me like a father, not like a lover."

If some 12-year-old boys might have been too innocent to appreciate sexual danger signs, David Hemmings was not one of them. As a choirboy travelling from Tolworth to Hampton Court, he had been molested several times by a man on the bus, "so I knew what the goings were". Before leaving home for Suffolk the first time, he had been warned about Britten by his father, "strangely enough in Leicester Square men's lavatory. He told me - his exact words - 'You know he's a homo, don't you?'"