Creator of the award-winning documentaries The Passions of Vaughan Williams and Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask, John Bridcut has been making films for 30 years. His more recent credits include Jonas Kaufman, Tenor for the Ages and The Genius of The Mad King. He has also published two books on Benjamin Britten. We talked with the producer and director to find out exactly who and what inspires him and what his creative process is like when creating a new film.
How did you initially get into creating documentaries on composers?
I have an amateur musical background; in my school days I sang and played the piano, violin and cello. The filmmaking began when I joined the BBC as a trainee. I started working in news and current affairs before making documentaries on contemporary history. My first move into music was with a film I made called Britten’s Children, which was broadcast in 2004 on BBC Two.
How do you decide which composers to focus on?
I started off with Britten because I’d always had a fascination with his music and I’d also done some work at the Britten-Pears Library in Suffolk. I think I’ve always had a passion for English music and I had a natural tendency to look at other composers from the 20th century. I do get asked by a number of people to make films about less well-known British composers, such as Gerald Finzi and John Ireland. However, you have to recognize that most people have no connection with these composers. Ideally, people who are going to watch the film need to be able to bring something of their own to the table – they should have some knowledge of the music. It doesn’t have to be very much but just enough so the audience has a connection.
Would you like to make some films about non-British composers?
If I had the time I’d love to, but it’s more tricky because you may be dealing with a lot of foreign-language material. In my films I’ve been lucky enough to be able to show composers’ letters and documents, which highlight another dimension of their art and helps in getting a little closer to their personalities. That’s harder to do when you’re working with a foreign language.
How long does the filming process take?
A 90-minute film is supposed to take something like 18 weeks. But in fact it’s much longer than that because the research is spread over a long period of time – often around nine months. It’s not full-time research but you’re absorbing information, thinking about the music and working out which pieces of music you want to feature.
Do you film live orchestras playing the featured pieces?
Yes. As far as possible I like to shoot sections of works specially for the film. Otherwise it risks feeling a little bit like a scrapbook and not like an authored piece. I also believe that if you’re making a film about music the it’s important that you support the people who actually bring the music to life. Inevitably, this means that you have to be very selective about what you choose to film because it’s very expensive working with an orchestra.
As well as looking at the composers’ music, you also investigate the composers’ lives and who they were as people. What's it like interviewing those who knew them?
It can be very exciting. For example, it was a great thrill to meet an extraordinarily redoubtable lady called Belinda Norman Butler who was a student of Vaughan Williams in 1927! Sadly, she’s no longer with us but she was amazing and recalled him very vividly.
So which do you place more emphasis on: the composers’ lives or the composers’ art?
To my mind there’s not much point in knowing about a composer’s life if it’s not related to the music. I find that too many arts documentaries have been about the life and not about the art. In a sense, it’s easy to do the biographic aspect of the films because there’s a narrative structure that has a beginning, middle and end. But it’s more of a challenge to try and understand the creative impulses of a composer through the music. In a way, the music has to speak to the audience in the same way that the other contributors speak.
More like this
Do you have any particular composers that you’d like to make a film about in the future?
I’m very keen to make a film about Michael Tippett. Something that lots of people may know are the Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time and I hope that they can provide that vital connection for audiences. In English music in general, there’s always the sense that ecstasy and passion are veiled or the sense that it’s somehow slightly improper to have those things displayed too obviously. But Tippet’s music is characterised by extraordinarily generous expression. It will require a lot of work but I feel that he’s the next composer on my horizon.
For more details on the films of John Bridcut, or to order copies of his documentaries on British composers, visit his website.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.