restricted access David Myerscough-Jones, Benjamin Britten and the Art of Illusion: Theatre Design for Television
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David Myerscough-Jones, Benjamin Britten and the Art of Illusion:
Theatre Design for Television

1. Britten and stage design

Creating scenery for the operas of Benjamin Britten (1913-76) was both a testing and rewarding occupation. One of the photographs held in the archive of the Britten-Pears Foundation reveals the composer and producer Eric Crozier in 1945 scrutinizing one of four set models by the artist Kenneth Green (1905-86) for the first production of Peter Grimes. This telling image attests to Britten’s interest in the preliminary detail of, and frequently strong opinion on, the design of his stage work. John Piper (1903-92), who designed Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in 1946 and continued to work with him until 1973, admitted that he was often called upon to provide an idea of how a series of scenes might look to create some visual stimulus before the composer put pencil to paper (qtd. in Folio). Piper added that Britten’s ideas about design “were precise and sound and positive in the way he saw them. They were often extremely practical too, on points such as … the exact placing of a piece of scenery with acoustics in mind” (Herbert 6).

A quarter of a century after the premiere of Peter Grimes David Myerscough-Jones (1934-2010), a production designer for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), encountered the prospect of planning a completely new stage set for the opera, this time for television. The project marked the beginning of a professional association between the artist, Britten and the tenor Peter Pears (1910-86) that would include two further productions: a recording of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise and Owen Win grave, an opera Britten [End Page 39] composed specifically for television. Although Myerscough-Jones enjoyed the collaboration he conceded that working with Britten was a demanding task. His primary objective was to produce ideas that were in accord with Britten and Pears’s vision of all three works. Linked to this, however, were the dual artistic and logistical challenges of creating scenery for the interior of the unusual venue in which, at Britten’s specific request, they were filmed: a malt-drying warehouse that had been converted into a concert hall in a remote part of Suffolk. As we shall see, Peter Grimes and Winterreise posed similar problems for the designer as both narratives required the depiction of seascape and landscape respectively; these were problems that he overcame by creating what he termed “an illusion” of outdoor scenery. Although exterior scenes were needed for Owen Wingrave the story is confined mostly to Victorian drawing rooms, a study and finally the interior of a haunted mansion, an aspect which enabled a relatively easy transition for the work from small screen to opera house (which had always been Britten’s intention). Planning scenery for such a space did not occur without complication and this essay seeks to examine the designs’ significance in dealing with the technical difficulties in staging all three productions in Britten’s new theatre. From a historical perspective these sketches are now a significant resource for research in opera production and there is also a brief account of their eventual placement in the composer’s archive in Aldeburgh.

2. The artist’s background

Myerscough-Jones’s varied experience in theatre and television prepared him for some of the hurdles he would later confront at the Maltings. He was educated at the Southport School of Art in his native Lancashire and also studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London before embarking in 1958 on professional work for the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and from 1960 the Mermaid Theatre, London. In 1965 he joined the BBC where his diversity and adaptability became apparent in a range of projects. These included working with two incarnations of Doctor Who, recreating the London Underground in The Web of Fear for Patrick Troughton (1968), a space probe ship for Jon Pertwee in The Ambassadors of Death (1970), and a Country House interior in The Day of the Daleks (1972). By contrast, he was responsible for the Renaissance settings and décor—capacious hallways, large antique globes, ancient books...