Gloriana on the big screen

25th September 2013

Here was one we made earlier. More than fifteen years ago in fact, and now brought from the archive for an outing at BFI Southbank on NFT1’s big screen. The production was Gloriana – A Film and the occasion last night was a showing as part of the BFI’s Britten at 100 season. As I am coming increasingly to recognise, it can be disconcerting seeing a production from the past in this way, especially if – as was the case for me last night – you have not watched it during the intervening years.

As it turned out, I need not have been apprehensive. Tony Miller’s Super 16 film images looked terrific, the performances of the stars Josephine Barstow (as Elizabeth I) and Tom Randle (Essex) were as good and rich as ever, Phyllida Lloyd’s debut direction came through as imaginative and creative in all the right ways, musically – under conductor Paul Daniel – it sounded very fine, and even the stereo mix, while thin (there was no 5.1 in those days), seemed acceptable.

Dame Josephine Barstow and Phyllida LLoyd did a Q&A after the screening, and they both were pleased with the film. Opera North had asked Phyllida to consider directing Britten’s Coronation year composition, and she and Dame Josephine had a triumph with it on the stage in 1993. On its revival four years later, and prompted by interest from the BBC in filming the production, Phyllida planned a film version that that was a radical response to the stage work.

More than a third was cut – essentially everything that wasn’t the Queen’s story of private desires and public duties – and the stage production was framed by a backstage story that paralleled Elizabeth’s dilemmas with the life of a character who Phyllida said last night was ‘an idea of Jo, not Jo herself’. Which is why, strictly, we titled the production Gloriana – A Film, to try to give the sense that it was more of an adaptation than is often the case with opera on screen.

We filmed on one night in the Grand Theatre in Leeds during the second revival of the production in 1998. We had five Aaton cameras rolling that evening, including two hand-held ones for scenes during which the operators were on stage and right in the faces of the singers. We had two further days in the theatre without an audience, and then the private exchanges between the Queen and her devoted noble were shot on a sound stage at Yorkshire Television. Everything was sung live, either with the orchestra on the night, or to playback of a pre-recorded orchestral track.

Editor Trevor Waite, who has worked with us on several of our Shakespeare performance films, worked with Phyllida to assemble a cut, which she acknowledged last night was more oblique and less head-on than the one that she had initially imagined. And then, having cost a comparatively modest total of £450,000, the film was shown just once by the BBC, Following which it won an International Emmy, a FIPA D’Or and a Royal Philharmonic Society award. Later, we were able to work with Opus Arte to bring it out on DVD, which remains available. How pleasing, however, to see last night that it can still more than hold its own on a big screen.


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