"They don't make documentaries like that anymore."
And more's the pity, for that was our universal reaction as we left Aldeburgh cinema yesterday following a screening of Barrie Gavin's 1985 documentary The Tenor Man's Story. Modern documentaries often seem to have rules that you mustn't hold a shot for more than twenty seconds, can't have talking heads and must be full of dramatic reconstructions.
Gavin's work, on the other hand, was simplicity itself, consisting of Peter Pears telling his life story, for the most part directly to camera, in his own words. It had been edited from a longer interview conducted by Donald Mitchell, but for the most part the actual questions were unheard and unneeded, with only the odd brief narration to link the material.
To be sure, it wasn't all to camera: there were many evocative shots of Aldeburgh, especially the waves lapping up on the beach, and the Red House, but these all seemed appropriate. So too the historical photographs, for example one of the cricket team he played on, which appeared and were held for a good long time as he discussed them. So too music, which was well and subtly chosen to illustrate the compositions he was talking about.
The documentary culminated in a moving scene where Pears, who due to a stroke could no longer sing, performed Schubert's final song Farewell to the Earth, which features a spoken part. A critic might perhaps complain that it was uncritical of Pears, at one point his greatness was mentioned without question when there are people who don't care for his style of singing. But that wasn't really the point - this was his story in his words and it was fascinating. Perhaps it might have been nice to have paired it with a different and more objective documentary (assuming a decent one exists).
The director introduced the film and explained that when it was first shown there in 1985 he'd then gone for a stroll along the beach for an hour, before returning to try and gauge how it had gone by looking at the audience. He did the same last night. From this section of the audience he can anyway be assured, it went down very well.