Letter from Hubert Foss to Ralph Vaughan Williams

Letter No.: 
[About 12th November 1951]

Draft Letter to Dr. R. Vaughan Williams, O.M.

My dear Ralph

Much to my astonishment, B.B.C. Television have approached me to ask if I could persuade you to reconsider your decision about a possible short film connected with your music and yourself (that is the correct order). They have made me quite aware of your unqualified negative. Even so, I venture to return to the charge for a number of reasons, which I am going to ask you to read in this letter.  The idea has such enormous possibilities.
Let me at once state that B.B.C. Television, or their hopes and wishes, means less than nothing to me.  I have not the slightest intention of dancing to their whistle. Straight off, I was forcibly struck with the chance offered of presenting you and your music to the English public in a way they understand and take notice of. Naturally As you may believe, I found a strong attraction in this idea. To me, as one who has attempted to expound your mind and your music in written and spoken words, this seemed to me a heaven-sent chance to continue the exposition visually, to present display your art with pictorial imagination and reference.  I find the idea positively haunts me - it makes a peak, a gathering point of opportunity to present tell the world about your music [to the public] - a crystallisation in the eye, almost, of one’s earlier work in the same field.  I believed it to be [felt it to be] my duty to explore this new territory, and that is why I am troubling you with this letter.
May I open my mind a little on the theme?  I felt immediately some interest that television is at last doing something as intelligent as presenting putting serious artists to the public; after the first admirable experiments in the medium in the 1936-40 period and the war black-out T.V. became all light programme-minded.  It is Herbert Read’s son who is doing the thinking; through his father he got Henry Moore and a promise from Augustus John. There must (they rightly say) be a musician. Well, ask yourself for a moment, who is there but you?  Of course I tried the others; the bosses view is that Bax, Bliss and Ireland have not made sufficient impact on the greater public - not even, to my surprise, Walton, they think, and they would not accept him (perhaps rightly, for there is no ‘picture’ to be made of him, as a fact).  If you won’t it has got to be Britten.
Now at this point I take a strong line myself.  With all my admiration for his indubitable talents, I do not think Britten a proper representative of English music or of English art.  (Anyhow, he would make a nauseatingly self conscious ‘picture’!)  Lambert, though a typically nineteen-twentyer, was a much truer symbol, even Warlock.  And Britten is too young yet.
There is the historical aspect to be considered.  Either this film series has some significance, or it hasn’t.  Immediate appeal I deal with later.  What impressed me is that these documentaries are going into the film libraries, for future reference all over the world.  Having this new medium of annalistic record, we are actually using it intelligently; and what would we not give for a well-done ‘short’ of, say, Beethoven or Schubert?  No film could, or should attempt to be biographically representative; but it cannot fail to be, if true and artistically telling, a priceless addition to the iconography of an artist of the past. The world shows no signs of lessening its trend towards the pictorial (as against the verbal) method of exposition. Oddly - no doubt wrongly - the general public will believe a picture when it will reject or neglect a clear written statement of fact. And, lastly, you do represent your period in the history of English music.
The Henry Moore film (I venture to pass by the point that you do not like Moore’s sculptures) is an admirable piece of work - brilliantly interesting, retrained, forceful with a gentle touch.  He himself makes but brief screen appearances, but he leaves his mark on the mind.  Seeing it, my mind began to course desirously over the ground to be covered in your case.
At this point One’s mind could not check itself from roaming away into the pictorial possibilities of the subject itself.
But what struck me most of all was the chance it gives one to impress you and your music on the English public in a way they understand.  To me, as one who has attempted to expound you and your music in explanatory words it seemed a heaven sent opportunity to expound you and your music visually, to present your art with pictorial clarity and reference.
The English scene, of course, leapt to the eye in much of its variety - Wenlock Edge, the Gloucestershire high and low lands, Leith Hill, Cambridge, the Fen country. Dorking in especial.  Then I though of people - the Leith Hill Festival, and its components: obviously they are a pictorial centre-piece, giving a place for yourself in the camera’s eye as well.  A possible scene or two from the operas, produced in the studio, suggested itself as a notion.
But try as I would, I could not avoid bringing in some ‘continuity’ about you yourself - your pipe, and your study and your house. Some personal impress on the eye from you would be integral to the picture’s meaning.
A slightly more distant vision presented itself to my inward eye - would not this film perhaps open the door to a television production of Pilgrim’s progress?  That would be worth a sacrifice, I thought.
By this time, my thoughts were so taken up with the project itself that I took a certain steps as I told BBC Television that I would not even mention the matter to you unless all the commentary, everything in fact, were filtered through me  (which eventually means written & designed by me).  The choice of music would also remain mine, subject to your direction.
This is indubitably a letter of especial pleading - a one-sided statement of a case.  On the other side, you have only to say ‘No’ once again, unexplained, and it will be accepted in the sense that the subject will never be referred to again by me, nor, I fancy by Television.
Finally, forgive, I beg you, the inordinate length of this letter.1
Ever yours,

1. For VW’s reply see VWL2294.

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