Tony Palmer in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe
1. In Search of a Scenario
was asked to make a film about André Previn, I said no!'
That was the gut reaction of multi-award-winning film director Tony Palmer.
Renowned for his music documentaries, Palmer knows he needs a very special
peg upon which to hang a scenario.
'I've seen this film many times before', says Palmer, 'and I don't want
to make another musician-on-the-road movie'.
Previn is an expert in public relations so his life has been well-documented
over the years: his expertise as pianist, composer, conductor; the LSO years;
his marriage break-ups and numerous television appearances. Who can forget
the notorious Morecambe and Wise episode?
The film is intended to be part of Previn's 70th birthday celebrations
centering in the UK at the Barbican in March. A meeting was set-up with
Previn at the Savoy Hotel for Palmer to go on a fishing expedition.
'I don't think André knew I'd said no and he didn't know the purpose
behind the first meeting. I asked him what he was doing over the next two
years. He mentioned a concert here and a concert there. My heart sank!
'Then he said, "I've been asked to write an opera".
"What?", I queried dubiously'.
"A Streetcar Named Desire".
"I'll do the film!", I said straight away.
'Because it's Tennessee Williams, it's hard to think of another playwright,
apart from Shakespeare and perhaps Oscar Wilde, whose titles are so well
known to the man-in-the-street. This is partly because his work has been
made into films: Streetcar, Baby Doll, The Night of the
Iguana, Suddenly Last Summer, The Glass Menagerie - they
are an essential part of our fabric. If a musician is crazy enough to tackle
one of the great plays of the 20th century, there's got to be a story here,
I thought. I was hooked!'
The idea of making an opera out of Streetcar had been an obsession
of Lofti Mansouri the General Director of San Francisco Opera. Many people,
including Bernstein, had been sounded out but they all said no. Previn agreed.
film follows the opera rehearsals up to the first night.
We were all getting on very well and we had absolute access. The rehearsal
scenes are funny and very revealing. We see Renée Fleming [who sings
the leading role of Blanche DuBois] cursing and swearing. At one point she
looks straight at camera and says: " I can't believe I've been stupid
enough to allow this to be filmed. I'm going to be so embarrassed, it's
awful!". You can see what is going wrong. On that level it's absolutely
This sounds like opera-in-the-raw! When Palmer makes a film about musicians
he confesses to being more interested in 'the people and the problems' rather
than in the music, 'although the music is something that stirs me profoundly'.
He illustrates this point with a story about his award-winning profile of
'I first discussed the film with her around 1973. Here was the greatest
singer in the world but the voice was cracked. What's the connection? I'm
paraphrasing, but this woman had a terrible life. At that time not much
was known about her relationships with men. We knew vaguely but not in any
detail so for me this was a pure jump in the dark. I realised that she had
been through hell and that's why the voice is cracked. She's trying to tell
us something and it works on stage - she is vulnerable. The art has long
gone but she is a true artist. That's how I want to think about her.
'Now, when I'm making a film about André and the backbone is the
opera, then I'm interested in all his struggles. It is an extraordinary
story: a penniless German Jew who arrives in America in '38 not speaking
one word of English. By the time he's around 34 he's written the music for
at least 64 films and won four Oscars. In the film he says it is an amazing
experience. He learned more from writing film scores than he did from his
German conservatoire training!'
Previn is a consummate pianist. He is filmed sight-reading the Brahms
Piano Quintet with the Emerson Quartet. It is a standard part of their repertoire.
'I know they won't mind me saying this', says Palmer 'but they couldn't
keep up with him'. He is also a fine jazz pianist. Previn relates the story
of how he learned to play jazz. It is very funny and involves Art Tatum.
He is filmed playing the Bruno Club in New York - the first time he has
played jazz in public for some 30 years - and he plays Gershwin and conducts
Step-by-step Palmer is building a portrait. He feels that Previn has
sacrificed on the altar of his art 'the things ordinary beings need and
depend on'. He has four broken marriages and life on the road is a solitary
existence. 'You don't automatically think of André Previn as a lonely
man', reflects Palmer, 'but I think there is a certain parallel with Blanche
in Streetcar. There is a real loneliness to the man'.
The film was sent to Previn on completion. 'He was very worried about
some aspects so we talked them through. He wanted to know why I had done
some things in a certain way. Although he didn't necessarily agree with
me, once he understood he left it. I only had to make one minor change.
I don't know whether he approves of the film but he is sensible and intelligent
enough not to interfere with somebody else's view of him. He wanted assurance
that nothing in it was arbitrary.
'I use part of Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony for the soundtrack. It
gives a particular colour and feel. André was curious but he could
see what I was getting at. I also told him that apart from the original
Boult recordings, his are the best ever of the VW symphonies. It's a shocking
disgrace that they have never been released on CD. If you're looking at
this EMI, you should be ashamed of yourselves! They are the definitive recordings
and that was the reference for the film'.
The recordings were made at a time when VW was not in fashion. Over the
years, Previn has shone a particularly illuminating light on English music.
'No wonder he was given an honorary knighthood and rightly so',
remarks Palmer. 'He's done so much for English music in spite of being regarded
in certain quarters as that Hollywood man who plays dreadful jazz! Some
people have got a lot to answer for'. And then with a grin: 'you know who
The première of The Kindness of Strangers is on Sunday
21 March at 3.30pm in the Barbican Cinema. The title for the film is taken
from the last line of A Streetcar Named Desire.
A live recording of the opera A Streetcar Named Desire from San
Francisco Opera House has been made by Deutsche Grammophon on 459 366-2GX3
(three discs). The principal roles are sung by Renée Fleming, Rodney
Gilfry and Elizabeth Futral. The Orchestra of San Francisco Opera is conducted
by André Previn.
Part 2 >>
Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, March