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Look back with candour

The great British singer Dame Janet Baker reveals a profoundly moving personal story in John Bridcut’s film for BBC Four

11 April, 2019 — By Michael White

Dame Janet Baker. Photo: Crux Productions

THE purpose of this page is generally to get readers out of the house and into the experience of live music. But just for once I’m suggesting you stay in – for a film that premieres this Sunday night on BBC4 and outclasses anything that TV’s had to offer, musically, in years.

It’s a film about Dame Janet Baker who was probably the greatest British singer of the 20th century, albeit one with a career that ended early – in her middle 50s when she bowed out by her own decision, with the voice still perfect.

That she chose not to outstay her welcome, as some singers do, was typical of Baker. She was principled, perfectionist and dignified – with qualities that made her a performer of incomparable style. And it was obvious from the start, when she stepped into the vacated shoes of Kathleen Ferrier and made her name singing things like Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius under the baton of John Barbirolli.

Never drawn to mainstream 19th-century Italian opera, she made her vocal home in English oratorio, Mahler, Berlioz, baroque stage-works, and the British music of her own time by the likes of Britten and Walton. And if nothing else, the archive footage in this new film will remind you how exquisitely she did it all.

But what makes the film so special is that for much of it she speaks direct to camera: an elderly woman, now 85, looking back over her life with disarming candour and the devastating admission that (as she says) “it’s hard to be a singer, harder still to be a human being”.

The received wisdom on Janet Baker was always that she was a passionate artist but cold human being with a reserved manner that kept others at bay. But it wasn’t coldness so much as nobility – combined with self-protection that was understandable if you knew her personal history. Which few people did.

In this beautiful film by John Bridcut she gives chapter and verse for the first time. And it’s profoundly moving, with one scene in particular that will reduce any sensitive soul to tears – as it did the other week when I watched a preview showing in a room packed with some of the biggest names in British music, including the Dame herself.

A must-see, it explains a lot.

• Janet Baker in her Own Words, Sunday April 14, BBC4, 9pm


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