Classical: Defending the real Jackie

Jacqueline du Pre was no monster. Christopher Nupen should know - he worked closely with the cellist on two intimate film portraits.
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The Independent Culture
Jacqueline du Pre must have been turning rather rapidly in her grave since the release of the film Hilary and Jackie earlier this year. Based on her brother and sister's memoir, A Genius in the Family, it portrays the late cellist as a vulgar and petulant sexual predator. She may have been one of the century's most wonderful musicians. Her career may also have been terminated at the age of 28 by the onset of multiple sclerosis. However, for many the most memorable episode in both book and film is a 16-month affair she had with her sister Hilary's husband, Kiffer Finzi, in the early Seventies.

In the film's aftermath, her sister stated that "Nobody could be with Jackie for long without being reduced by her... People couldn't live with her week in, week out, because she unwittingly destroyed them."

A rather nasty piece of work, then? Yet, listen to what her friends say. Fellow musicians, such as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and the late Yehudi Menuhin, have protested that the selfish, spoilt and manipulative du Pre of the film "is not the Jacqueline du Pre that we... knew." The journalist Jeannette Kupferman, who was close to her during the last years of her life, has asserted that "any friend of Jackie's would know that she was a giver not a taker", and the guitarist John Williams has simply called the film "macabre".

One of those who has not spoken out until now, however, was one of du Pre's most intimate friends. Christopher Nupen, first met her when she was 16; his wife was "her closest friend and her most intimate confidante for years", and he was at du Pre's bedside when she died in 1987. At first, he decided to maintain a distance from the rows surrounding the film. Now, however, he has decided to set the record straight because of his conviction that "the idea that people should invent a whole new perverted, false Jackie just because she had the power to touch people is wickedness of a major order".

Nupen is an award-winning maker of classical music films and also the director of the only two documentaries ever made with du Pre. The latest, Remembering Jacqueline du Pre, has just been released on video by EMI. The first, Jacqueline du Pre and the Elgar Cello Concerto, was originally made in 1967, at the height of du Pre's tragically short career. Both documentaries show her in performance, in rehearsal and in interview. "I shot what I thought were things that were Jackie at her most Jackie," asserts Nupen. "She loved the Elgar film because she felt it was true to her and she knew, especially after she became ill, that it had caught something of that extraordinary spirit she had." In the light of Hilary and Jackie, it also provides the most convincing refutation of her siblings' posthumous portrayal of her.

Indeed, a few minutes of either documentary are sufficient to confirm that the du Pre of Hilary and Jackie is a pale imitation of the real one. Her principal record company, EMI, refused to co-operate on the film and so much of the music is interpreted not by du Pre herself, but by Caroline Dale - a cellist not devoid of talent, but hardly in the same league as du Pre. Similarly, Emily Watson may be one of our finest actresses, but she has none of du Pre's scintillating aura. "Her spirit was so irresistibly appealing in everything she did," says Nupen.

The artistic director of the LA Philharmonic Institute, Lynn Harrell, once wrote that "no one expressed life on the cello as she did, either before or since". In the documentaries, du Pre herself comes over as an immense source of life, quite the opposite of the destructive character described by her sister. She is vivacious, happy and laughing. When she plays a Clementi sonata on the piano (with a serious amount of aplomb), she is simply captivating. When she greets her dressmaker, she is the embodiment of warmth, honesty and enthusiasm. "She got under the skin of people and she generated exuberance, fun and love all the time," affirms Nupen.

Nupen was brought up in South Africa, but left for London at the age of 19. He had initially planned to study international banking, but ended up studying classical guitar with John Williams's father, Len. He then joined the BBC as a studio operator and made his first programme for radio in 1962, about the Accademia Musicale Chigiona in Siena, where he himself had taken masterclasses with Segovia. His first film for television, with Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy, followed soon afterwards.

He initially met Jacqueline du Pre through his flatmate, John Williams, who was working with the cellist on her first record. "I remember that first meeting with Jackie as clear as a bell," says Nupen. "She walked into that flat and I can see it to this day because I was struck by what appeared to be contradictory qualities. She strode like an amazon and yet she was manifestly shy. I thought, `How the hell can you be a striding amazon and be shy, at the same time?'" Within five minutes, they had become friends for life.

Nupen's own voice-overs for his films about du Pre are nothing if not eulogistic. His commentaries abound with superlatives and the tone could lead to suspicions that he may be undiscriminating. When we meet for lunch in Avignon (Nupen now lives in nearby Aix-en-Provence), it is quite evident that du Pre had such an immense effect on him that he simply has difficulty finding words powerful enough to describe it. "To be with Jackie was enlivening almost at every moment. Her honesty, her generosity, her simplicity, her perception of those things that really mattered about life and people restored faith."

Yet, his comments about her and the film are at the same time irreproachably balanced. He admits, for example, that she was capable of being upset and depressed, that she was keen on telling bawdy jokes with gusto. She was "thought of by nearly everybody as rather fey because she was in some senses naive. She was not worldly. She was otherworldly. She often didn't know what day it was. She often didn't know when her next concert was. She didn't know what things cost."

Nupen is also decidedly unjudgemental about Kiffer Finzi's serial affairs ("I don't like this Anglo-Saxon concern with other people's sexual behaviour. That's his problem") and he also believes that Hilary and Piers's jealousy of Jackie has been blown out of all proportion by the media.

He is, however, at pains to set the record straight about the infamous affair between du Pre and Finzi, which began in 1971, with Hilary's knowledge.

"At one time, the world did start to get too much for her," he says. "She says, in Remembering Jacqueline du Pre: `I love playing the cello and I love playing to people, but I've never wanted to do it every hour and every day of my life.' And when she actually got on to the concert circuit... Jackie found that difficult. And that was the time when she went down to her sister for sustenance and refuge."

He points out that "Jacqueline du Pre probably had fewer affairs than any other international musician in the world at that time", and that the farm where Hilary and Kiffer lived was more or less a commune in the period of free love, when "everybody slept with everybody". Hilary condoned not only this affair, but many others that Kiffer had subsequently.

As Nupen points out, "He was regarded as something of a guru and his therapy for everyone who came to him for advice was to take them to bed, as his daughter has subsequently confirmed. We know there have been three illegitimate children."

If the motives behind the affair remain opaque, those for making the film seem to Nupen to be crystal-clear. He insists on calling it a "fiction" film and is convinced that "it came about for the purpose of making money. Perhaps a little bit because they want to be in the papers, and they have succeeded in that." They have also succeeded in seriously annoying Nupen. He decries the fact that part of the film purports to see things through du Pre's eyes. ("How could anybody see through Jackie's eyes, because she was so unusual in every way?") and the fact that Emily Watson, who played du Pre, "didn't take the trouble to find out a bit more about who this woman really was. If she had done that, I would expect she would have had more moral scruples about portraying a character that in fact didn't exist."

He also gives quite short shrift to Hilary's portrayal of Jackie as a destructive monster. "My own personal experience is precisely the contrary," he says. "I saw Jackie pretty well every week for at least 15 years - infinitely more than either her brother or her sister. I knew her intimately for 26 years on a daily level and in the whole of my work, Jackie elevated me, as I have seen her elevating other people all the time, both by her capacity for artistic expression and by the natural, heartening, honest exuberance of her personality."

Both Christopher Nupen's documentaries are available on video: `Remembering Jacqueline du Pre' is released by EMI, `Jacqueline du Pre and the Elgar Cello Concerto' by Teldec