On 12 December 1953 a small choirboy with a round, angelic face, but a none too angelic glint in his eye, stood on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in London for a singing audition. He recited Robert Browning's "Home Thoughts from Abroad", and sang "Where'er you walk" from Handel's Semele. As the boy stopped singing, a bass voice rang out from the stalls. "Thank you, thank you very much. That's really very good."
The deep voice belonged to Benjamin Britten. The boy was the future actor and director David Hemmings. Britten was looking for a boy to sing the role of Miles in the opera he had not yet begun to write, based on Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw. Hemmings, one of the more bumptious boys in the choir of the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace, had been encouraged to apply by his music master. Although his voice was actually a little thin, he had a winning way at festivals, and often walked off with the prize.
Within a few months of the audition, Hemmings left school, left his home in the London suburb of Tolworth, and arrived in Aldeburgh for voice training and to learn his part in the opera. For the next two or three months, he lived at Britten's Crag House. He became the darling of the household. "It was one of the most wonderful times of my entire life", Hemmings told me shortly before he died. Britten was still working on the score, so "we all gathered round the piano - Peter Pears, Jennifer Vyvyan, Joan Cross, Arda Mandikian, Olive Dyer and me". Britten played, "and we all sang to it. He really constructed the opera round our voices." Britten was not to finish the opera until just two weeks before the English Opera Group's opening at Teatro la Fenice in Venice.
Before long, Britten's friends began to notice that he was captivated by Hemmings. The infatuation (and it is Hemmings's own word) lasted for most of the two years he worked with Britten. Charles Mackerras, who conducted at Aldeburgh in the mid-1950s, saw it at first hand. "David Hemmings was an extremely good-looking young chap and he also very much played up to Ben's obvious adoration of him, and drank it in," recalled Mackerras. "Ben's behaviour was so much that of the besotted lover that one thought that maybe he might have behaved improperly with him eventually. But if we can believe David Hemmings (and I do), there was no 'hanky-panky' at all."
Basil Coleman was another house-guest. "Ben got very fond of him, of course," said Coleman. "[It] would ultimately draw out a brilliant performance from the boy, because he was safe, as it were." Coleman rejoices in the devoted friendships Ben had with boys, friendships that he feels would have been hard for him to sustain in today's more censorious climate. But he does admit that one singer was concerned that the composer was getting too fond of Hemmings. Asked if he felt that was a risk, Coleman paused for a while before replying: "Not really. No - I trusted Ben... no."
Half a century on, Hemmings himself had no reservations. "He was not only a father to me, but a friend - and you couldn't have had a better father, or a better friend. He was generous and kind, and I was very lucky. I loved him dearly, I really did - I absolutely adored him. I didn't fancy him, I did go to bed with him, but I didn't go to bed with him in that way." He admitted Ben was infatuated with him: "Everybody asks me whether or not he gave me one. The answer to that question, as I have often said, is no, he did not. I have slept in his bed, yes, only because I was scared at night... and I have never ever, ever felt threatened by Ben at all because I was more heterosexual than Genghis Khan!"
I asked him whether he felt Britten's feelings for him had been those of a father for a son, or whether he had been in love with him. Hemmings's response was elliptical: "I think both are entwined. If you are in love with a young man, certainly you can consider him your son. He certainly wanted to bring me up, he certainly wanted to send me to an appropriate school where I could learn music and learn to play the piano, and, yes, he loved me, he did, he did. But he loved me like a father, not like a lover."
If some 12-year-old boys might have been too innocent to appreciate sexual danger signs, David Hemmings was not one of them. As a choirboy travelling from Tolworth to Hampton Court, he had been molested several times by a man on the bus, "so I knew what the goings were". Before leaving home for Suffolk the first time, he had been warned about Britten by his father, "strangely enough in Leicester Square men's lavatory. He told me - his exact words - 'You know he's a homo, don't you?'"
Although the only overt sexual reference in the story is to the previous love affair between Quint and Jessel, The Turn of the Screw has a latent sexuality that adds to the tension and the spookiness. "Malo", Miles's song in the schoolroom, sets the context for the discomfiting relationship between the schoolboy and Quint which pervades the rest of the drama.
As the first rehearsals of the opera progressed, Colin Graham, the stage manager in 1954, came to realise that, although the character of Miles still had "an underlying innocence, because of who he is and the age he is", he had been "got at". This was where there was an awkward crossover between the fictional part of Miles and the real boy they were working with,
Britten was intrigued by the corruption or disintegration of innocence, and none of his works addresses this so directly as The Turn of the Screw. A further fascination for him was the unspoken question of whether the innocent himself had become complicit in the corruption, and therefore the "innocence" of the treble voice had curdled. The decidedly unmonastic Hemmings made the connection himself. "I wasn't exactly what you might call a 'prior-boy' myself - choirboy yes, prior-boy no. Did I know Miles? Yes I did. He was me. And I think Ben saw that in me. He saw the wickedness in me, he saw that evil sense of countenance about me. He thought I was naughty, and that's why Peter Pears was afraid of me, because he thought I was naughty too!"
In early September the whole cast set off for Venice to perform in the Biennale. Hemmings, as the star turn, enjoyed a feast of publicity photographs, all of them revealing a feisty young boy with a wicked twinkle in his eye. Hemmings was to find that the climax of his first professional stage appearance would be indelibly imprinted on his memory. The very process of reliving the opera's momentous conclusion, and almost acting it out as he spoke, brought a lump to his throat almost 50 years later. Once the curtain calls were over, the whole cast attended a reception given by the mayor, who gave Hemmings a Märklin train set. The evening was still young, and the cast set off to carouse in the alleys of Venice. It ended in an alfresco rendering of folksongs by Mandikian. Hundreds of people stopped and stared at this impromptu display. The boy David was in seventh heaven: no wonder the stage hooked him that night.
In October, the opera opened in London at Sadler's Wells, then it travelled to Holland and Sweden, and in January it was recorded by Decca - the first time a complete Britten opera had been committed to disc. In November 1954, David found time to go back to school, though not for long. He took the opportunity to show off a leather belt that Britten had given him, and, in his thank-you letter, said: "I would like to spend a few days at Aldeburgh with you, the first weekend after Christmas, or whenever it is convenient with you... Lots of love to you! Yours always, David xxxxxx."
He did indeed go to stay, and Britten sent him a present afterwards, which prompted a further letter: "Dear Ben. Thank you, thank you for the lovely game Dover Patrol. I enjoyed playing it so much at Aldeburgh with Richard, that I have been trying to get it (in vain chiz.,), therefore you can imagine my joy at receiving your parcel. This is also an opportunity to thank you for my lovely stay at Crag House, I don't think I have ever enjoyed a holiday so much - even Venice. It was so good to have somebody you were fond of with you all the time and for this Ben, I thank you indeed. I most certainly will - if it's all right with you, stay with you again sometime. Yours, with all my Love, David xoxoxoxoxo (1,000,000 times)."
As the performances of The Turn of the Screw continued, David's now fruitier treble voice survived into his 15th year. Britten tried to map out a career for his young star. But the opera had launched Hemmings's stage career rather than a musical one, and he forsook Britten's plans in favour of film offers that were already coming his way.
The end, when it came, was sudden. The EOG took The Screw to Paris, to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in 1956. In the middle of his keynote aria, "Malo", David's voice broke. A mortified Britten brought the orchestra off, waved his baton at David in a fury, and put it down on his music-stand as the curtain was lowered. "I was Spanish-archered immediately [got the 'el bow']. As I walked off the stage, I passed Robin Fairhearst, who'd been my understudy for two years, walking up the stairs. I thought, 'You little bugger, you're going to be playing this for weeks.'" But, he added with glee, "his voice broke the following night!"
Hemmings remembered it as the last time he had any dealings with Britten. When I asked him whether this father-figure whom he so adored had said anything to him, he surprised me - and I think himself - by the answer that sprang to his lips: "No. No, he didn't. That was a bit sad, I have to say, but from that moment forward, I was history. Sad isn't it? The idyll was over."
This is an edited extract from 'Britten's Children' by John Bridcut, published by Faber and Faber Ltd at £18.99