The end of innocence

At the heart of Benjamin Britten's vision for his opera 'The Turn of the Screw' lay his infatuation with his boy soprano, the future film star David Hemmings

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor