The Weekend's Viewing: The bizarre story of Hertfordshire's Bonnie and Clyde
Loving Miss Hatto, Sun, BBC1 // Mr Stink, Sun, BBC1
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013.
Monday 24 December 2012
"We're Hertfordshire's Bonnie and Clyde," chuckled Joyce Hatto, the retired solo pianist who found late fame – and posthumous infamy – after her husband digitally manipulated other musicians' recordings to bring her the international recognition that had eluded her in her prime.
The scam and its exposure became one of the most surprising news stories of 2006 and Victoria Wood's drama Loving Miss Hatto cast a new and gently moving light on a bizarre story.
Hatto trained as a classical pianist but sank into obscurity, partly, it was claimed, due to the inconsistent quality of her playing but also because of her uncontrollable nerves. It was when Hatto was living in the depths of suburban obscurity, well into old age, that her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, a one-time impresario who had had a spell in jail for fraud in the 1960s, began digitally splicing the works of other solo pianists and passing them off as hers that the music critics began to embrace her talent.
The fraud came to light months after her death, by which time she was a celebrated name, and her still-living husband maintains to this day that he worked on the scam single-handedly. Wood's fictionalised story showed Hatto to be in on the trickery, though it was instigated by Barrington-Coupe. Whatever the truth, this marvellous drama touched on the connection between "genius" and its requirements for "fame". The younger Miss Hatto was a purist. When she first met Barrington-Coupe, he wanted fame for her more than she did: "I sort of think I play better when no one's listening," she confided, but he pushed for more. If the critics gave her acclaim, then so much the better, he told her, but she insisted that "the playing will be the same".
The subtle message in this was that her genius was reward enough for her. Yet the older Miss Hatto in 2002 was no longer the high-minded purist of her youth but a bitterly disappointed woman, angered by her obscurity. She regarded the eleventh-hour critical acclaim as somehow her due – the right of someone whose natural talent ought to be recognised.
What raised this drama to its fine heights was the writing, full of insights, ironies and humour. An unknowing critic from Gramophone magazine marvelled at Hatto's recordings, saying "it's like listening to eight different pianists". The only (minor) nub was that Wood's distinctive voice could at times be heard being spoken through her characters, and for these few moments, they lost their solidity. Overall, this was as much a portrait of Barrington-Coupe's love for his wife as it was of her thwarted talent and it was reassuring to see that the BBC is capable of producing one-off dramas of this calibre in our present culture of interminably average drama series.
Mr Stink, written by David Walliams and based on his children's book, revolved around the outcaster friendship between an old hobo and a young bullied girl. Hugh Bonneville – better known as Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey – was sufficiently stately in his role as the titular Mr Stink in spite of his trampish stinkery, while Johnny Vegas excelled as the house-husband (performing an electric guitar version of "Good King Wenceslas" at the end.) Walliams was duly odious in his cameo role as a Tory prime minister who liked to quote the wisdom of Bryan Adams at the voting population.
Yet the whole thing seemed a tad too derivative for any real magic sparks to fly. There were, variously, elements of Roald Dahl and Harry Potter but with less of the big imagination of either. The irritating fleck of Little Britainesque stereotyping (of the Asian shopkeeper selling out-of-date fare) didn't help with originality either. Oh well, at least Pudsey the dog (of Britain's Got Talent fame) acted his socks off.
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