Glyndebourne is celebrating the 2012 European Opera Days campaign by hosting a free online streaming of On Such A Night, a charming and captivating film from Glyndebourne’s rich archive featuring John Christie, David Knight, Marie Lohr and Josephine Griffin.
Directed by Anthony Asquith, this quintessentially English film tells the tale of an American tourist who, on arriving at Victoria station in London with the intention of visiting the picturesque South Downs, inadvertently follows a group of well-dressed opera goers to Glyndebourne. There he watches his first opera - Le nozze di Figaro - of which a number of original and rare excerpts of live performances are included.
Originally released in 1956, the film has been digitally restored from the material preserved by the British Film Institute National Archive and re-released on DVD.
The Story of On Such A Night
On the 19 November 1953, Ken Cameron, a director of Anvil Films Ltd, wrote a letter to Sir Malcolm Sargent. In it, he outlined his idea for making a short, colour film about Glyndebourne – a film of the story behind Glyndebourne and, more importantly, its place in the musical life of this country, something which he believed was not being sufficiently recorded at that time. This letter was duly forwarded to John Christie, with a covering note from Sir Malcolm in which he recommended Ken Cameron as ‘an excellent fellow’ and the film as ‘an excellent idea’. Firstly it would provide Glyndebourne with a valuable publicity tool both at home and abroad, and secondly, it would attract such a wide viewing audience that it would undoubtedly recoup most, if not all, of its production costs.
The matter was passed over to General Manager Moran Caplat, who was interested, so Cameron threw himself into trying to find some financial backing for his project. Two months later however, he reported that ‘all our most zealous efforts to obtain a sponsor for the film have failed.’ All those approached were enthusiastic – but not willing to put up the necessary funds.
In May 1954, Cameron met with Sir Wilfrid Eady who had helped to maintain the Crown Film Unit. and had just been asked to join the Board of the proposed Glyndebourne Arts Trust as its Chairman. It was he that suggested Cameron approach the J Arthur Rank Organisation, whom Eady knew well, and ask them to both finance and exhibit the film but this initial approach also met with resistance. Eady did not give up however, and four months later in October 1954, he was setting up a meeting between Earl St John, Executive Producer at Rank, director Anthony Asquith and Moran Caplat to discuss the project once more – but Cameron and Anvil Films were no longer involved.
By May 1955 the film was going ahead, and being made by Screen Audiences Ltd, the production company within J Arthur Rank Screen Services Group. More importantly, the Rank organisation was paying for it. Filming was to take place during the first two weeks of June in 1955 under the working title ‘Puzzle – Find the Countess’.
The personalities involved with the project were of such a high calibre, that it is clear Rank took the film seriously. Director Anthony was son of Liberal Prime Minister Henry Asquith. He had been making films since the 1920s, and had scored notable successes with Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Ernest. He was also passionately interested in classical music, opera and ballet, so one can only assume that the Glyndebourne job must have appealed to him.
Script writer Paul Dehn had started his working life as a film reviewer for various London papers before becoming a writer of play, operettas and musicals. His first screenplay Seven Days to Noon won an Academy Award in 1950, and he wrote the lyrics to Moulin Rouge in 1952. (He later went on to write Goldfinger and the Planet of the Apes sequels amongst much else.) The music consultant for Glyndebourne’s film was Benjamin Frankel, a well-known and respected composer. The film’s star was the handsome young American actor, David Knight. Knight had attended RADA on a Fulbright Scholarship, and six months after graduating he had been contracted to J Arthur Rank.
The film was set in three locations, Victoria Station in London, the town of Lewes and Glyndebourne. Due to take two weeks, work started over the last weekend in May – not the most propitious timing, for at midnight on 28 May the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen (ASLEF) called its members out on strike. This action, or inaction, ensured that there were no trains running, a state of affairs which also lasted for two weeks. Many sporting events were delayed and the Trooping of the Colour was cancelled for the only time during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The Glyndebourne film-makers faced a big problem. The film opened with scenes of Victoria Station – the shot of the exterior and clock tower were no trouble, but with no trains running, the scenes of opera-goers boarding the train to Lewes had to be re-created in a replica built at Pinewood Studios.
John Christie loved the bustle of the film-making, and could not wait for his turn in front of the camera. Everyone pitched in, with the Lewes cinema making facilities available for showing the rushes every morning, and the local car hire company providing the traditional old Rolls Royce.
The first rough cut of the film was shown by Rank on 22 July at the British Council Theatre, Hanover Street, London. On the 25 October a selected audience was invited to a private viewing of the film, which by this time had been re-titled On Such A Night. The result was an effusive letter to John Davis from Moran Caplat, expressing ‘our gratitude to you and your Organisation for such a little jewel.’
Original plans for film’s premiere to be held at the internationally prestigious Edinburgh Film Festival sadly came to nought as the film was not ready for the Festival in July. Instead, following an early suggestion of Caplat’s, On Such A Night was coupled with another Rank production, Simon and Laura. The two films shared a joint premiere at the Gaumont in the Haymarket, London on 24 November 1955, two days after the press showing.
The press reviews were, on the whole, positive, ranging from lukewarm to enthusiastic – ‘pleasant’, ‘pleasing’, ‘witty’, ‘a delight’. What they all agreed on was the quality of the featured opera excerpts, the colour and sound.
Having been given this completed film as a gift, including the copyright, Glyndebourne had to decide what to do with it. The Central Office of Information (COI) had been set up in 1946. Its purpose is to inform the public about government issues – in the main, the making and distributing of public information films. Recognising the possible benefits to the country, (increased cultural profile, overseas visitors) widely publicising the film seemed a sensible move, and from Glyndebourne’s point of view, they had a proven infrastructure already in place. Thus the COI got a ten-year contract for non-theatrical showings through the Central Film Library at home, and through the Foreign Office and Commonwealth Relations Office, full rights abroad. It was agreed by all parties that America should treated as a special case.
America was a nut that Glyndebourne really wanted to crack. From 1938 onwards, John Christie had been anxious to take Glyndebourne to the States, and many in the States felt the same way – but planned visits, tours, and even an offer to build a new Glyndebourne in Virginia had come to nought. It was felt that the film would act as a good vehicle with which to garner support and raise Glyndebourne’s profile, apart from making some money in the process.
The first step was to have the film assessed as to its suitability for use in American cinemas. A copy was duly despatched to British Information Services in New York who watched it and reported back to the Foreign Office. Their verdict was less than enthusiastic. The film was too short to be shown as a feature film, and too long to be shown as a short. However, we do know that it was used by the prestigious Marsh Tours company in New York to ‘educate’ their tour conductors.
On Such A Night went on to have a long and useful life. Within its first year it was seen as far afield as Belgrade, film festivals in Uruguay, Berlin and Johannesburg (where it won an award), Salzburg, Vancouver and Wexford Festival. In 1961 the National Film Archive selected On Such A Night for preservation, and in 1966 COI extended their distribution agreement for a further 10 years. Moran Caplat finally made the decision to withdraw the film from commercial circulation in February 1972 following reports that a showing in East Grinstead ‘had invoked laughter rather than respect.’ The circulating copies of the film had become very tatty and although still charming ‘can hardly be giving a very good impression of present-day Glyndebourne.’ Possibly not, but now, almost 55 years after it was made, On Such A Night returns to charm and captivate us all over again.