BBC Music Magazine

Humphrey Burton

In an extract from his imminent autobiogra­phy, Humphrey Burton recalls scrambling up a cathedral tower to achieve a crowning shot in the nick of time


The former BBC presenter and director describes filming the shot of a lifetime at the Spoleto Festival

In my late 20s I had my first job in television; I was a member of the team that produced the BBC’S arts programme Monitor. I directed a profile of the Allegri String Quartet and time in New York making Rudolf Bing at the Met, a portrait of an impresario at the height of his power. Early in the summer of 1960, my boss Huw Wheldon and I set off for Italy and our most ambitious project to date, another portrait of an impressive arts figure, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, whose TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors was a popular favourite in the UK. Menotti was the inspirer of the renowned Festival of Two Worlds in the city of Spoleto.

On the final day of the Spoleto shoot we pulled off a tiny cinematic coup. The ‘we’ includes my camera crew led by John Ray, with whom I had worked the previous year on Hi-fi-fo-fum [a

BBC film on audiophile­s]. For the film’s climax my script called for us to shoot a sizeable excerpt from Brahms’s German Requiem, which was being performed as the closing event of the festival in the open-air piazza in front of the cathedral.

The conductor was the American Thomas Schippers, whom I had interviewe­d for Transatlan­tic Turntable in my radio days; we got on well and I had his blessing to move my film crew around during the performanc­e. We were working with a standard blimped Arriflex camera which had a quiet motor – essential for music filming – but could run for a mere four minutes before needing a reload. So we were less than ideally equipped to deal with Brahms’s long melodic lines. But we coped. After half an

It was perilous, and there was no chance of a second take; the light was going ever faster

hour, most of what I planned was in the can. But I felt uneasy: our shots came nowhere near to matching the grandeur of the setting or of the music. I glanced up at the cathedral behind the choir and orchestra. High in the tower I noticed an opening, maybe a belfry. Could this be the location from which to shoot a final image?

Leaving the crew outside, I ran to the back, found the doorway to the tower and raced up interminab­le flights of stairs. The view from the top was indeed breath-taking: in my mind’s eye

I could see a great closing shot. I scampered back to ground level, instructed the sound recordist to carry on taping until the last bar of the Requiem and then led my little team back up the stone staircases, between us carrying camera, spare film cassette and battery; I think I had the tripod on my shoulder. It was a double race against time: would we be ready to shoot before the Requiem ended (they had already begun the final movement), and with twilight falling fast, would there be sufficient light in the sky for the image to register on film? John Ray consulted his light meter and thought yes, but he soon determined that the only way to get the shot I wanted was to abandon the tripod and hang the camera halfway out of the opening in the tower: if I

clung like grim death to his hips, Johnny could rest his camera on the stone window shelf and tilt it down sufficient­ly to frame a shot on the conductor almost vertically beneath us. Then the camera could slowly be panned up and Johnny could zoom out towards the skyline. But a quick rehearsal showed that the camera’s exposure would have to be modified as Johnny zoomed out, to take account of the falling light level. We could only execute this delicate operation if the assistant cameraman stretched out into space and on Johnny’s command adjusted the exposure control. This was a perilous manoeuvre. There was no chance of a second take; the light was going ever faster and the music was rising to its final climax…

There was no monitor screen for me to check on Johnny’s progress: only he could see the flailing arms of Maestro Schippers in his viewfinder and attempt to get the focus sharp on the baton. With the delicacy of a surgeon wielding a scalpel, Johnny slowly widened the conductor shot to discover the strings of the orchestra desk by desk around Maestro Schippers and then the woodwinds and brass and finally the chorus filling his entire frame – and then in a continuous movement the camera zoomed out and panned further up to reveal the vast audience seated on the slope of the Piazza del Duomo, hundreds of them, raptly attentive to the closing pages of the Brahms. As the camera continued its upward tilt, the houses on Spoleto’s skyline came into view and then the Umbrian hills were filling the screen, sombre but majestic even at twilight. It was beautiful: what the Americans call ‘the money shot’, although it had cost us nothing. Sweat, yes, but no blood or tears. I was never happier directing a film.

Humphrey Burton’s autobiogra­phy ‘In My

Own Time’ is published by Boydell & Brewer

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Thomas Schippers conducting at the open-air piazza at Spoleto; (right) the composer Gian Carlo Menotti with the city behind him; (below right) Humphrey Burton in the 1960s
Outside broadcast: Thomas Schippers conducting at the open-air piazza at Spoleto; (right) the composer Gian Carlo Menotti with the city behind him; (below right) Humphrey Burton in the 1960s
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