Saturday, 5 July 2014

My dress from Benjamin Britten

Sekers Silk fabric given to Janette Miller by Benjamin Britten
 Cleaning out an attic after a life time has been a daunting operation. I have had to confront 40 years of things that are only worth pennies today but were too nice to throw away. Nobody wants old dresses or costumes any more. They are binned.

However I cannot bin them and over the years I have opened up my cavernous attic and just thrown things in but today I have to have a new bathroom if I want to remain in my house and that means clearing the attic. Citizen Kane has nothing on me. Day by day a life time of memories is parading before me and I delight in every one of them. Things, unlike people on some occasions, are just objects of pure joy and so it is with the dress above. The photo does not do this beautiful dress justice. It has a curious story as the prologue from The Turn of The Screw so rightly puts it because the fabric of this dress came from Benjamin Britten.

I was nineteen, small for my age but very beautiful. I had known Mr Britten for four years but it was only this year that he took a personal interest in me. He was a perfect gentleman and a delightful friend I was bright and very intelligent and fun. I like the things that he enjoyed, Mahler, Bartok, sports cars and Gaudia Bretzka! I was performing in The Screw at Rosehill a delicious tiny theatre run by the silk millionaire Mickie Sekers who was so rich he could afford to bring the whole Covent Garden cast including Britten and Pears to Whitehaven where his mills were located for three weeks at the best hotel in St. Bees.

For those few months  I was Britten's favourite although in truth I did not realise it at the time. I don't think he had ever met or talked to a girl of my age and I think he found the experience new and enjoyable. During this time and for a couple of years after I was spoilt by him. He gave me tickets to concerts and invitations to concerts and sit with him even when he saw me in the crowd outside. I found his company enjoyable as he had so much that I would like in life but he envied me my life too. Ah if only he had been 19 and not 50! But he was 50 and I was 19!

As a treat it was announced that the three ladies of the cast and Ben, Peter were to be given 6 metres of what ever fabric they chose when we all visited the Sekers factory. It seemed that Quint being a man and Miles and Flora being children although I was 19, didn't count. I was used to this situation by now. When it came to my turn somehow the rules are changed. I was not amused and I unlike the others had the ear of the master. Why no one noticed that I shall never know. I just told him that is was unfair that three of us should be excluded.  Ben was immediately sympathetic and we were upgraded without further a do.

The mills lived up to their reputation and were satanic and noisy. One would go deaf I reckoned in about a week. After much deliberation I decided on 6 metres of a beautiful Prussian blue striped silk satin. I knew that this would look glorious as a gathered skirt for the evening and I look good in this colour, especially with white. I was thrilled as I could never have afforded to buy such luxurious material and to see it being made was fascinating. An afternoon I shall never forget.

However Ben did not accompany us that day so the next morning he asked me to bring and show him what I had chosen the following day which I did. I humped 6 metres of blue satin to rehearsal. It was on a big roll so as not to crease it and this caused a furore in the Pullman car and comments of Flora being annoying. Being Flora was not fun. Ben liked my choice very much. He said I had perfect taste but he thought it might be difficult to find something for the bodice. Obviously the large stripes would not suit. I said I thought a white blouse would do it  and in truth I think would have been the best choice but Ben was not convinced.

To my surprise the next day another 6 metres of plain blue silk satin arrived on a roll at my hotel for Die Schöne Müllerin, (my name is Miller) much to the surprise and annoyance of the rest of the company. Flora had been given 12 metres and everyone else had to make do with 6! Britten had asked Mickie Sekers as a favour and Sekers complied. Years later I needed a recital gown and I had the material made up by Morris Angel the theatrical costumier in Shaftsbury Avenue. It had the prettiest little corset to make it look beautiful and a tiny pad in one shoulder as my shoulders are uneven.

When I think back on this I have a horrible feeling I never said a proper thank you to Mr. Britten for going to all that trouble on my behalf. I could be thoughtless as many 19 years old are. I remember the feeling of hostility from some of the cast and especially Britten's older ladies of whom he had one or two. Viola Tunard was so sharp I cut myself on her more than once as she was so jealous.  Peter Pears was not amused either.  He used to call me My Dear Young Lady in public and Die Schöne Müllerin in private! But I was 19 and blissfully unaware that I was the current favourite and youth can be cruel.  I knew I did not belong to their world and I had other things I wanted to do. Maybe that was the attraction as I was unobtainable. I wonder how many other young women were given beautiful material from Benjamin Britten? And I still have the dress.

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