Richard Bratby

The two composers who defined British cinema also wrote inspired operas

Malcolm Arnold's nimble-witted Dancing Master is the obvious winner but William Alwyn's taut, chilling Miss Julie is no less impressive

Malcolm Arnold recycled parts of his opera The Dancing Master in his score for the 1954 film Hobson's Choice, starring Charles Laughton and Brenda de Banzie. Image: LMPC / Getty Images

It’s my new lockdown ritual. Switch on the telly, cue up the menu and scroll down to where the vintage movies gather — Film 4, or the excellent Talking Pictures TV. Then search through their early-hours offerings, and press ‘record’ more or less at random. Gainsborough costume flicks; Rattigan adaptations; anything with John Mills in a submarine — it’s all good. Then, next day, trawl through the catch to see what’s surfaced, and who wrote the music. On a good night you might get Vaughan Williams in 49th Parallel, Richard Rodney Bennett in Billy Liar or — bewilderingly — the fire-breathing serialist Elisabeth Lutyens, keeping herself in cigarettes and brandy with scores for The Skull or Dr Terror’s House of Horror. It’s all there in black and white: an alternative history of British music, piped straight to your sofa.

What that history might have looked like if postwar theatre had paid as well as cinema — and, in honesty, if Britten and Tippett hadn’t been quite so good — is suggested by two recent opera recordings. William Alwyn’s Miss Julie is not new to the catalogue: it was recorded in 1977 before vanishing from view until this 2019 concert performance. Malcolm Arnold has had an altogether happier posthumous experience, fêted in his (and, by coincidence, Alwyn’s) home town of Northampton, and increasingly respected as a symphonist. But the idea of Arnold as an opera composer comes as a genuine surprise. Even his biographers barely mention his 1952 TV opera The Dancing Master, which the BBC rejected as ‘too bawdy for family audiences’. Neither work has ever been staged.

Vintage cinema offers an alternative history of British music, piped straight to your sofa

Arnold is the most obvious winner here: at 75 minutes, The Dancing Master might be the most nimble-witted British opera buffa between The Gondoliers and Walton’s The Bear.

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