Tony Palmer

Alumnus, Tony Palmer

Born in London in 1941, Tony is a British film director and author. He is also a stage director of theatre and opera.

Tony’s vast filmography of over one hundred films ranges from early works with The Beatles, Cream, Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa (200 Motels), to the famous portraits with and about Walton, Britten, Stravinsky, Maria Callas, André Previn, John Osborne, Leonard Cohen (Bird on a Wire), Margot Fonteyn and Menuhin, as well as feature films such as Testimony, starring Ben Kingsley as Shostakovich. His 7 hour 45 minutes film on Wagner, starring Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Vanessa Redgrave, was described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most beautiful films ever made”. Among over 40 international prizes for his work are 12 Gold Medals at the New York Film & Television Festival, awards from the Jerusalem, San Francisco, Sao Paolo, Sofia, Cuenca and London Film Festivals, as well as numerous BAFTA (British Academy of Film & Television) Emmy and Griesrson nominations and awards. In 1989 he was awarded a major retrospective of his work at the National Film Theatre in London, the first maker of ‘arts’ films to be so fêted. He is also a prize-winning opera and theatre director, recipient of three Platinum and two Gold records, author of seven books – most famously The Trials of Oz – and was awarded a Sony Prize as a radio presenter. An honorary citizen of both Athens and New Orleans, a D.Mus (Hon), D.Litt (Hon) and FRGS, he is the only person to have won the Prix Italia three times. Apart from his new film about Britten, Nocturne, his most recent film Falls The Shadow about Athol Fugard won this year’s Gold Medal at the New York Film & Television Festival.

This is what Tony told us:

“I remember Ormiston as a grammar school. It was the school I went to when I passed the eleven-plus. I could see the school buildings from our backyard (we lived in Dene Road), down a dirt track and across the railway bridge. It never occurred to my parents that I would be in any danger making this daily return journey alone. Turning right out of our little street, I would come to the sports field. My parents were not confronted, as I have been with my own small children, with the question: “which secondary school can they get access to?” At that time it was my local grammar school, so that’s where I went.

“I remember the storms of 1953, the breach in the sea wall, the floods. I also remember standing on the far end of South Pier opposite the railway station watching the fishing fleet go out to sea. We were there at 5 on a Sunday morning, and at 10 the boats were still sailing past, one after the other, a seemingly endless procession. I remember the fishing nets hung out to dry, an entire city of horizontal poles down by Whapload Road to Sparrow’s Nest, each being lovingly repaired by a vast gang of jolly women who taught me about sex and the ways of the world.

“I remember singing in the choir of St Margaret’s Church – the organist was the school’s music teacher, a Mr Mitchell. From him I learned about the wonderful English choral tradition, from Purcell to Vaughan Williams. I remember the bus stop at the junction of Corton Road, from which I took a double-decker to Great Yarmouth, on my own, aged 11, to see the first cinemascope picture, The Robe, starring Richard Burton. And I remember the bus stop at the corner of Hollingsworth Road and Yarmouth Road, which seemed to be the limit of civilisation as we knew it. Beyond (first turning right, down another dirt track) lay the tiny church at Gunton, in the middle of a magic forest. And at the other end of town, up the hill, the distant Kirkley Cliff Road where the posh people lived.

“And now? No longer a grammar school. No railway line. No magic forest – the church seems now to be in the middle of a housing estate. The bus stop at Hollingsworth Road, derelict. St Margaret’s no longer has a boy’s choir. Kirkley Cliff Road now full of boarding houses, often run by ‘foreigners’. A scattering of broken fishing poles in Whapload Road. The school’s sports ground another housing estate. Dene Road crowded in by yet another housing estate. And were we to be living there now, would I allow my young children to even cross the main road en route to the new establishment of ‘Ormiston Denes Academy’, if that is where they were to be educated? I doubt it.

“Should I regret this passing of the years? Obviously, in one sense not all. Nothing stays the same, nor should we wish it to do so. A few years ago I revisited my old home in Dene Road. My childhood memories of it are damp and dismal, with creaky plumbing and an outside lavatory. Not enough room to swing a cat. But now it has been transformed by an artist who suffers from MS into an airy, bright, desirable residence, a woman who in spite of her infirmity clearly radiates any space she occupies. Yet the centre of Lowestoft seems now to be a by-pass on the way to who knows where? The High Street is now an area between petrol filling stations, the central railway station a siding for clapped-out diesels. Gone are the days when a steam train could take you all the way to the north, via Norwich and Spalding and Gainsborough and Doncaster, an adventure which no child could resist.

“I might want to say that I escaped from Lowestoft, to Cambridge University and the great world beyond, to work with Richard Burton and become friends with the posh folks of Kirkley Cliff Road, especially of course Benjamin Britten. And grateful though I am for the comparative good fortune that has come my way, something nags me about the place where I grew up. Not that I wish it to be exactly as it was, the grammar school especially, but that many of the values which I learned then and have guided me ever since have been lost in the name of, I guess we would call it, ‘progress’. But it’s not really. Somehow, somewhere, those values have been dissipated, even forgotten. Would Britten have become the great composer he is had he grown up in Lowestoft as it is now? Possibly. But he is the exception that proves the rule. Would I have become the person I am? I doubt it.

“We cannot turn the clock back, nor should we wish to. Our youth is always golden, even when it was not. But those who are responsible today for our education policy, the vandals who administer our town planning, our transport systems, our churches, should cherish what we have, not wantonly destroy the rich heritage which is our past in favour of something ‘new’. Often what is ‘new’ is merely a feeble excuse for failing to acknowledge what we have, and had, and value it, and care for it.”

Our best wishes and thanks go to Tony Palmer for sharing his memories with us.

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February 2014

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