Deviser: Nigel Hess
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Val Baskott
One shilling equalled six Woodbines or three pints of beer when war broke out in 1939. Myra Hess, already an internationally acclaimed concert pianist for three decades, felt keenly the need to keep classical music alive and accessible during wartime restrictions. Foregoing her USA tour, she lobbied and used her influence and connections to establish a series of daily concerts in the emptied National Gallery.
The concert series not only provided solace and raised morale but also, with admission at just one shilling, introduced many to classical music for the first time.
1,698 concerts were given and had reached a combined audience of more than 750,000 by the end of the war. Her efforts were never forgotten by the war generations, and she was created a Dame in 1941.
The National Gallery commemorates the concert series with an annual Myra Hess day directed by concert pianist Piers Lane. In 2006 actress Patricia Routledge, no mean musician herself, was in the audience at the first concert, and her resemblance to Hess was noted and sparked the creation of Admission: One Shilling.
Hess’s great-nephew, composer Nigel Hess, known for film and award winning TV scores, including Hetty Wainthrop Investigates and Lavender Ladies, devised the text using archive press and radio material. Patricia Routledge narrates Dame Myra, and the text is interposed and decorated with musical excerpts from her concerts played by Piers Lane at the grand piano. Routledge needs no introduction, her stature as an actress across all genres is rightly acclaimed, and she brings all her skills to make the most of the somewhat slight material to reveal a little of the lively impish woman behind the dignified dedicated concert performer. Lane is a perfect accomplished foil, his triumphant Scarlatti Sonata in G majorL387, explodes like firecrackers off the keyboard.
Sparingly directed by Charles Luscombe, it is a one hour straight narrative of the wartime events only, presented against black and white stills of Hess and the period. There is little context of Hess’s life before or after the war, perhaps as this was commissioned initially by the National Gallery, but it does leave one wanting more.
Nevertheless this is a heart-warming enjoyable divertimento performed by two experts and has much popular appeal.