Was the Joyce Hatto affair the biggest cheat in the history of classical music? Yesterday I finally saw Loving Miss Hatto, Victoria Wood's BBC drama about the unfortunate pianist and her husband, William Barrington-Coupe ('Barrie'). Mixed reports have been circulating in the music biz since the film was first screened over Christmas, with many feeling that the pair were given too easy a time and came over as too sympathetic - after all, they had perpetrated the biggest con trick the classical music business has ever seen. At least, as far as we know.
Quite apart from some fantastic acting by Francesca Annis and Alfred Molina as the couple in their advancing years, the film was rather more interesting than that. It is tricky indeed to produce a good drama about unsympathetic people - but if you can make the audience empathise with her/him (different from 'sympathise'), then you're halfway home. Here Loving Miss Hatto accomplished the nearly impossible, constructing a convincing plot around a central pair who are total losers - fantasists, no-hopers, convincing themselves that they aren't cheating when they are: "We flew too close to the sun..." is how they romanticise their failures. There's some canny script-writing, too, and superb characterisation - for example, Joyce's vile mother (make a character more sympathetic by surrounding her with characters even less sympathetic than she is) and the self-deluding Barrie, going to jail for tax fraud yet still insisting that he hasn't really done anything wrong.
The furore when the story broke in 2007 was intense to the point of scariness. JDCMB grabbed the news the minute it was out and I lost some sleep over the nuclear fallout that followed. What was so frightening? It was desperately out of proportion. The conspiracy theories, the trolls (back then, a relatively new phenomenon), the fanatics, the hysteria, the accusations of - well, of what? God knows! And over what? A rather sad and pathetic situation.
It was Robert von Bahr, the director of BIS Records (the label whose recording by Laszlo Simon of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes was ripped off in the scandal), who talked the most sense. When I phoned him at the time for my Independent article, he said this:
“I’ve given the matter a lot of thought and I think it will turn out to have been a desperate attempt to build a shrine to a dying wife. If this is indeed the case, I don’t think I will be pressing charges. Concert Artist is a tiny label with very limited distribution, and in some ways quite amateurish; this exercise was never a matter of making money. But it is likely now that William Barrington-Coupe will be ruined, one way or another, and that his beloved wife’s name will be forever associated with this incident. That in itself is punishment enough.”
Here, the film hit the nail on the head. It was a pathetic love story - yet it was no less disturbing an incident for all that. Because at the centre of it is an easy-to-slip-into amorality and self-delusion that permeates our world. Just have a look at this football piece from today's Indy, about Luis Suarez's alleged handling of the ball: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/luis-surezs-handball-cheating-isnt-cheating-if-you-dont-think-it-is-8443202.html
It isn't cheating if you don't think it is. So, back in the classical music sphere, some so-called live recordings are extensively edited but still labelled 'live', because it isn't cheating if you don't think it is. Neither is the promotion of third-rate musicians who can pay for the privilege of telling an underinformed public that they are geniuses, or bizarre results at certain international competitions, or the use in the 1980s, a time of intense financial cutbacks, of much-reduced ensembles in baroque/classical music because they were "authentic" (as opposed to "cheaper") - today, stand by for similar arty excuses about the benefits of using pre-recorded music in theatres... We all know, deep down, that the business is chock-full of con tricks, and none of them are cheating if you don't think they are. What's disturbing is the shard of human weakness at the heart of it all. We don't like being reminded of it, but there's a ring of truth. Everyone can be gullible when they want to be.
I reckon far worse things than l'affaire Hatto go on all the time. Now let her rest in peace.