Britten’s Children is a scholarly 2006 book by John Bridcut that describes the English composer Benjamin Britten’s love for a continuous series of adolescent boys throughout his life. Bridcut has been praised for treating such a sensitive subject in "an impeccably unsensational tone". The Britten-Pears Foundation described the book as having been "enthusiastically received as shedding new light on one of the most interesting aspects of Britten's life and career, in a study that is thoroughly researched, wonderfully readable and thought-provoking". Bridcut’s book followed his television documentary Britten’s Children shown on BBC2 in June 2004
Bridcut writes that 13-year-old boys were Britten’s ideal. He liked to imagine himself as still thirteen years old and once explained his ability to write so well for children, "It’s because I’m still thirteen". Bridcut provides ample proof that Britten was sexually attracted to young boys, but is similarly able to show that it is unlikely that Britten ever stepped over the line of propriety and molested any of the boys.
Britten was openly homosexual and lived with his long-time partner Peter Pears, and his love of boys was linked by his friends to his homosexuality. Bridcut describes, nevertheless, frequent and continuing gossip in society about Britten’s infatuation with boys. Britten would groom each new favourite with gifts and treats and he was a prolific letter-writer. The thousands of surviving letters are the source for many of Bridcut’s observations.
Britten was intimate with Wolfgang "Wulff" Scherchen (son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen), whom he met when Wulff was fourteen and Britten twenty-one. Five years later in 1939, Britten dedicated the song "Antique" from his suite of Rimbaud settings to Wulff. As a German national, Scherchen was interned during World War II, following which he served in the British army. He and Britten continued to correspond, but when they met again in 1942 Britten found the twenty-two-year-old "rather altered, I am afraid...rather vindictive, and hard." The friendship faded, and Wulff eventually married.
The relationship with Wulff overlapped Britten's meeting with Peter Pears - Pears is also the dedicatee of a song in the Rimbaud cycle. In 1989 Wulff recalled, "I adored Peter. He was a wonderful father figure...and I thought in a sense that he was the father to Benjamin at the same time...He would restrain Benjamin when Ben was going off the rails...He had this air of stability that Ben didn't have."
Thirteen-year-old Piers Dunkerley was another early "emphatically good looking" favourite. Piers was a chorister and Britten, through his music, had access to many talented trebles, instrumentalists and budding composers. Piers, like most of Britten’s young friends, often came to stay alone with Britten. They shared a bed and Britten even had twin showers installed in the bedroom.
Thirteen-year-old Harry Morris was, like a number of Britten’s children, from a troubled home, and Harry was the only boy ever to accuse Britten of sexual abuse. They were on holiday in Cornwall together and Bridcut recounts that Harry claimed that Britten 'made a sexual approach in his bedroom'. Harry said he screamed and hit Britten with a chair and then Britten’s sister Beth rushed into the room. Harry left the next morning and told his mother what had happened, but she did not believe him. Britten’s good friend Eric Crozier did, however, produce a lengthy memorandum that accused Britten of corrupting boys. John Bridcut was interviewd by Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week in June 2006. Britten's sexual attraction for 13/14-year-old boys was the subject of the interview and the incident with Harry Morris, when Britten 'may have crossed the line' was described in detail. Bridcut writes about Britten's friendship with Humphrey Maud which started when the boy was nine. They became close friends a few years later when Humphrey was at Eton. Humphrey’s father Sir John Maud eventually intervened to stop Humphrey spending so much time staying with Britten in the school holidays. Britten dedicated The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra to Humphrey and the other Maud children. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy was another friend of Britten. Fourteen-year-old Jonny "could not help flirting slightly" and was "at once aware I attracted him". Jonny and his siblings and cousins provided the children’s names for Britten’s opera The Little Sweep. David Spenser was thirteen years old when he had the role of Harry in Britten’s opera Albert Herring. When he first went to stay with Britten, they shared a double bed. Not all Britten’s young boys were musicians. He was very fond of a local boy Robin Long, known as ‘Nipper’, and he used to take the boy sailing.
Bridcut interviewed a number of Britten's children including the actor David Hemmings. Hemmings was age twelve when he came into Britten’s life as the creator of the role of Miles in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The conductor Charles Mackerras observed, "David Hemmings was an extremely good looking young chap and he also very much played up to Ben’s obvious adoration of him, and drank it in," and adds, "Obviously it was a sexual attraction but I’m sure that it was never actually fulfilled."
Bridcut also writes at length about Roger Duncan. Duncan was aged eleven when he first met Britten. Their relationship was unusual in that Britten persuaded Roger’s father to share him and Roger spent many weeks staying with Britten. Roger's father was the writer Ronald Duncan, the librettist of The Rape of Lucretia. Both Roger and Humphrey Stone, another young friend, recall enjoying regular naked midnight swims with Britten.
Bridcut makes it clear that Benjamin Britten was inspired by his love of young boys to write extensively for children, and particularly for boy trebles. Among his finest works are the The Turn of the Screw, with the dark relationship between Quint and Miles, and Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novella about the tragic love of a composer for the beautiful boy Tadzio.
Jonathan Keates' review in The Daily Telegraph sums up the dilemma of writing about Britten's children: "Nowadays a known homosexual who sought out the company and affection of small boys would probably end up on a police register or behind bars. In treating Britten's fondness for the young of his own sex as something more than lipsmacking paedophilia, this book does him a service both as a man and an artist."