The film-maker Christopher Nupen has died

Monday, February 20, 2023

Born September 30, 1934; died February 19, 2023

Filming of one Nupen's early triumphs, 'The Ghost' (photo: Allegro Films)
Filming of one Nupen's early triumphs, 'The Ghost' (photo: Allegro Films)

Christopher Nupen has died at the age of 88. Born in Johannesburg into a family of Norwegian descent, his father EP ’Buster’ Nupen was a Test cricketer. After reading law at university in South Africa, he moved to the UK and initially worked in banking before joining the BBC as a sound engineer. His first project came in 1962 when he made an audio documentary for the BBC’s Third Programme (later Radio 3) about the summer music school, Accademia Musicale Chigiana, in Siena. He was then invited by Huw Weldon, the Managing Director of BBC TV, to make a series of films about classical music starting with Double Concerto which followed Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim and the English Chamber Orchestra.

Using the new 16mm cameras, he developed a style of documentary film making that invited the viewer into the act of making music – as Ashkenazy said, ‘One of the great qualities of Christopher, was that he never felt like he was intruding on you, putting pressure on you. He was just always trying to be a part of your life and trying to give it to the potential viewers.’ This was most memorably demonstrated in his film of Schubert’s Trout Quintet with some of the most charismatic young musicians on the planet, Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (viola), Jacqueline Du Pré (cello), Zubin Mehta (double bass) and Daniel Barenboim (piano). Filmed at a performance at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in August 30, 1969, the programme was made under the aegis of Nupen’s own company, Allegro Films, which he’d founded the previous year.

As well as artist-focused films, Nupen made a series on composers, including Paganini, Schubert and Sibelius, as well as the 2004 documentary We Want The Light, a study of the complex relationship between the Jews and German music. It won Nupen a number of prestigious awards.

In October 2021, Nupen and Allegro Films were celebrated by the BBC Four in a feature-length autobiographical documentary titled Listening through The Lens, directed by Nupen’s stepson Matthew Percival and featured narration by Stephen Fry.

In 2020, Nupen published his autobiography (also titled Listening through the Lens), reviewed in Gramophone in April 2020, where Jeremy Nicholas praised it as an ‘account of how he made his films and a fascinating tale it proves to be’.

One of the younger subjects of his films, Daniil Trifonov said, at the time of the BBC Four tribute: ‘Christopher Nupen knows how to go into the psychology of an artist and it really shows the art of music making from inside out and it helps just to understand what it is to be a performer.’

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