BBC Four’s profile of Britain's greatest ever classical pianist and of one of the most successful musical partnerships of the last 50 years, that of John Ogdon and wife Brenda Lucas Ogdon was shown on 6 June. Review by Wendy Young
Gaping gill-mouthed I watched the titanic talent John Ogdon's snippets of performance in Living with Genius. Uvula dripping into a stalactite you could say I was mesmerised. The anniversary of D-Day seemed an apt time to broadcast a documentary about a musician who attacked the piano like a sub machine gun.
He ripped up the keyboard as if the ivories were going to sprinkle out like bullets. The intensity of his playing was frightening, exciting, dangerous. Like Jimi Hendrix and his guitar, John Ogdon played his instrument like a weapon of mass seduction. As if a tutelary deity had been sent from the heavens, John Ogdon's primal scream tore your guts out and left you wanting more.
Everyone who contributed to the documentary had nothing but good things to say and the old adage 'too good to live' springs to mind. However, he was under pressure from record companies and agents to perform, tour, record, said yes to everything and in the end he sacrificed himself. Why?
Born into a family where his genius could be nurtured and that he could express himself was a blessing... or was it? His father being schizophrenic, John fought off the 'omens' and prospect of becoming ill lost himself in his piano playing, making him a world-class player. His wife Brenda said “he belonged to the world” but did that burden bring about his downfall? Does genius border on lunacy? He was extremely bright and won scholarships to three different grammar schools.
In an excerpt from Desert Island Discs in 1987 John could hardly string a sentence together. His humility was moving. However, this was not unusual: he was not a chit-chatter. He tended to listen rather than struggle to make idle conversation and covered his nervousness by smoking endless cigarettes; a recognisable trait of shyness to hide a lack of communication skills yet performing on a stage or creating great art. A 'Lady' at a party was quoted by Brenda, telling him off: “Why don't you speak Mr Ogdon! You are supposed to speak!” An idiotic comment like this could send a person of John's disposition into a quandary!
At 24, cited by experts as the most brilliant pianist emerging from England he won the Tchaikovsky prize in Moscow 1962 at 25. The tail end of one particularly manic piece in where his head was almost inside the piano, he was coordinated and controlled enough to keep contact with the the conductor and when he came to the end, he just pushed his glasses back in place as if he didn't want to admit what he had just done. When he spoke to Brenda back in England he just said “I did it for you darling”. She was the inspiration of the 'god-given gift'.
Now everyone wanted a piece of him and John endured gruelling tours where he would appear over 200 concerts a year. Stephen Hough, a concert pianist was flabbergasted “I do 100 a year and it's too much... it isn't possible mentally, spiritually, emotionally, psychological... you dry up”. Though biographer Michael Kerr said people were under the impression Brenda drove him to do it, the reality was John wanted to do it and his agency exploited him. Did he think he was going to cure the demons?
Brian Masters, writer and friend said “he is not mortal like us... when he played, you got the shivers” but a stark warning 'genius is precious but also dangerous - several hospitals sounded alarm bells and said he had to be committed” after John had cut three crosses into his forehead and each cheek (father, son and holy ghost?). As they drove around to find a hospital, John, in the back seat, took his clothes off, mumbling incoherently.
With three doctors bullying Brenda into submission, to give John Electro-Convulsive Therapy, she bowed to the pressure and it went ahead. She has been blamed for letting him down but at her wits end, she had little choice. After John’s breakdown it was thought giving a concert would be a good remedy. In hindsight John was lost; his brilliance failed him due to the ECT – a treatment that destroys brain cells. So he forgot bad things but also the good things.
Two days after the concert he attempted suicide. He cut himself with a razor blade and his tendons were hanging out of his neck. Brenda took him to the old University College Hospital where a surgeon screamed at John that he was wasting their time when other people were sick and how dare he try to commit suicide! Luckily, time has moved on from this kind of abuse.
After a teaching job in Indiana did not work out due to John's lack of discipline on a university campus, the family returned to London and John was committed to the Maudsley Hospital where he seemed happy, though it “was irritating to see him surrounded by mental patients” said Brenda. Lord Paton's wife was on the board of Moorfields Eye Hospital where John was supposed to do a charity concert and so Lord Paton got him an early release to honour a charity concert - a shocking act of barbaric selfishness to take John out when he was so ill. Rodney Friend said “he was a shell”.
A comeback concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall brought him to the News Night studio, during which Peter Snow announced John's mental breakdown as he sat like an embarrassed child! This was apparently some sick form of publicity stunt. Rodney Friend said “he would have been better off in Scotland with friends to look after him and FREE to just play!”.
John's children spoke about their dad with affection and the inherited modesty. Annabel talked about his big bear hands, which made the lightest of touch in the most intricate musical arrangements. Richard Ogdon explained John's death at 52 of bronchopneumonia: “he smoked for England” and ended up in a diabetic coma - the diabetes was not diagnosed being masked by the medication for his mental illness. This was 1989 - now there are adverts all over warning us of the danger of diabetes.
Finally we saw a clip of John in a halfway house in 1981 where he played with the tenderness of a butterfly and seemed quite content but it could have been a show of his politeness and pleasing nature. John Paul Getty was to help the Ogdons when he offered to buy John a grand piano, and then somewhere to put it as they did not have a home. John and Brenda lived in separate flats in the same house and they found 'peace'.