Joyce Hatto and Ethics

I began this blog by pondering whether ethics is masculine and spirituality feminine. If compassion and forgiveness are significant aspects of spirituality, they’re also qualities we tend to associate more with women than men. It’s not surprising, then, that the most compassionate rendering of the back story behind the Joyce Hatto scandal comes from Victoria Wood in her BBC treatment Loving Miss Hatto.

I’m working on spec on an article about Hatto and her husband William Barrington-Coupe (known as “Barry”). There are some new factual developments concerning the U.S. side of what was a distinctly British scandal; but in this post I’m less interested in going over the facts than examining the ethics of loving (or hating?) Miss Hatto.

Wood’s treatment is based (very loosely) on “Fantasia For Piano” — Mark Singer’s definitive piece in The New Yorker. If you’re unfamiliar with the matter, that would quickly get you up to speed. The essence is that about a hundred classical piano recordings released under Hatto’s name turned out to be plagiarized in whole or in part from other artists. Head leper is William Barrington-Coupe, who had a dodgy past and is generally considered something of a con man.

Opinion about Hatto herself is more mixed, with those who knew her personally hoping against hope that she was unaware of the nature or magnitude of the fraud committed by her husband. Yet, by most accounts it was more than simple fraud; it was also a hoax (which has a somewhat different complexion than a fraud, implying an artistic playing with reality). And beyond either hoax or fraud, there remains the very real question of whether Hatto and hubby became potty in their senior years. Was the illusion that cancer-ridden septuagenarian Joyce nonetheless had a prolific recording career a form of folie à deux?

In real life, there are baffling, enigmatic, and pathological elements to the story; but sadly, to make a winning film for the Beeb, Victoria Wood had to simplify the characters and iron out many of their real world contradictions. What we get, then, is a sentimental love story in which both Hatto and hubby emerge as flawed but likeable characters. It’s them against the world, and we’re on their side:

The first of two trailers ends with Barrington-Coupe being arrested for failing to pay the purchase tax on radios he imported from Hong Kong. It’s portrayed as less of a crime and more of a typical Barry “muddle.” Joyce and Barry are middle-class folk up against a classical music establishment filled with “dessicated old shirt-lifters” (as Barry calls them). All’s fair in love and marketing, and Barry’s early mission is to “sell” Joyce as an international concert artiste to the great British public, despite her crippling stage fright and bouts with nerves:

Ethics 101 tells us that lying, cheating, and stealing from other artists is execrable behaviour; but Wood is not so much an ethicist as a romantic. In her research for the film, she plainly came to identify with Hatto and to find something heroic in her struggles. The very title “Loving Miss Hatto” may well be a defiant retort to the hatred hurled at the couple once their fraud, hoax, or call-it-what-you-will was unmasked.

Even in a country with socialized medicine, a multi-year bout with cancer must be an inconvenient and impoverishing thing. Wood depicts the couple as leading a modest lifestyle, but occasionally being able to afford cake due to the income from pirated CDs. She makes Joyce and Barry eminently real to us in the tradition of inversionist outlaw flicks like Bonnie and Clyde (to which she makes explicit reference) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The people victimized by the couple — conned, lied to, and cheated — are little seen and not given the same warm treatment.

Still, notwithstanding its upside-down ethics and inversionist outlook, Loving Miss Hatto is an enjoyable and sympathetic portrayal (though it would have been better at an hour than an hour-forty). I can’t help liking the film characters despite knowing that the reality was somewhat darker. If you don’t care to put your ethics in your back pocket, you can always watch The Great Piano Scam for a tougher appraisal:

 Michael Howard

Interesting Joyce Hatto Links

The Hatto-Howell letters:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/Feb07/Hatto_Howell.htm

Promotion of Joyce Hatto — 2006 archived page:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Jan06/Hatto2_recordings.htm

Jed Distler Reviews the Lost René Köhler BBC Recordings:
http://www.classicstoday.com/review/review-13553/

Letter published on Overgrown Path blog:
http://www.overgrownpath.com/2007/03/joyce-hatto-other-story.html

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