This film was originally shown in 1985 on British television, (Channel Four) to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Handel’s birth. Written by John Osborne, it strips away what seemed like centuries of bad Handel performances (no names here, but Malcolm Sargent gets a swipe) and reveals a composer who had burst upon London like a tornado and not only shaken the smugness of Georgian England to its roots, but laid the foundations of an entirely different tradition of British music-making – bold, brassy and brilliant.
The words Osborne put into Handel’s mouth, moreover, although completely invented, were derived from a clever reworking of those texts that Handel himself had used in his various operas and oratorios and come singing onto the screen in unforgettable resonance, with the gin-soaked and pickled voice of Trevor Howard (his last great performance) relishing every last syllable.
The title of the film comes from a letter Osborne claimed Handel had written after a visit to the Tunbridge Wells Ladies’ Music Circle who had invited him to hear “their Messiah” only months before he died. “I always thought it was my Messiah”, Handel had written back. Anyway, off he went and suffered it for the first hour, what with the massed choirs of Tunbridge Ladies and no doubt a scratchy orchestra. Back home he wrote a furious letter describing the appalling occasion, which finished with the immortal line: “so God rot Tunbridge Wells”. It was an ‘up yours’ to all those who had used and abused him throughout a long life of struggling against the pricks.