A brief description of Elgar would perhaps read as follows: an early sixties BBC documentary about the life and music of the English composer Sir Edward Elgar. Fairly inauspicious it would appear, yet from its inception in 1962, Elgar has always stood out as something important. It was the 100th edition of the hugely important art series Monitor and to this day remains a televisual classic, recently earning a number 48 position in the BFI’s TV 100 list. It is these factors which makes this seemingly minor documentary of interest to the wider public and not simply followers or enthusiasts of classical music, as is the fact that is was an early work of that most contentious of auteurs, Ken Russell.
Coming so early in his career (he would break into features the following year with French Dressing), Elgar avoids the excesses that arguably came into full effect with his 1970 Omnibus piece, The Dance of the Seven Veils : A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes on the Life of Richard Strauss and would make themselves on regular occasions in the majority of subsequent works. The reason is that at the time of production Monitor operated under rules whereby documentaries could not feature such dramatic devices as actors or dialogue. Certainly, Elgar contains on-screen participants, though these are of the more decorative variety and serve only to accompany the authoritative voice-over spoken by Huw Wheldon.
Yet whilst this may make Elgar seem atypical in comparison to Tommy, say, or Lisztomania, it never proves a problem for Russell. Indeed, his keen visual sense results in an often impressionist approach: consider the shot of the bell ringer seen only from below the ankles, which disappear out of frame with each toll, or the four hands at the piano which marks Elgar’s courtship of his future wife. Add to this some beautiful photography, in particular of the Malvern landscape, and the documentary can be seen as being as much a visual treat as it is a factual one.
There is, however, a slight problem when this material is juxtaposed with archive footage of World War I and various royal dignitaries insofar as these grainier, scratchier interludes look so poor in comparison. It is understood that Russell didn’t have the budgetary resources to create his own war footage, of course, but even when allowing this concession the clash is a little too pronounced.
The other minor flaw is again perhaps unavoidable. Music being of course integral to any documentary about a composer, Elgar’s numerous compositions take price of place. What this produces, however, is a situation whereby the images have been created in order to fit the music rather than the more common practice in which the score comes second. Again owing to budgetary constraints, Russell doesn’t have quite enough footage to cover the various musical excerpts resulting in the occasional longeur. (What makes this doubly troublesome is the fact that Russell is able for the most part to convey meaning with the simplest of images giving his accompaniment an immediacy that Elgar’s contribution understandably doesn’t match.) It is interesting, in this respect, then to compare Elgar with its companion piece Elgar : Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle which Russell made for The South Bank Show 40 years later. For this piece, of roughly the same length, his trademark flamboyances are more overt and less tied down to a structure (he’d made the biography before, after all). Of course with its bigger budget it avoids the minor flaws that Elgar possesses, yet still feels an inferior work. There is undoubtedly great character and great charm, but when put alongside this landmark effort it feels more of a companion piece than a stand-alone work in its own right. Unfortunately, it was only televised after this DVD release and as such doesn’t find a place amongst the extra features.
That said, the disc does come packed with supplementary material including a commentary from Russell. Unlike his talk track for Delius, the director here appears with a companion, Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy. The pairing works well as Kennedy serves more as an interviewer and as such prevents any pauses from appearing. That said, he also offers much of his own input so that the commentary spends equal time discussing both the documentary itself and its subject.
In a welcome addition, the BFI have also delved into the archives to find some archive footage from the 1920s and 30s. Understandably scratchy, these pieces (given context by Kennedy in his commentaries and introductions) though brief allow the disc to move beyond just Russell’s film itself and become a larger collection devoted to the composer. The remaining extras are decidedly minor and consist of sleeve notes, director’s biography and a collection of production stills photographed by Russell’s then assistant Anne James.
As for the presentation of the documentary itself, the BFI have used a fine print that demonstrates a wonderful crispness and is free of technical difficulties. Framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and with mono soundtrack to match, the presentation easily betters any television broadcast and as such makes the disc an essential purchase. Given its lack of narrative in comparison to the BFI’s other Russell disc, Delius : Song of Summer, it is perhaps less accessible, though its importance in television history, as well as its individual qualities, cannot be ignored.
As with the main feature, all extras including commentary come with optional English subtitles.