Ken Russell: The Great Composers

Three more of Ken Russell’s films for the BBC, in a dual-format release from the BFI.

The Great Composers is a set of three of Ken Russell’s films made for the BBC in the 1960s. It’s released simultaneously with The Great Passions, which collects another three. Please see my review of that release for some information about Russell’s early life and career.

Russell made thirty-three films, short and feature-length, for the Corporation between 1959 and 1970. He began by making short documentaries, many of them for Huw Wheldon for the arts magazine Monitor. Whether straight documentaries or fully-dramatised biopics, Russell soon became associated with films about artists. The Great Passions includes a film about a painter (Always on Sunday), a dancer (Isadora) and a poet and painter (Dante’s Inferno) but increasingly he made films about composers. This had several advantages, not least that he could show the audience the artist’s work in a way he couldn’t with artists in other media. Although he cast a painter (James Lloyd) to play Henri Rousseau in Always on Sunday, you could only convey a suggestion of the artist’s works, especially if they painted in colour as television then was black and white. Likewise, the dances in Isadora are not those of the film’s subject but recreated using an actress (Vivian Pickles, who was not a trained dancer). But with a composer, the music is there and can be played, and quite often that’s exactly what Russell does, letting the music play out in extended scenes accompanied by Russell’s visuals.

Even after he left the BBC, Russell continued to make films about composers: Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Liszt. For the BBC, his short-length composer films were Prokoviev, for Monitor in 1962 and the then-living Gordon Jacob for Monitor in 1959 and Georges Delerue for Omnibus in 1966. In addition, five films were feature-length, using a somewhat more inclusive definition than some of “feature-length” as fifty minutes or over. Three of them are on this release. The other two are unlikely to see a release in the near future. The fifty-minuter Béla Bartók, made for Monitor in 1964 (I haven’t seen it – it had a repeat in 1968 as part of the BBC’s mini Russell retrospective but hasn’t been shown since), used a lot of stock film and material from other feature films to get round the impossibility of shooting in Hungary on a BBC budget, and licensing issues with this third-party material would preclude a commercial release any time soon. The other was his 1970 film on Richard Strauss, for Omnibus Dance of the Seven Veils, of which I’ll say some words below.

Elgar (54:50)

Elgar was made for Monitor in 1962, broadcast for that programme’s hundredth edition. The commission came from Huw Wheldon, then the BBC Head of Documentary, and presenter of the programme. The result is best seen as much Wheldon’s as Russell’s: on the face of it a standard documentary with an expository narration (written and delivered by Wheldon) taking us through the composer’s life and works, accompanying Russell’s images. Wheldon did not allow Russell to dramatise scenes as he did in later films: actors do appear, but the devices of a dramatic film (such as close-ups) are not used, and there is no spoken dialogue. Dialogue wasn’t Russell’s strong point anyway: in many cases, while he may be co-credited for a film’s scenario, his cowriter is separately credited for the dialogue. But Russell works his way around that, by letting the music play out over extended film sequences. (An advantage of this Blu-ray over the original 405-line TV broadcast, picture resolution apart, is that the lossless audio benefits the music far more than Sixties television speakers would have done.) One example of this is right at the start, as Russell films a young Elgar on horseback riding over the Malvern Hills of his youth. Whether Elgar really did do this is immaterial: even this early, and with a more conventional documentary than he would later make, Russell is more concerned about the spirit of the piece rather than the literal truth.

Russell was an admirer of Elgar’s (not always the case with some of his film subjects) and wanted to rescue him from the baggage he’d acquired, with “Land of Hope and Glory” becoming a default second National Anthem, a standard of Last Night of the Proms to this day. Elgar had many German connections, so no doubt had more conflicted feelings than most over jingoistic flagwaving, having lived through the Great War. Russell succeeds admirably. Elgar was clearly a prestige production – shot in 35mm throughout, in common with several of Russell’s BBC films but definitely not the norm for the Corporation’s filmed productions – it was also very well received. First broadcast on 11 November 1962, it had a rapid repeat on 16 May 1963 and had further showings in 1966, in 1968 (as part of the BBC’s Ken Russell Festival retrospective), in 1976 as part of Festival 40 (repeats of memorable programmes for the fortieth anniversary of BBC Television) and in 1984 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. There have been showings since, not to mention the now-deleted 2002 BFI DVD, making it the most often-shown of Russell’s BBC films. Russell returned to Elgar with the 2001 short film Elgar: A Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle, made for ITV’s arts strand The South Bank Show.

The Debussy Film (82:14)

Made for Monitor and first shown on 18 May 1965, The Debussy Film is very different in its approach to Elgar. It gets round restrictions on using actors in dramatic reconstructions by being a film about making a film on Debussy, and the lives – especially the love lives – of the actors in the film within a film reflecting those of Debussy (Oliver Reed) and the women in his life. Some vestiges of a traditional documentary remain: Melvyn Bragg cowrote the script with Russell and is solo-credited with the dialogue, and that’s unmistakeably him giving a brief expository voiceover at the start. But from the opening scene, we are in the hands of the director (Vladek Sheybal), talking the cast through their roles and so conveying information to the viewers at home. If Russell was not allowed to have his actors speak lines in Elgar, he circumvents that because his actors aren’t playing the historical figures, but instead playing actors playing those figures.

It’s impeccably self-reflexive, using a device that Harold Pinter employed to adapt John Fowles’s unfilmable-as-it-stood novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman sixteen years later, or indeed Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 take on Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Russell, intercutting between “reality” and the film being made, highlights his own artifice in a very different way to Peter Watkins, who had made Culloden the year before and at this time was making the soon-to-be-banned The War Game around the time The Debussy Film was first broadcast. However, there’s an at-arm’s-length feel to it. Russell is not an intellectual filmmaker, but for once this is a film more cerebral than visceral, too much of the head and not enough of the heart. That said, there are some sequences which are up there with the best of Russell on the small screen. The film crew viewing rushes gives Russell an excuse for a delightful sequence set to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, conveying Debussy’s relationship with lover, muse and means of support Gaby (Annette Robertson). Offscreen “Debussy” and “Gaby” (they aren’t named on screen, so the quotes indicate the actor rather than the character he or she plays in the film within the film) are an item too. “Gaby” is not happy, being frequently patronised by the director and neglected by her leading actor, her petite stature (which enabled Robertson to play the five-nothing Alfred Jarry in Always on Sunday, which can be found on the Great Passions release – she was having an affair with Russell at the time) making it too easy to treat her like a child. This comes to a head in a striking scene where some of the film cast and crew go to a party, with a number one hit from the previous year (The Kinks’s “You Really Got Me”) blasting out of the record player. “Debussy” insists on playing a Debussy record, much to his girlfriend’s disgust, and she performs an impromptu striptease to get back at him. This parallels Gaby’s suicide attempt as Debussy turns his attentions to Rosalie Texier, known as Lily (Penny Service).

The Debussy Film had a second showing, its final one on the BBC to date, on 12 June 1966.

Song of Summer (73:35)

Song of Summer, made for Omnibus and first broadcast on 15 September 1968, was Russell’s penultimate film for the BBC. It’s often considered as Russell’s best film for any size screen, and Russell himself concurred with that. While that’s certainly hard to argue with, it’s also true that many people who dislike the perceived excesses of Russell’s other work favour this film, which is free of the subjective fantasias that you will find in Dante’s Inferno (on the Great Passions release), for example, most of the last third of which could be said to take place inside its protagonist’s head. Song of Summer may be a film about Frederick Delius (played here by Max Adrian), but Russell’s way in to the material was via another composer and musician, Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable). Not only was Fenby still alive at the time, he’s co-credited with Russell for the script, which is based on his memoir Delius As I Knew Him.

We first see Fenby in his early twenties, a largely self-taught musician earning a living as a piano accompanist to silent films. Hearing that the composer Frederick Delius, an expatriate for most of his life and living in France, was now blind and paralysed, several works unable to be completed, he wrote offering his services…and received a reply from Delius’s wife Jelka (Maureen Pryor). Delius turns out to be a difficult man, no doubt angry and frustrated by his condition. Fenby worked as his amanuensis for five years.

A prevailing theme in Russell’s artist biopics, is how his subjects draw on and in ways use up other people in their lives, often the women who are muses. In this case, Song of Summer is a story of two men, and Fenby acknowledged later that in a way he did sacrifice his own artistic ambitions in favour of facilitating Delius’s work. There’s nothing subjective here: we only enter Delius’s head in the sense that Fenby does…though anyone expecting a trademark Russell shift of tone will get one in a short sequence when Delius’s friend Percy Grainger (David Collings) appears. Russell shows a lot of the mechanics of composing, with Delius’s music swelling on the soundtrack. (Gable was a trained pianist, so he is genuinely playing in these scenes.) Song of Summer is for the most part a three-hander, with brief visits from Grainger as previously mentioned and two domestic servants on and off screen. Strongly acted by everyone (Gable was a dancer who had not acted before), it’s an affecting, beautifully made film.

By the time Song of Summer was broadcast, Russell had made two films for the cinema, and his career there took off after his next film, the Oscar-winning Women in Love. The BBC were certainly aware of the value of Russell to them, and treated him to a mini-retrospective in the Omnibus slot over four weeks in June and July 1968, all introduced by Michael Caine. But there was already a sense that Russell was soon to outgrow the small screen. He made one more film for the BBC and Omnibus, Dance of the Seven Veils, “a comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss” (played by Gable). It’s subjective to a fault, being all fantasia and caricature with few conventionally dramatised scenes. Russell was hardly sympathetic to his subject, excoriating him for appeasing the Nazis. You can sense the nervousness the BBC had, both in Radio Times and in the words of the continuity announcer on screen before the start, in the timecoded (and considerably faded) version currently available at a certain video-sharing site, stressing that this is a personal interpretation by Russell, before warning (justifiably) of “scenes of considerable violence and horror”. Questions were asked in parliament about the showing of this film, with the BBC broadcasting a debate on the film a few days later. Russell, displeased by what he saw as the Corporation’s lack of support, left to concentrate on his cinema career, and his next work for the small screen, the two-part Clouds of Glory, was made for ITV eight years later. (He did return to the BBC for his four-part adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1994.) Meanwhile, Strauss’s estate objected to Russell’s portrayal of the composer, to put it mildly, and not only would not licence the music (which is pretty much pervasive in the film, which lasts just under an hour) they would not allow Russell to use Strauss’s music in his later cinema film Salome’s Last Dance. This situation will no doubt persist until 1 January 2020, when Strauss’s music goes out of copyright in the UK, so expect a BFI release of this film shortly afterwards. The Sixties was an incredibly rich period for television drama, and Russell a key part of it, so this episode brought to an end one of the major bodies of work ever produced for the small screen.

The Disc

Ken Russell: The Great Composers is a dual-format release: one Blu-ray and two DVDs, encoded for Regions B and 2 respectively. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray was provided for review. The 12 certificate is due to The Debussy Film. Elgar is a U and Song of Summer a PG. The latter two were released on DVD by the BFI in 2002, and extras from those discs have been brought forward to this one.

Song of Summer has had a replacement of footage from the broadcast version. In the opening scene originally, the film Fenby is seen accompanying is Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (anachronistically, as that’s a sound film from 1937). Instead, for licensing reasons, we see extracts from What Next? a 1928 film from Walter Forde held in the BFI National Archive. Given the high cost of licensing the Laurel and Hardy, this is an acceptable replacement, even if it does detract from Fenby’s later line referring to the comedians. This scene was simply deleted in the 2002 DVD, which explains why Russell’s commentary begins after it.

All three films were shot in black and white 35mm and have been transferred from the original negatives. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 as you would expect from Sixties television. The films were shot at twenty-five frames per second, so the Blu-ray transfers are 1080i50, preserving the original frame speed and, given the vital contribution of the music, the correct pitch as well. All three look very good indeed, sharp with strong blacks and plenty of shades of grey, and certainly far in advance of the 405 lines these would have been shown in on their original transmissions.

The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and are products of BBC expertise: clear and well-balanced. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.

The commentaries for Elgar and Song of Summer are carried forward from the 2002 DVD. Russell features on both: solo on Song of Summer and with Elgar scholar Michael Kennedy on the other. The combination of expert and filmmaker on the Elgar track works very well, and the shorter running time means there are few dead spots. There are some in the twenty-minute-longer Song of Summer, though there is still useful information to be had. The commentary on The Debussy Film is by American academic Kevin M. Flanagan, editor of Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist, who is also informative.

Also brought forward from the 2002 DVD are two short items. Land of Hope and Glory (3:22), introduced by Michael Kennedy, is a 1931 film showing Elgar conducting the orchestra at the opening of Abbey Road Studios in London, believed to be the only synchronised sound footage of the man. Also introduced by Kennedy is Elgar at the Three Choirs Festival (9:19) silent home-movie footage of Elgar at the annual festival held in Worcester, and featuring not just Elgar but his family and dogs, and famous friends such as George Bernard Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

New to the disc is an interview with Michael Bradsell, Russell’s longtime editor (10:04). This is more anecdotal than its equivalent on the Great Passions disc as Bradsell didn’t edit any of the three films on the present release. However, he did know Russell at the time and remembers seeing Russell and Huw Wheldon in the BBC canteen discussing Elgar which was then in production. Bradsell hoped that the film would be very visual, and Wheldon – whose language by all accounts was much less restrained offscreen than on – said that it certainly would be, as indeed it is.

The booklet runs to twenty-eight pages and starts with “The Versatile Visionary: Ken Russell in the Sixties”, an overview of all three films by Kevin M. Flanagan, setting them in context of Russell’s career. This is followed by pieces on each individual film: “Elgar” by John Hill, “The Debussy Film


Updated: Apr 05, 2016

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