Elgar (1962)

We move on to the Ken Russell at the BBC box. Russell is more or less uncharted waters for me, hitherto I think I’ve only ever seen The Devils and Altered States. I know him more by reputation, and that reputation is kind of extravagant… As such, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this set, which gathers six of his BBC productions from the 1960s, a time when he was on the rise as a filmmaker but before the excesses seem to have taken over. As such, Elgar (the first film here) perhaps looks more restrained than it otherwise might; it was, in fact, kind of revolutionary in its own small way. Made as the 100th episode of the Monitor arts magazine series Russell had worked on since 1959, it was the first time Monitor had used actors and re-enactments of scenes. Common enough now, but at the time Russell’s producer Huw Wheldon insisted that if the BBC used actors in a factual program people wouldn’t believe they were being honest or something, and only let Russell do it on condition the actors be shown only in long-shot and not speak any dialogue. So, to a soundtrack comprising Wheldon’s own narration and generous servings of Elgar’s music (alas the performers are uncredited), Russell added a terrific series of images, lots of landscape footage around Elgar’s native Malvern Hills, adding up to an outstanding portrait of an intriguing misfit (what fact, you have to ask, counted against Elgar the worst in the late 19th century—being lower middle class, being a Roman Catholic, or being a musician). And yet it’s some stock footage that provided the film’s highlight for me; after talking about how Elgar’s second symphony mourned the passing of the king in 1910 and seemed to predict impending disaster, Russell takes a series of wartime battle shots and sets them against “Land of Hope of Glory”. It’s a juxtaposition that brilliantly illustrates why Elgar came to loathe what had become his most famous work. Looking forward to the rest of this collection now.

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