It’s Ken Russell’s birthday, and to wish the great genius of British cinema many happy returns, here is his classic 1962 film on Edward Elgar.
Originally made for the prestigious BBC arts series Monitor to celebrate the series 100th episode. Commissioned by Arts Editor, Huw Wheldon, Russell’s film was TV’s first dramatized-documentary, “a major milestone in the history of the television documentary, whose impact was such that it was quickly repeated after its initial broadcast on 11 November 1962, an almost unprecedented honor at the time,” as Michael Brooke at Screen Online explains:
Elgar was made under a series of Wheldon-imposed restrictions, notably a ban on dramatisations of the lives of real people. Russell agreed a compromise: although Elgar and his contemporaries would be portrayed by actors, they would never speak and would mostly be filmed in long shot. Russell exploited these limitations brilliantly, the absence of dialogue letting him fill the soundtrack with almost wall-to-wall Elgar, including pieces that had rarely been heard since their composition. Wheldon himself contributed the relatively sparse narration, but the film’s true eloquence comes from the fusion of Elgar’s music and Russell’s images.
Given the film’s lowly origins, its visual fluidity is remarkable: this couldn’t be further removed from a dry historical lecture. When Russell’s camera isn’t swooping and gliding over Elgar’s beloved Malvern Hills, it’s fixating on strangely arresting shots: the sequence covering Lady Elgar’s death begins with tendrils of mist snaking through a silver birch wood, continues with a dark room full of mysteriously shrouded furniture and ends with the bereaved Elgar’s new and obsessive interest in microscopic natural phenomena. Most television dates rapidly, but over forty years on, Elgar is still startlingly fresh and inventive. Even the black-and-white photography looks like a deliberate artistic choice as opposed to a then-universal convention.