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Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Ken Russell personally introduces his alphabetical journey through British music.

A is for Thomas Arne, whose 'Rule Britannia' is associated with the Albert Hall. B is for Benjamin Britten and the Beatles, leading ambassadors for British music. C is for Conductors, and ten British music specialists are Malcolm Sargent, David Measham, Edward Downes, Charles Groves, Bryden Thompson, Simon Rattle, Thomas Beecham, John Barbirolli, Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley - plus Proms founder Henry J Wood. C is also for Noël Coward, who warned Mrs Worthington about putting her daughter on the stage.

D is for Delius (a scene from Russell's Song of Summer), Dancing, Peter Maxwell Davies and Dame Janet Baker. E is for Elgar, and Russell explains that a television appeal to restore the dilapidated house of Britain's greatest composer raised just fifteen pounds - not enough for an Elton John ticket.

F is for Film Music. Arthur Bliss wrote Things to Come in 1936, and Thomas Dolby scored Russell's Gothic half a century later. F is also for Festivals, which Russell dismisses as local ego-boosts - but he likes choral societies, and cites favourite English choral works: The Black Knight (Elgar), A Mass of Life (Delius), The Hymn of Jesus (Holst), Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (Coleridge-Taylor), And Shall We Die (Michael Berkeley), Five Tudor Portraits (Vaughan Williams), The Whale (Tavener), Requiem (Lloyd Webber), The Dream of Gerontius (Elgar) and Belshazzar's Feast (Walton).

G is for Girls, often soloists but rarely composers, though Ethel Smyth, Elizabeth Maconchy and Kate Bush are exceptions. H is for The Planets composer Gustav Holst, and Heavy Metal. I is for Ireland, with The Pogues' The Gentleman Soldier accompanying a dalliance in a sentry box. J is for Jazz, and the all-woman combo The Fairer Sax play In the Fast Lane.

K is for Ketelbey and Kitsch, with a flying carpet bearing Russell to exotic lands evoked by Ketelbey's music. L is for Lloyd Webber: Andrew, Julian and their father William, whose In the Halflight is performed. M is for Modern, and Russell claims that the music of Cornelius Cardew, Giles Swain, Brian Eno and Gavin Bryars has been modern for some time.

N is for Neglect, highlighting Arnold Bax, Alan Rawsthorne, Frank Bridge, George Butterworth, E.J.Moeran, Granville Bantock, Lord Berners, Gerald Finzi, Eugene Goossens, Patrick Hadley, Joseph Holbrooke, Herbert Howells, George Lloyd, Edmund Rubbra, Cyril Scott, John Ireland. Russell also salutes Richard Itter, founder of the Lyrita record label, which keeps many of these names alive.

O is for Opera, but there's not much British opera. Russell uses Tippett's Midsummer Marriage to explain why, but cites Walton's Troilus and Cressida as an (often) unsung masterpiece. O is also for Ornithology, as British music is full of bird references. P is for Piano, Punk and Purcell. Pianist Eric Parkin performs music by "English Gershwin" Billy Mayerl. A punk applies make-up to Purcell's 'Oh Pretty Youth'. Q and R are for Queen (both monarch and band) and Rock'n'Roll. Elgar's Nursery Suite was commissioned by George V, while the 1981 Royal Wedding is played alongside Bryan Adams' Diana.

S is for Scotland (a nude sword dancer), Sullivan (scenes from The Mikado intercut with sumo wrestlers) and Soloists, Russell's selection being James Galway, Edith Sitwell, Julian Lloyd Webber, Kathleen Ferrier, Julian Bream, Yehudi Menuhin, Eric Parkin, Jacqueline Du Pré, Thea King and Nigel Kennedy. T is for Tippett, illustrated by his Concerto for Double String Orchestra. U is for Urgh! Critics and Underrated: Havergal Brian wrote an enormous amount of music, but died in a council flat.

V is for Vaughan Williams and Video. Iona Brown plays The Lark Ascending while Elton John performs in a Russell-directed pop promo. W is for Wales, as Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales alternates with Welsh choirs and another nude dancer. And XYZ are collectively for the Xylophone, Youth and Handel's Zadok the Priest, the latter performed by Evelyn Glennie on the xylophone while young dancers cavort. Reminded that Handel was German, Russell daubs his portrait with the Union Jack.

Russell concludes that while British music is often sidelined, it reigned supreme in the field of pastoral music. To Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, a car drives rapidly through the English countryside.