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Vaughan Williams (1984)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Vaughan Williams (1984)
For the South Bank Show, LWT, tx. 8/4/1984
60 mins, colour
Directed byKen Russell
Production CompanyLondon Weekend Television
Produced byKen Russell
ScriptKen Russell
 Ursula Vaughan Williams
MusicRalph Vaughan Williams

Featuring Ken Russell, Molly Russell, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Iona Brown, Sir David Willcocks, Evelyn Barbirolli, Elizabeth Maconchy, Vernon Handley

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The life and work of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, with illustrations and comments from his widow Ursula and with particular focus on his nine symphonies.

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Subtitled A Symphonic Portrait, Ken Russell's second South Bank Show and, aside from a visual interpretation of Gustav Holst's The Planets (LWT, tx.12/6/1983), his first composer biopic since Lisztomania (1975) explores the life and work of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), with particular attention paid to his nine symphonies.

To get round the dramatic problem of the composer's life being resoundingly uneventful (aside from composing and brief military service, much of it was spent teaching at the Royal College of Music, researching and editing collections of hymns and English folk songs and nursing his first wife), Russell approaches the subject from several angles.

He reads an illustrated life of the composer to his young daughter Molly, observes his widow Ursula discussing his work and visiting various related locations, interviews several Vaughan Williams experts including composer Elizabeth Maconchy, conductor Vernon Handley and violinist Iona Brown, and gives each symphony a different visual treatment.

The Sea and London Symphonies and Sinfonia antartica are illustrated appropriately (the last through clips of Scott of the Antarctic, d. Charles Frend, 1948, for which the music was originally written), the Eighth is accompanied by wedding and family photographs, while the more abstract works are allowed to speak for themselves, notably the Sixth, whose first movement is played on screen almost in full by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It's an uncharacteristically restrained film by Ken Russell's usual standards, almost certainly thanks to the close involvement of Ursula Vaughan Williams, onscreen for much of the time and credited as co-author of the script.

Russell himself also appears extensively on camera, not just as presenter-interviewer but also in a series of Brechtian sequences whereby he shows himself breaking off filming to discuss factual issues with Ursula, answer questions from his crew about the meaning of specific sequences, or just to drink a toast to the composer. This is a tacit acknowledgement that by this stage of his career, Russell was often as much of an attraction as the subjects of his documentaries, and his South Bank Shows would feature him on screen far more frequently than was ever the case with his BBC films of the 1960s.

Eleven years after Vaughan Williams, Russell made Classic Widows (LWT, tx. 5/2/1995), which interviewed the widows of composers William Walton, Bernard Stevens, Benjamin Frankel and Humphrey Searle and discussed how they are keeping their husband's reputations alive.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Behold the sea! (3:42)
2. English folksong (1:46)
3. The Lark Ascending (3:59)
4. Wedding bells (2:31)
London Moods (1961)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958)
Ken Russell and the South Bank Show
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell's Composers