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Elgar (1962)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Elgar (1962)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 11/11/1962
56 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerHumphrey Burton
ScreenplayKen Russell
CommentaryHuw Wheldon
Film CameramanKen Higgins

Cast: George McGrath (Sir Edward Elgar); Peter Brett (Mr Elgar); Rowena Gregory (Mrs Elgar)

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The life and times of the composer Sir Edward Elgar, from his humble beginnings to international fame.

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In the late 1950s, Ken Russell's amateur films secured him a position at the BBC, making documentaries for the Monitor arts strand run by the benevolently autocratic Huw Wheldon. He quickly established himself as an unusually imaginative and resourceful film-maker, and when asked to direct Monitor's prestigious 100th edition, he chose to devote nearly an hour to the life and work of the composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934). The result was 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 honour at the time.

As a happy side-effect, it also significantly raised the public profile of its then-neglected subject, whose popular image as a walrus-moustached knight of the realm who wrote pieces with titles like 'Pomp and Circumstance' (from which 'Land of Hope and Glory' was derived) belied a sensitive, private and somewhat melancholy man, who achieved fame relatively late in life and who was often more celebrated abroad than at home, despite being Britain's first truly world-class composer since Henry Purcell's heyday some two centuries earlier.

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.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The Malvern Hills (1:51)
2. Poverty and ambition (2:53)
3. Enigma Variations (1:01)
4. Hope and Glory (2:22)
5. Cello Concerto (4:18)
Malvern Hills, The (1920)
Jacqueline (1967)
London Moods (1961)
Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)
Penda's Fen (1974)
Burton, Humphrey (1931-)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell's Composers
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years