Generally regarded (not least by its director) as Ken Russell's best television film, with many critics citing it as his finest work in any medium, Song of Summer (BBC, tx. 15/9/1968) benefits from an unusually strong story that provides the kind of firm dramatic anchor that Russell's other composer biopics generally lack. It was based on Eric Fenby's memoir Delius As I Knew Him, an autobiographical account of his painstaking efforts helping the blind, paralysed composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) extract his last works from his head onto manuscript.
Fenby co-wrote the script with Russell, and is played on screen by former Royal Ballet star Christopher Gable. Despite his lack of acting experience, Gable gives a remarkably sympathetic performance as the shy, awkward young Yorkshireman, visiting Delius (a virtuoso, arguably career-best performance from Max Adrian) on his own initiative but frequently wondering whether he's up to the job: though a trained musician, he is completely baffled by Delius' dictation, and finds it equally hard to grasp his musical ideas.
A further dilemma comes with Fenby's initial inability to reconcile his long-term love for Delius' music with the difficult and unpleasant man that he eventually meets, especially when his devoted but long-suffering wife Jelka (Maureen Pryor) shatters Fenby's last illusion by revealing that his cantankerous temperament has nothing to do with his illness: it was part of his personality all along (even his disability is a side-effect of syphilis contracted during infidelity). They also have strong philosophical differences, with the devout Catholic Fenby frequently at odds with the aggressively atheist Delius.
But as these very different men begin to communicate musically, Fenby plucks up the courage to offer his own opinions and Delius realises how much the younger man is sacrificing for the sake of his art, their creative and personal relationship blossoms. Completely sidestepping cliché and mawkishness, Russell is in his element here, with rapturous sequences counterpointing Delius' music with the beauty of the French landscape (actually shot in Surrey and the Lake District). Particularly vivid is the use of 'The Song of the High Hills' to accompany the composer being carried up a mountainside to experience the setting sun for what may be the last time.
Fenby was not present during filming, but confirmed that most of the film was startlingly accurate: even such apparent flights of fancy as Jelka strewing Delius' coffin with rose petals were based on reality.