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Toward the Unknown Region

Malcolm ARNOLD – A Story of Survival - A Film by Tony PALMER

Ratio 16:9. Widescreen. All regions.

Isolde Films ISO 001 [133:00]
also available as VHS


Tony Palmer’s film-making credentials have been recognised and honoured with a string of international prizes. For me his talents were immortalised with his wonderful film on the life and music of William Walton, At the Haunted End of the Day. It brims over with atmosphere, honesty and ultimately poignancy as the failing composer relates his detestation of growing old and the feeling that the hard fought results of his lifetime’s work were largely unappreciated and unwanted.

Walton and Malcolm Arnold were close friends for many years, Arnold being a regular visitor to his elder colleague’s island home on Ischia. It is therefore both appropriate and fitting that Palmer should turn his attention to Arnold himself, a man whose often colourful, paradoxical and in many ways tragic, life lends itself to the medium of film like few others.

The results are both fascinating and compelling. Despite setting out with the original intention of watching the film in two sittings, once immersed I found it impossible to drag myself away.

Palmer has assembled contributions from a wide variety of friends, colleagues and family some of whom may prove slightly surprising. Amongst them are Richard Attenborough, John Amis, Rick Stein, Hayley Mills, Richard Adeney and Stan Hibbert. Both Katherine Arnold and Robert Arnold, the composer’s daughter and eldest son, give remarkably frank accounts of Arnold as father and family man. Paul Jackson, Arnold’s biographer and Anthony Day, his carer of many years, give further insights into the complexities of Arnold’s tortured and unquestionably self-destructive personality.

It is not without its parallels in terms of the composer’s personality that Palmer’s film splits into two clear sections. The first and longest of these concentrates in equal measure on biographical and musical detail, placed in the context of Arnold’s remarkably extensive compositional output. The wide-ranging contributions from individuals are punctuated by numerous musical sound-bites together with extracts from interviews with the composer himself recorded at various times during his life. What develops is an engaging web of anecdote and personal recollection spanning around seventy years. Arnold’s first music teacher in his hometown of Northampton tells of the young composer’s hapless early attempts at the keyboard. Various close friends including chef Rick Stein tell of his extreme, even reckless generosity including lunches where Arnold would pull bundles of twenty and fifty pound notes from his pockets. Colleagues from the film world explain his incredible propensity for music written at speed, the most famous example being the Oscar winning score for Bridge Over the River Kwai: forty-five minutes of music written in an incredible ten days. There is more than one recollection of Arnold’s activities as a socialite, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous and his weakness for the opposite sex. This latter was a trait that was to get him into trouble (quite literally in the case of his second wife Isobel who he married hurriedly upon her falling pregnant) on more than one occasion.

Yet despite the financial rewards of his film world success, his champagne lifestyle and the popularity of Arnold amongst his friends, during these years there were already warning signs of the troubles that were increasingly to haunt him. He was as young as twenty when he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and suffered his first major mental breakdown at around the same time. Periods of intense work would often be followed by drinking binges on a major scale, coupled with bouts of depression that were to intensify over the years. Palmer appears to have been careful in not overstating these aspects of Arnold’s life during the early part of the film. Instead he allows the chronology of Arnold’s life to guide us through the gradual decline of his mental health during his years of residence in Cornwall and Ireland and his eventual incarceration in a mental hospital for three years.

What is remarkable here is the utter frankness and honesty of Palmer’s contributors. It can be harrowing to listen to. His daughter Katherine talks of the destruction he would wreak during his uncontrollable tempers and his eventual rejection of his entire family. Friends recall suicide attempts and the stress caused by concern over his youngest son Edward who was born autistic, as well as the insulin and electric shock treatment he endured during his many years of psychiatric treatment. Yet in many ways it is the words of the composer himself that are the most poignant of all. His belief that the sheer quantity of music written resulted in an output of "uneven" quality and the personal desperation felt at the critical and public rejection of his "serious" music. Despite the almost unprecedented success of his film music it was this aspect of his work that he cared about most deeply. The fact that his longing to communicate seemingly failed and was often strongly derided by the musical establishment was a cause of ongoing despair.

It may seem incredible then that Palmer manages to conclude his film with a note of resolution, maybe even optimism, although it is true to say that at long last Arnold’s work is starting to receive the acclaim it so richly deserves. In recent years his life of seclusion in Norfolk has brought him peace and Anthony Day’s assertion that the eighty-three year old composer is happy appears to be borne out. Most important though is the feeling that the real Arnold is the man who loved and lived life to the full. The geniality of the man captured in interview and the kindness and generosity demonstrated to many acquaintances and friends (watch out for Jon Lord of rock group Deep Purple describing Arnold’s contribution and support for his Concerto for Group and Orchestra) paint a picture of a man whose true persona is far removed from the disturbing alter ego into which his schizophrenia and alcoholism could transform him.

It would be wrong to conclude without comment on the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Robert Houlihan. Their extracts from various Arnold symphonies, presumably recorded specifically for this film, are vividly captured. Applause too for the Wardle High School Brass Band although it is a shame that some of their playing is over dubbed.

Tony Palmer has created a film that I have no doubt will attain legendary status not only amongst Arnold fans but in the wider musical world also. You simply cannot afford to miss it.

Christopher Thomas

see also

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Malcolm Arnold Society


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