This wonderful documentary has to be Tony Palmer's masterpiece. I remember,
with great pleasure, its first screening in 1981 (two years before the composer's
death) in an unprecedented 90 minute span on British commercial TV with just
two short commercial breaks. One cannot imagine that sort of indulgence in today's
dumbing-down, ratings-mad atmosphere!
Palmer wisely steps back and allows Sir William and Lady Susana Walton to tell
the story of the composer's life and times and music, together with astute observations
from Sacheverell Sitwell and, especially, of Sir Laurence Olivier. Olivier comments
that the music is sexy and strongly affirmative about love – no wonder that
Walton wrote so much thrillingly effective music for films (John Williams has
commented that he is held in great veneration by the Hollywood film music fraternity).
Palmer's film traces Walton's life story beginning with his humble beginnings
in Bolton Lancashire, a place he swore he would never return to after being
bullied at the Oxford choir school because of his accent. His talent for composition
was soon recognised and he was allowed to stay on in Oxford as 'the youngest
undergraduate since Henry VIII'. The film then covers the period when he was
lodged, in their attic, by his mentors, the unconventional Sitwells (Osbert,
Edith (for whose verses William composed the Façade music) and Sacheverell.
It was the Sitwells who introduced him to Italy and Amalfi. It was close-by
on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples that he would eventually settle
with Lady Susana. He had met her on a cultural visit to Buenos Aires and proposed
to her on their first meeting. She said he was ridiculous but he went on to
ask her again every day for the next two weeks or so with the same reply. When
he then stopped asking, she became worried and said yes! She observes that Sir
William was not at all worried about the fact she admitted to not being very
musical – 'one musician in the family is enough', he commented. Lady Walton
also comments "he looks upon his compositions as his children – worse
than any pregnancy; 'longer and more painful!'
Sir William's comments are often wry and impish and often show a touching vulnerability
and sometimes the odd flash of anger at some slight or painful memory. For instance,
he was greatly disappointed by Lionel Tertis's initial brusque rejection of
his Viola Concerto and hurt about Elgar's (he remembers meeting the older composer
in the lavatory at The three Choirs Festival!) scathing comments about the same
The excerpts are well chosen and sympathetically performed. A wonderful musical
experience that is whole-heartedly recommended and especially welcome in this
year that we celebrate the centenary of Sir William's birth.