This celebrated film was once voted as one of the most memorable TV programmes ever by readers of The Sunday Times. In fact, the BBC was taken aback by its success - it enjoyed one of the highest rankings of all time Ė 98% of viewers expressing satisfaction.
It was filmed in 1962 at a time when Elgarís music Ė and, it has to be said, British music in general, was in the doldrums. Personally speaking, I well remember being heartily criticised for daring to include Elgarís Symphony No. 2 in a programme I presented to the Peterborough Recorded Music Society in Elgarís centenary year of 1957 Ė "why choose music from that old has-been Ė itís nothing but vulgar tub-thumping jingoistic nonsense", I was reprimanded. A typical opinion in those days! Indeed, several weeks later when I went to a performance of Elgarís The Kingdom at Londonís Albert Hall, there seemed to be more people in the choir and the orchestra than in the audience!
But this wonderful (yet flawed) film changed all that. From the time it was broadcast, new recordings, and new books, shedding more and more light on the composerís life and works appeared in increasing numbers.
Quoting the DVD box notes, "Made at a time when much that is now known about Elgar had yet to be published, Russellís film is remarkable for its sensitive portrait of the rise of a young musician from a relatively poor background [his fatherís music shop in Worcester where he taught himself music theory and to play a variety of instruments] to international fame."
So many of the filmís stunningly beautiful black and white images linger in the memory: the boy Elgar riding on a white pony over the Malvern Hills (not strictly accurate) and of Elgar as a young man cycling there to the strains of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. Another striking image is the superimposition of three crosses on the Malvern Hills as one hears the ĎSanctus fortis, sanctus Deusí from The Dream of Gerontius. Indeed Malvern and the Malvern Hills were the main location for the filming, achieved remarkably quickly over just three weeks-or-so on a shoe-string budget, using borrowed costumes, make-shift make-up and Russellís friends as actors. (One of the few professionals employed was the man who played the older Elgar). For this film it was decreed that the actors should not speak and, for the most part they are seen in long shot. [Four years later when Ken Russell was to create his other composer-biography on Delius he had much greater freedom.]
There are faults. The pedantic can pick up minor errors of fact but these do not detract from the enjoyment of the film. The most serious difficulties are the tedious over-stretched visuals of the funeral of King Edward VII shown over the Larghetto of the Second Symphony, the over-emphasis of World War II tragedies and Russellís assertion that Elgar had consequently turned against his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1. 1924.
Despite its few flaws this is a wonderful film and it is highly recommended to all Elgarians Ė particularly to younger viewers, or to those just beginning to become acquainted with the Elgarís music. The additional features are fascinating, particularly Elgar filmed as conductor and at the Three Choirs Festivals (with people like W.H. Reed, Bernard Shaw and Sir Ivor Atkins). The spontaneous commentary by Ken Russell and Michael Kennedy is illuminating (amazing how much they seemed to have forgotten) and it is worth noting that Russell informs that he is working on a new ITV South Bank Show film called ĎElgar Recycledí.