Recognising that Film Music on the Web is an associate site of (Classical) Music on the Web with sympathetic leanings towards that genre of music I have no hesitation in declaring this film to be my Editor’s Choice for January 2002. The eccentric and flamboyant film director, Ken Russell admits in his Director’s Commentary over an extra running of the film, that ‘This is the best film I have ever made’ and ‘I don’t think I would have done a single shot differently.’
I should straightaway declare a bias. If I were to be cast away on a desert island and could take the music of only one composer with me, it would have to be that of Frederick Delius. His beautiful music that speaks so eloquently about the beauty of nature and the cruel transience of life and love, means more and more to me the older I become. Now that is not to say that he is my favourite composer; there is a distinction. I cannot admit to having a favourite composer and I usually hide behind the well worn reply ‘my favourite is the one I am listening to at that moment.’ But Delius has a very special place in my affections.
Ken Russell’s masterpiece was first screened in 1968 as a TV documentary in the highly-influential BBC Monitor arts programme series produced by the late, greatly esteemed Huw Wheldon. It broke new ground for this was the first Monitor documentary that employed speaking parts for actors. Previously, Russell’s other celebrated Monitor film, on the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, studiously avoided having speaking parts for its actors. And, as Ken relates, the film was made on a small budget that did not allow for any overseas location filming so that it was impossible to film at Delius’s house at Grez-sur-Loing, some 40 miles outside Paris; and the English Lake District had to stand in for Norway. Everything was done on a comparative shoestring, Ken Russell, himself, took one of the tiny cameo roles, Hitchcock-like, in the film. (He played the errant priest caught in flagrante with one of his parishioners on a church pew.). When the film was made, colour TV was still in the future; but the monochrome photography is no hindrance. In fact it greatly helps to highlight the isolation of the three protagonists (Delius, Jelka and Fenby) and their individuality and the hardness of their life and the stress and trauma endured by the shy sensitive young Eric Fenby working as Delius’s amanuensis. By the time Fenby arrived from Scarborough (Yorkshire), in the late 1920s, to assist his idol, in response to an appeal by Jelka, Delius was nearing the end of his life. He was practically blind and paralysed and suffering from the end affects of tertiary syphilis. As the film graphically shows, he was in perpetual pain – even folds in his pillows made him acutely uncomfortable. This continuing agony clearly soured his personality and Max Adrian excellently conveys the composer’s pain and his cantankerous, contrary personality, destructive in his condemnation of Fenby’s religious beliefs and bigoted in his intolerant attitude to every other composer’s music but his own.
As Fenby remarks how could one reconcile such savagery with such beautiful music? Christopher Gable is a revelation as the young Fenby and the scenes where Delius and his young amanuensis struggle to find a way of communicating and to work together to compose such works as Song of Summer and Songs of Farewell are moving indeed. As an aside, I have to say I find it very disconcerting that Gable’s fine performance is not fittingly acknowledged by the bfi in bold type alongside Adrian and Pryor (another splendid performance as Jelka, Delius’s long-suffering wife) on the DVD liner notes.
The film is stunningly photographed with the scenes as Russell says, planned and executed choreographically. There are many interesting little touches. For instance, the gramophone on which Jelka plays Delius’s music was the actual machine that was owned by Delius.
Eric Fenby who wrote the screenplay from his book, Delius, as I knew him, afterwards told Russell to get on with the film without his presence distracting his directing. However, unbeknown to Russell, Fenby actually crept onto the set one day when they were filming the scene in which Fenby and Delius meet for the first time. Afterwards, Russell turned round to find Fenby in floods of tears. "It took me right back to 1927. It was exactly how it happened!", declared a visibly moved Fenby. In fact, when he saw the finished film, Fenby was traumatised, for it brought to the surface feelings he had been suppressing for decades and as a result he suffered a severe nervous breakdown which took him a full year to recover from.
"We made this film for love. Now, alas, the heart has gone out of TV programmes in general," so says Ken Russell, speaking of Delius – Song of Summer a truly memorable and monumental music documentary enhanced on this excellent DVD video by Ken Russell’s separately presented illuminating commentary. Unhesitatingly recommended