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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Ken Russell's Elgar

Updated: May 5, 2023

55 years ago in November 1962, Ken Russell’s documentary on Elgar for BBC’s Monitor series caused quite a stir but has since achieved classic status in the field of television documentaries. If only, BBC's arts programmes were this adventurous now.

Elgar takes a biographical look at the life of the composer (whose most famous work is Land of Hope and Glory he grew to hate) was shot using dramatic reconstructions of events in his life – a ground breaking approach to documentary film making in the 1960s. There were a number of rules that Russell had to adhere to by taking this approach. 1) There could be no close-ups of the actors and 2) the actors could not speak. Rather than limiting the film’s effectiveness these two stipulations and especially the latter help to create a striking documentary where Elgar’s music is used to tell his story alongside a minimal commentary by Huw Wheldon.

Elgar’s story from his lower middle class origins as the son of a tradesman to the height of his popularity and subsequent decline is shown though the music he wrote by placing his compositions into a social and historical context. Through the dramatisation the small incidents garnered from his memoirs, letters and biographies Russell has created a wonderfully personal look at Elgar's life. It may not be entirely accurate in the DVD’s sleeve notes and his commentary with Ken Russell, Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy, nit-picks his way through some of the film’s finer points: Elgar never rode a horse as a child, frolicked in the woods with his wife or asked his wife to draw by hand all his music paper. To which Ken Russell replies “How do you know? He might have done!”.

Shot in crisp black and white on location in “Elgar Country” in Malvern and Worcester this film may offer a romanticised look at Elgar’s life but it remains a satisfying film which deserves its place among BFI video publishing’s growing library of key television programmes preserved in the National Film and Television Archive. Russell’s Delius – Song of Summer is also available.

Also on the DVD is some rare archive footage of Elgar attending the Three Choirs Festival in the late 1920s/early 30s and a newsreel of a live recording of Land of Hope and Glory which celebrated the opening of Abbey Road Studios in 1931. These fifteen minutes of additional items are more of interest to Elgar fans than those of Ken Russell.

The film’s commentary takes the form of an interview between Michael Kennedy and Ken Russell and sheds light on the nuts and bolts of making of the documentary, further illumination on Elgar’s life, Russell’s passion for classical music and Ken Russell’s plans for future films if he were to get funding! An entertaining and educational commentary.

I watched the BFI's 2002 DVD of Elgar for this review, but the film is now on YouTube.

Cast: Peter Brett, Rowena Gregory and George McGrath

Presenter: Huw Wheldon

Director: Ken Russell

56 minutes

As you may know, I do love a bio-pic, so much so I wrote a book on them! You can snap up a copy of Bio-Pics: a life in pictures here.

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