I can't say that when I received Elgar, a Sixties made-for-television documentary about a composer, I had much hope of an interesting watch. But I should have been.

It closely follows the life of Edward Elgar, from his humble beginnings as a struggling music teacher in the Malvern Hills to the most famous British composer of the 20th century. We watch as his hopes are dashed time and time again, and how, through the continuing support of his wife, he finally breaks through to international respect after composing Land Of Hope And Glory, which went on, to his dismay, to become an anthem for the First World War and is used to stunning effect as the soundtrack for footage of the trenches, showing the horrors of the Great War with palatable irony.

Ken Russell's direction is stunning, with scenes of simple rural life imparting particular outdoor splendour, complimenting the composer's work. Particularly memorable are the pony rides and cycling scenes, shot on location in the Malvern Hills, where Elgar chose to take constitutional walks, saying "I do all my composing in the open. At home, all I have to do is write it down". Best of all is the scene of the lunatic asylum band playing Elgar's work. Complete with drooling mouths and rolling eyes, they hammer out one of his early pieces.

This was the first documentary that the BBC allowed to be made using actors rather than the subjects. Prior to this, post mortem documentaries were very limited. Elgar paved the way for modern techniques, even embellished the truth a little, at times. Restrictions are still apparent, however. The actors are only ever shown at a distance and never speak.

Elgar remains an interesting and insightful look at a composer's life and reminds us of how good Ken Russell used to be.

Refreshing and surprising, an excellent documentary.

Reviewed on: 13 Sep 2002
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Elgar packshot
Made-for-TV documentary about the British composer.
Amazon link

Director: Ken Russell

Writer: Ken Russell

Starring: Huw Weldon

Year: 1962

Runtime: 56 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK

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