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Ken Russell omnibus classics
"If you missed it the first time I beg you to see it now. If you've seen it once I assure you that each viewing seems to increase its stature. which as it should be with what is without any doubt a work of art" (Normal Swallow)
Song of Summer (sometimes called Delius) from 1968. Ken's most beautiful work, about creativity and sacrifice, not the sacrifice of the artist but that of those around him. The composer Delius had become paralysed and blind by syphilis and could no longer compose. Eric Fenby volunteered to help him write down his music over the next five years. Eric Fenby was a musician and his work includes the score for Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn.
As with many of Russell's films the opening seconds are an attention-grabber- Laurel and Hardy, and as the camera pulls back we see Fenby playing piano to accompany silent films in the cinema. The film was Way Our West which was actually a talkie not a silent film.
This short scene was sadly omitted from the re-release of the film, due to copyright claims. The BFI release substitutes a scene from another film for the opening.
Fenby reflected in the blind Delius´ glasses. Only when Delius dies do his eyes open.
Max Adrian as Delius, Maureen Pryor as his wife Jelka and Christopher Gable as Fenby are totally convincing in their roles "I can't reconcile such hardness with such lovely music".
Gable was a dancer who was going to appear in Nijinsky as the Russian dancer until it fell through. Yet another non-actor Russell is able to turn into a natural actor. Gable also later appeared in Women in Love, The Rainbow and other films and Adrian appeared in The Music Lovers, The Devils and The Boyfriend.
Elizabeth Ercy is superb as the maid. There is some good subtle writing by Ken Russell. While Fenby goes to bed his voice-over says there is no-one of his own age. The next scene he is woken by the maid, clearly his own age. It says a world about the society and the mental state he lived in
Some scenes are haunting: after the meal the servant putting Delius over his back like a bag of coal to take him to bed, the scenes of Fenby playing to the irritated Delius´ instructions.
The excitement and tension of the scenes with Delius and Fenby are greatly helped by Christopher Gable actually playing the piano. In Russell's film The Music Lovers Richard Chamberlain similarly plays the piano, but his playing was overdubbed by a professional player.
The film was the first time the taboo subject of syphilis was mentioned exolicitely. To give an example of how it was usually handled, here is The Oxford Companion to Music (Percy A. Scholes, 10th edition, edited John Owen Ward) "There he ended his life, crippled and blinded- apparently by the disease which similarly attacked his father years before".
Fenby was involved in the shooting and said Russell's filming was totally convincing. "I have often been asked whether or not the sprinkling of rose petals over his body was a touch of Ken Russell's fantasy. No, that actually happened at daybreak that morning. Strange, perhaps, to English ways, but it was Jelka's wish, and she did it herself from a wheel-chair. " The same image was copied later in The Year of Living Dangerously.
When Fenby left Delius he became paralysed, like Delius. He only recovered months later.
Ken Russell has a cameo role as the priest.
The death of Delius (top) is repeated in Kubrick´s 2001: A Space Odyssey (above) and Russell's Altered States.
The music in the film:
There are two Percy Grainger pieces- Country Garden when Grainger first appears, and Handel in the Strand when Fenby and Grainger race.
The programme was well liked "... on your screen tonight - A Song of Summer, the latest film by Ken Russell, who was presented with the Desmond Davis Award, the highest honour which British television producers can give to one of their own number... When it was first shown last September the critics used a vocabulary rare to their profession; it was 'perfect', felicitous', and 'moving'. Max Adrian was 'marvellous' as Delius, Christopher Gable 'must surely become one of our leading actors' after his performance as Fenby, and Maureen Pryor as Delius' wife 'broke hearts all over Britain'. For me it is Ken Russell's most moving and disciplined film. If you missed it the first time I beg you to see it now. If you've seen it once I assure you that each viewing seems to increase its stature. Which as it should be with what is without any doubt a work of art. In September Omnibus will return with another series. Let its contents remain a secret for the time being, though I'll be careless enough to confess that it includes another film by Ken Russell- about another composer [Dance of the Seven Veils]" (Normal Swallow in Radio Times North of England Edition, 29 May 1969).
Ken Russell said "People still stop me on the street and say 'When are you we going to see that film on Delius again'" (Ken Russell on DVD commentary).
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