Making 'Elgar'

Ken Russell in a TV interview in 2008 said that when he approached Huw Wheldon with the idea of making a film about Elgar, Dad had wanted to know what was different about Elgar's rags-to-riches story, and that the answer had been the Malvern Hills.  I can easily imagine that conversation; but the following, while by no means contradicting that, suggests another stage in the genesis of the film.  Ken Russell and Humphrey Burton more or less wrote the film in music.

NB  This is a transcript of a spoken lecture, one made without the aid of autocue, so allowances must be made for the occasional rhetorical lump in the flow of the language.

MAKING ‘ELGAR’ by Huw Wheldon
from The British Experience in Television, Dimbleby Lecture, 1976

I personally had a curious experience in the matter of finding out what the story is about in making a programme.  

Three of us were very keen to make a programme about Elgar. I liked his music. I had two other colleagues [Ken Russell, Humphrey Burton] who liked his music, and we all wished to make a programme about him. We felt he had been done down a bit, and there was a snobbish, peevish view about his music which needed knocking off its pedestal. So we set about trying to prepare a programme; and, of course, when you set off on a project of that kind there has to be a story. 

Elgar’s life was an interesting one. We had a research assistant called Anne James, who spent months, all over the place, seeing Mrs. Elgar Blake and so on, and collecting material about his life until eventually there was a substantial file drawn from biographies and personal memories. He had had, after all, a very varied life.  Elgar, as you will remember, was very much Master of the King’s Music; very much Edwardian England at its most majestic; very much a man of elegance and poise.  He seemed to have something of the same quality as W. G. Grace or Rudyard Kipling, men of authority. 

And yet, Elgar’s life had not been lived at all against the sort of background that you might read into that picture. He was born in Worcester, the son of a piano tuner, left school at 12, served in a shop in his teens, knew he was a musician, wished to compose, did compose for brass bands, never sold anything, went on composing in his 20’s, never sold anything, set up as a piano tuner himself and as a music teacher and a bit of a fiddler and married a General’s daughter who was determined to make him a great composer and widely known. Even she was not able to do anything about it until at the age of 47 – I think I have the age right – he wrote the ‘Enigma Variations’ and sold them for the same price, I think, as Milton sold ‘Paradise Lost.’ He sold them for £7/10/0, but there was a loophole in the contract which allowed the pianola rights to revert to the composer in the event of there being any such sales. And there were, and by the hundreds of thousands.  He made a fortune out of the pianola sales and that was the beginning of his recognition. 

He brooded on suicide, he was given to fits of deep depression, he was neurotic, he was an extremely odd, talented genius. Clearly a story could be told; and the way we decided to tell the story was to get an actor and two or three actresses and, without making them speak dialogue, get them to enact certain moments of his life. For example, we knew he courted the General’s daughter.  We knew various things about that courtship. We knew that he went to her house for tea, we knew they met on Tuesday evenings and went to church together in certain circumstances. There were several of fifty or more scenes we could have reconstructed simply to create the sequence of him courting the General’s daughter. 

I didn’t like it, Burton didn’t like it and Russell didn’t like it, and we looked it up and down to know what was wrong with it because it was lifeless.  It was Burton in the end who said one night, “Our trouble here is that we are not telling the right story”.  Russell and I knew this and we said “Of course.  But what is the right story?”  He said, “The right story after all must be something to do with his music, because he is of no interest except as a composer and the question is what is the story of the music”.  Gradually we built up from that moment.  Russell and I decided – Ken Russell was going to direct it – we decided the thing to do was listen to all the music very carefully.  I did not do so, but Russell and Burton spent five days doing nothing but listening to Elgar’s music.  They found several things he had written for brass bands as a youth and so on; and out of all the music they listened to they eventually made up a soundtrack which consisted of short quotations from works Elgar had written from the beginning of his life to the end. Some were a minute long, some 3 minutes, some 12 seconds and some 5 minutes.  It was not easy to make these quotations move smoothly one into the other, but one way and the other, Russell and Burton succeeded, and made a fifty minute soundtrack which consisted of quotations chosen in such a way as to provide a suggestion of the way in which Elgar’s musical life had moved.  

Now, with that soundtrack we then took all the biographical material and placed, according to the soundtrack, what seemed most appropriate to the music of any particular moment.  When it came to a courtship sequence, for example, (he had written ‘Salut d’Amour’ for his General’s daughter when he was courting her – a lovely song) we could have shown him and his girl in all sorts of different situations because we knew, as I mentioned, forty or fifty episodes of the courtship.  The question was which situation went best with that melody.  We decided that for them to walk through a field of waving corn (corny as it may sound) went best with that tune, and so we filmed the two actors walking through the precise field through which Elgar and his sweetheart had so often walked.  In the same way for every bit of music we chose the illustration which seemed most appropriate.  In the end it was, to rationalize the matter, as if the music had suggested the pictures.  The music was not simply an accompaniment.  The music itself in a profound sense was what the whole thing after all was about.  

Later, we put on commentaries and so on and so forth.  Ken Russell grew enormously excited at one time, I remember.  “I have found the lamp” – “what lamp?” – “the lamp under which he wrote the ‘Theme and Variations’”.  I said “so what?” He said, “Well, I have the table, I borrowed the cloth from Mrs Elgar Blake, and now I have got the lamp”, and I said, “Nobody will notice it.  It will make no difference, one way or another”. But, we did eventually film the lamp and it was the right lamp, and while I do not believe filming the right field and getting the right lamp and getting the composing of ‘Enigma Variations’ reconstructed in the actual house meant anything as far as viewers were concerned, in some curious way it provided confidence to people making the programme. 

At the end of the day the programme may not have been that good, but it was a reasonable and honourable job, and was not simply a standard ‘biog’ about a great Edwardian figure, but a programme about a great composer, which is, in fact, what Elgar was, and which was in the end the most important fact both about him and the programme we made about him.  The problem was not how to tell the story, but how to tell the right story.

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