Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
In 1928, Frederick Delius (Max Adrian) is blind and paralysed from syphilis. He is living with his wife Jelka (Maureen Pryor) in a small village in France. Hearing of Delius' plight, Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable) writes to Delius, offering to help him write the music that is still in the old man's head, a collaboration that was to last five years.
It's Delius: Song Of Summer on the cover, and Ken Russell's Song Of Summer in the opening credits. But whatever you call it, this is often reckoned to be the best of the many biographical films that Russell made for the BBC during the 1960s. Russell and Fenby wrote the script from Fenby's memoir of Delius. There's not a false note in the script and the performances are all first-rate. Russell was to return many times to the theme of the artist's life and its relation to his work. Delius is a monstrous egotist, terrorising all around him, but he is capable of writing sublime music, some of which is played on the soundtrack.
Song Of Summer shows Russell relatively restrained and at his most 'respectable'. His last biographical film for the BBC, Dance Of The Seven Veils about Richard Strauss, caused considerable controversy and led to Russell departing the Corporation to concentrate fulltime on the cinema. (I wonder if that is due out on DVD?) I've no doubt about Song Of Summer's quality, but it's never been a favourite Russell of mine. I miss the exuberance, the willingness to offend against 'good taste' and to risk falling flat on his face (which he often did), which marks his best cinema work. At worst, Russell can be truly awful, but at best he can achieve something much more memorable than such relatively 'safe' works as this. Song Of Summer is very much a Russell film for people who don't like Russell films.
As it was shot on film (black and white 16mm) rather than cheap videotape, Song Of Summer on DVD looks much better than many TV productions of its era. It's 4:3 with a mono soundtrack, but that was the way it was made. The extras comprise a Russell commentary and biography.
Along with Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape and Jonathan Miller's adaptation of M.R. James's Whistle and I'll Come to You, Song Of Summer is a good start to the BFI's Archive Television project. What price DVDs of John Hopkins' classic four-part drama serial Talking To A Stranger..? Here's hoping.