Ken Russell's Special Composer Commentaries: Elgar and Delius

In 2008, Warner Bros and the BBC teamed up to release a nice collection of six early, black and white Ken Russell films called, simply enough, Ken Russell At the BBC. Specifically, the films in this set are: Elgar, The Debussy Film, Always On a Sunday, Isadora: the Biggest Dance In the World, Dante's Inferno and Song of Summer.  Releases like this really make you think Warner Bros is a cool company that must really respect the work of the talented Russell, but then you look at how they've spent decades going to great lengths to stymie an uncut release of The Devils, and you start thinking "why don't these jerks go out of business already so somebody can rescue it?"  (sigh)  Anyway, this is a pretty terrific 3-disc set featuring mostly previously unreleased films. Two of them actually had been released before, in 2002 from the BFI; and those discs had unique extras not carried over to the Warner set: Elgar and Song Of Summer (released under the title Delius in the UK).

Update 2/2/15 - 12/31/19: One year later, and boy has the story changed.  All six films were restored and released on blu-ray (and DVD, because they're combo packs) by the BFI in 2016 across two releases: Ken Russell: The Great Composers and Ken Russell: The Great Passions.  The two films we're focusing on here are both included in Great Composers.  And all that business I originally wrote about how you had to hang onto the old BFI DVDs for the exclusive Ken Russell commentaries and stuff?  Forget about it, the new blus have everything now.  ...Well, almost.
Ken Russell started out making documentaries for the BBC, mostly on composers and other great artists.  He always wanted to push the envelope of the BBC's then strict guidelines of what could and couldn't constitute a proper documentary film. He wanted to include actors and scenes that were more akin to drama, essentially early examples of the now standard documentary tool of recreation, and as he slowly pushed the envelope over the years, his films gradually transformed from the strictest of documentaries fully across the line biographical dramas that we wouldn't even classify as documentary today. ...And somehow that lead to The Fall Of the Louse Of Usher. So, anyway, these particular films pick up at 1962, where Elgar is described as "partially dramatized," before arriving at 1968's Delius, a non-documentary biography.
Consequently, Elgar is the drier of the two films, as it features no dialogue save for narration. Being the earliest film in the set, it sticks the closest to the rules of documentary, using a lot of archival footage and photographs, but combining those with silent, romanticized scenes of Edward Elgar's life. Fans used to Altered States and Tommy may be disappointed in this venture even if they went in already knowing that this was going to be a straight-forward historical documentary. But I still found it to be a sensitive, well made film that draws you into the composer's life over a brisk 56 minute running time.
1) 2002 BFI DVD; 2) 2008 BBC DVD; 3) 2016 BFI DVD; 4) 2016 BFI BD.
The two older DVDs share essentially the same 1.33:1 full-frame transfer (the proper AR, considering this was made for 60s TV), though the BFI's image is a bit darker; and BBC's has a little less information along the bottom and more on top. It's not a strong enough to really declare one better than the other, it's just a noticeable but minor distinction. A quality that is strong enough to make one decidedly superior and preferable to the other, though, is the interlacing you can see in the first pair of shots. The BBC disc, obviously taken from a PAL source, has this effect in intermittent frames throughout the film, giving it a juttery look in motion, especially when there's a lot of movement on screen. Naturally, however, the new blu trumps everything.  It's still 1.33:1 matching their 2002 slightly higher framing) and is of course not interlaced.  It's scanned from the original negative and looks great: noticeably brighter than either previous release with very natural film grain.  Every disc features the original mono track with optional English subtitles, but the audio is clearer and now presented in lossless LPCM on the blu.

Now, in terms of features, BFI's original DVD edition of Elgar is a pretty loaded special edition - most notably, it features an audio commentary by Ken Russell! It also features a vintage silent film of Elgar conducting his piece, Land Of Hope and Glory, which features an introduction and commentary by Michael Kennedy, who also moderated the audio commentary. And the music has been synced up, so when the film gets to the actual song, you can hear it. Kennedy comes back once more to introduce and narrate another silent film of footage of Elgar at the Three Choirs Festival. There's also a small stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos of Russell filming Elgar.  The BBC set has none of that, unfortunately, which is why I originally wrote that it was important to hang onto the old DVDs.  But thankfully, the new BFI blu brought it all back.
Song Of Summer, now, is more of a full-blown dramatic movie, with dialogue scenes and no more stock footage or photos. There is still some narration, by the actor playing Eric Fenby on-screen, giving you the sense that Fenby is guiding you through his experiences as you follow the story. Based on Fenby's book Delius As I Knew Him, we meet Delius through Denby and only get to know him for the five year span that Delius lived with him and his wife. Delius was blind and relied on Fenby to assist him. This is much more of a dramatic and compelling film that also has more of a Russell feel to it (although you can also sense him in the romanticism of Elgar) that will probably appeal to a broader selection of Ken Russell fans.
What Next?
A question in the comments made me realize an important distinction between differing versions of Delius!  The original version used some brief footage of Laurel and Hardy from Way Out West in the introduction.  We soon cut to Delius in a movie theater playing music to their silent film, and he begins his narration, which then cuts to Delius in the field, where he continues to narrate until the opening titles pop up.  Well, due to copyright issues, both DVDs cut the Laurel and Hardy footage... but the US DVD still includes a shot of Delius in the theater with a line of opening narration that the initial BFI disc does not (instead starting right in the field).  It's only seven seconds of footage, and two brief sentences of narration, but it's a start.  Better still, however, the new BFI restoration takes pains to restore the entire sequence, albeit with a caveat.  The copyright is still a problem, so they replace the Laurel and Hardy footage with another vintage silent film called What Next? (1928).  Of course, the ideal would be to have the original Way Out West footage as Russell made the film, but this is the next best thing, enabling us to at least have a functioning version of the opening scene.
1) 2002 BFI DVD; 2) 2008 BBC DVD; 3) 2016 BFI DVD; 4) 2016 BFI BD.
The differences in transfer are similar to last time, but not exactly the same.  This time, the BBC's framing is slightly taller than any of the BFI's, presenting the film a bit more open matte in 1.30:1 as opposed to 1.33:1.  The BBC's image is a bit darker again, but this time there's a bit of a colorization difference, too, with the old BFI disc have slight shifts in color tones as opposed to being pure black and white.  And unfortunately, yes, the NTSC/ PAL conversion issue also continues, with the BBC's interlaced frames juttering along.  BFI's new transfer greatly outshines the older DVDs, with its new scan able to pull more detail out of Delius's negatives than Elgar's, and revealing information out of the shadows that was crushed away on the previous DVDs.  And as with Delius, each disc features the original mono track with optional English subtitles, but the audio is clearer and now presented in lossless LPCM on the blu.

Now, BFI's 2002 Delius isn't quite as special as Elgar, but it has the most important thing - another Ken Russell commentary. The commentary is a lot of fun, too, with Russell breaking off into his impression of a cantankerous old Delius. Both commentaries are a great blend of entertaining and informative. Indeed, if you've never heard any, Russell typically does some of the best audio commentaries out there. There's not much else on this disc, we've even lost the optional subtitles, but for my money, the commentary's more than enough.  And again, the BBC drops it, but the new BFI blu picks it up.
For everything it dropped, however, the BBC set did have a couple nice extras: Ken Russell In Conversation, a new full half-hour sit down conversation with the director about his early works, and Late Night Line-Up: Russell At Work, an excellent vintage documentary that also runs a half an hour and shows Russell creating some of his early films, which some fans might treasure more than some of the Russell films themselves. Plus, there are the typical forced trailers for Jeckyl, Sense & Sensibility, a joint trailer for four of BBC classic adaptations and one of those claymation BBC commercials at the start.

Besides the old BFI extras, the new blus hang onto the Late Night Line-Up (it's included in Passions, not Composers), but unfortunately loses In Conversation.  That remains a sweet little exclusive of the BBC set.  The blus do create new audio commentaries for the other four films, however (by experts, not Russell), which you won't hear on the BBC set.  In fact, Isadora Duncan has two.  And both Composers and Passions also include new on-camera interviews with editor Michael Bradsell, who worked on a number of Russell's films, both in and out of these sets... though not Elgar or Delius.  The new BFI releases also include attractive, 30-page booklets with a number of original essays in each.

So, to sum up, there's no longer any reason to hang onto the old BFI DVDs; the new blu-ray/ DVD combos eclipse them in every way.  The BBC set does have that one nice In Conversation feature that's still worth hanging onto, though, but that's it.  Otherwise, they're eclipsed, too.  The 2016 Composers and Passions set are both highly recommended for anyone who considers themselves a Russell fan.


  1. Does the Delius film include the complete uncut Laurel and Hardy footage at the beginning ?

    1. No, unfortunately neither version does. But checking back to answer your question had me realize a difference between the two discs... the US disc has a quick shot (and line of narration) from that opening that the UK does not! So thank you!! =)