Song of Summer: Frederick Delius

Max Adrian as Frederick Delius in Song of Summer


Any follower of British arts programmes on TV, from the South Bank Show backwards, will be aware of the bleating of Ken Russell and his ilk that no one really makes ’em like they did in the Sixties, when clever chaps freshly down from Oxbridge would be sent out with a curmudgeonly working-class crew and instructed to make films on anything that took their white-shirted fancy. Well, I have to report that Russell’s 1968 B/W film on Delius does back him up. Detailing the strange five-year relationship between Eric Fenby, the young amanuensis who helped blind dying syphilitic Frederick Delius complete some of his most noted works, it is very good indeed.

Russell wasn’t in fact an Oxbridge boy, he was more a self-made maverick, though he did benefit from the BBC system of sending out trainees with seasoned techies. The result was a string of accomplished films on the arts, Russell’s 1962 film on Elgar (called Elgar) being the one that made his name. But it’s this Delius film that will probably endure. Russell believed it to be his best work and it’s tempting to see it as at least partly an expression of his own persona – Delius the romantic, impetuous and dreadful genius figure foreshadowing the cantankerous old devil that Russell would become. Shot in expressive monochrome, it’s beautifully played by a hawkish Max Adrian (as Delius), Christopher Gable as the quivering prudish devotee Fenby and Maureen Pryor as Delius’s wife Jelka, a woman who had given her life to her husband, only to be told by him “It is only from art that you’ll find lust and happiness.” Russell is clearly siding with Delius and the art-is-everything bohemian idea which took root in the early 20th century and more or less held sway right to its end.

Later in his career Russell would get the budgets that would let him increasingly abandon reality in his portraits of composers, as he did in his films of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt. Here he’s restrained by Fenby – who collaborated on the script, doing for Russell what he’d done for Delius – and isn’t allowed to splurge. With the Delius film we see Russell kneeling before a man he considered an artist, before he fell for the grandiose idea that, since he was an artist himself, whatever he produced must be art.

© Steve Morrissey 2001


 Song of Summer: Frederick Delius – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “Song of Summer: Frederick Delius”

  1. Yes, once upon a time Ken Russell was in control and was actually able to turn out a beautiful and sensitive film bio–how perfectly appropriate here, since the subject was composer Frederic Delius.

    Max Adrian was superb and SO believable. I once saw a TV interview with Russell who related that, while filming this picture at the actual site of Delius’ house at Grez-sur-Loing, Eric Fenby himself showed up to observe the day’s shooting, and broke down into tears as he beheld young Christopher Gable playing FENBY HIMSELF, seated at the side of Delius in his wheelchair, taking down musical dictation. Imagine the overwhelmingly bittersweet shock of that event for Fenby!

    Sometime in the early ’80’s, I met Eric Fenby in Chicago; he was here as part of a Delius Choral Festival. The Film "Song of Summer" was screened–but just barely! The BBC, at the last minute, decided NOT to send the print to Chicago and it was only through a combination of pleading and good luck that they finally agreed and sent it. I spoke with Fenby about the filming, but he seemed to wish to avoid his deeper feelings about it.

    Prior to that, I had seen the film in May of 1971 on the local Chicago PBS station. To my knowledge, it is not available in any format, and probably never will be. A great shame.

  2. Ken Russell Song of Summer is a sweet and beautiful composer biopic that was made for television but seems better suited for the cinema.

    In fact it is a better film than most of his theatrical releases (Maybe excluding my personal favorite Mahler), with sensitive performances, humour, and an affection for its protangonists. (I know what your thinking – no bloody corpses? Writhing nudes? Swirling visuals?) No there’s not much of Russell’s trademark shock tactics – but the film is all the better for it.

    A film I deeply respect. Try and track down a copy and you won’t be disappointed. 9/10.

  3. Happily this beautiful little film is now out on general release thanks to the efforts of the BFI. It’s hard to believe this film was made by Ken Russell being, as it is, sensitive and understated! Not being a particular fan of Delius’s music, I was more taken by the extraordinary quality of the performances on display here, and of course, the telling of an unusual true story. Suffice to say that the film transcends being merely a biopic primarily through the subtle and poignant portrayal of Delius’s long suffering wife, played with such admirable restraint by Maureen Pryor. When the old monster (a tours-de-force performance by Max Adrian) finally dies and she throws handfuls of rose petals over his corpse you realise that it was the purity of her love for his art that allowed her to endure his abominable tyranny for so long, and that her selflessness in enabling him was worth just as much as, if not more, than the music that he created.

    A perfect piece. Too bad Russell never made anything half as good again!

  4. This touching and bittersweet BBC drama about the final years of the composer Delius, and the role played by young composer Eric Fenby in helping to set down the last great works of the blind and paralysed genius, is truly wonderful.

    Now available on Region 0 DVD, thanks to the BFI’s Archive Television strand, this example of Ken Russell’s early work can be enjoyed by a wider audience once again. The role of Delius is taken by the overbearing presence of Max Adrian, for once not swamping the screen and portraying the composer as a man at odds with the world but at one with its mysteries as they apply to his music. Jelka, Mrs Delius, is played sensitively by Maureen Pryor – the wife brought low by the neglect and cruelty of a tyrannical spouse who nevertheless finds joy, hope and devotion in the contemplation of his musical gift.

    By far the most impressive player in this small cast though is the much-missed Christopher Gable, taking the role of Fenby in his first foray into acting after retirement from leading roles with the Royal Ballet. Russell would use Gable well in other films, notably The Music Lovers and The Boy Friend, (and a further, much more controversial film about Richard Strauss), but for me it was an eye opener to see how well he portrays Eric Fenby here – a shy, complex Yorkshireman whose self-sacrifice, as Delius says, gives the ageing composer back his life.

    Ken Russell’s work became more and more overblown and outrageous through the 1970s and 1980s (although always interesting, visually stunning, and unique). ‘Song of Summer’ proves his worth as a filmmaker of sensitivity and quiet – the scene where, in flashback, Delius watches his last sunset before his sight fails him, is worth watching this film for on its own.

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