To begin the London Philharmonic Orchestras Malcolm Arnold Celebration, a world premiere screening of Tony Palmers film Toward the Unknown Region, Malcolm Arnold A Story of Survival
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 20 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Tony Palmer first came to prominence as a rock critic in the 1960s. Re-launched as a cinematic auteur, he has specialised in hefty composer biopics and latterly in documentary features about composers and performers. His CV already includes studies of Britten and Walton and the considerable length (135 minutes) of this two-part TV feature on Malcolm Arnold should come as no surprise. Less expected is its sensitive treatment of a notoriously awkward cuss.
The film is among the most rawly truthful of its kind but it is also traditionally well-crafted and commendably unflashy in style. Even if you’re taken aback by the weight of musical special pleading from the likes of Sir Richard Attenborough, the human-interest story carries the day. Arnold was not the only composer of his generation to receive shabby treatment from the avatars of BBC music policy, something you might not guess from the scenario as presented here. He was however the only one to spend years in mental hospitals after multiple suicide attempts and mammoth sessions of binge drinking. Consequently you’d hardly expect to find here the antic lightness of touch evident in Ken Russell’s treatment of similarly marginalised figures through the advocacy of their widows.
If there is a problem with the film (rendered aggressively loud and with ridiculously deep bass by the RFH’s sound-system) it is surely that the weight placed on Arnold’s genuinely tragic personal life and its supposed impact on his oeuvre is not entirely supported by the music we get to sample. The bluff humour and tunefulness of Arnold’s film scores and ‘light’ classics are better remembered than his serious work, but it’s not as if his symphonies have been neglected on disc in recent years. These are pieces that disconcert in their tendency to switch abruptly between extremes of joviality, emotionalism and desolation. Excerpts from them, finely played, are strategically placed yet too often sound formulaic and thin. Notwithstanding Palmer’s best efforts, Arnold’s distinctively bright and brassy scoring and the memorable melodic material contained in, say, the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony (the obvious tune with which to end the film in emotive style), the suspicion persists that they might just not be all that good.
Part One of the film is generally lighter in tone. Arnold’s peculiar though not disadvantaged background, his alcoholism and probable schizophrenia did not prevent him from pursuing a successful early career as a trumpeter, principally with the London Philharmonic. From the late 1940s he flourished as a composer of extraordinary range and productivity, albeit more musician-friendly than critically acceptable. His film work made him suspect. Only later did he succumb to bouts of depression so extreme that he may have been effectively lobotomised in hospital. He had alienated all those closest too him, not to mention most of his potential and actual professional supporters.
The last survivor of a certain type of British musician, the composer who used to share Walton’s laddish jokes now lives quietly in Norfolk with his carer and companion, Anthony Day. The story is compellingly told if not without a few gaps in the narrative. The composer spent some time for no very logical reason as the tenant of a publican and his wife, his affairs in total disarray, before being ‘rescued’ in what we infer must remain a hotly contested part of the narrative. In other respects Palmer’s touch is less sure. Would we not do better to welcome Arnold as the father of crossover rather than trying to build him up into some titanic creative force? The most successful ‘serious’ music in the film is that which finds Arnold surmounting a particular technical challenge and/or responding to the stimulus of a specific player he admired. In this respect the evocative guitar music for Julian Bream comes over especially well.
Palmer’s witness list is puzzlingly iffy. Along with the likes of Donald Mitchell and John Amis, testimonials are offered by Rick Stein, apparently one of Arnold’s young drinking companions from his Cornish period, Tim Rice, and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, with whom Arnold famously collaborated on a rock concerto. Towards the close we see the geriatric Arnold full of anger still, railing bitterly on what one hopes was one of his bad days. This is disturbing footage that could be judged intrusive. The audience for this premiere showing seemed shell-shocked by it. Judge for yourself when “Toward the Unknown Region, Malcolm Arnold – A Story of Survival” is transmitted in two parts on ITV’s “South Bank Show” on 26 September and 3 October.