Below is my full article for the Coleridge bulletin periodical publication which is sold to the friends of Coleridge and which are on display in the library at Coleridge cottage. Apologies for a few repeated sections to my previous article. At the end is my tribute to Coleridge and Roald Dahl which is on display at the Roald Dahl Museum.
Review of “Clouds of Glory – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
(Directed by Ken Russell and commissioned by Melvyn Bragg)
Ken Russell’s 1978 TV film has been an enigma to me for many years. I first heard about it a few years ago whilst volunteering in Coleridge Cottage. I met a Coleridge expert from the United States who told me about a magical film he had seen in the 1980’s on PBS and how the image of Sara Coleridge with a huge part of an anchor embedded in her chest (having been killed by S.T Coleridge), had stuck with him all these years…
I can hear you ask the following question. Why haven’t I heard of this film? Well, because of a foolish copyright problem involving the music played in the film (composed by Benjamin Britten and Vaughn Williams) the film has not been repeated or ever released on video, neither in the old days of VHS or on today’s DVD. It hasn’t surfaced on YouTube, other than my recently posted clip. So when I finally tracked down a battered bootleg from a collector in Australia I was delighted. The version I saw was from a 1983 Channel 9 Australia showing and is in dire condition. Despite unwatchable quality it is a testament to the films magnificence that I was transfixed and moved to tears.
But this gets even odder. There was a second film. This concentrated on Wordsworth and cannot even be found from a collector in the murky bootleg world. The titles of both films are provocative and garish, but don’t be put off. “William and Dorothy: The Love Story of the Poet and His Sister” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: The Strange Story of Samuel Coleridge, Poet and Drug Addict” are certainly to the point!
The film begins with urgent classical music accompanied by gloriously spirited and unusual title graphics. It is eclectic and bold and just a little extreme, which is in keeping with the film and the director’s style. The focus of this – first of two “Clouds of Glory” films is Coleridge’s demons…drugs and his marriage. It is faithful to the facts but aims to produce analogies and symbolism derived from Coleridge’s writing and poetry and to use it as a metaphor for problems in Coleridge’s life. It works superbly. The cast is superb. There can and will never be a better choice as Coleridge than the late David Hemmings (a dead ringer in comparison with Linus Roache) who looks eerily like Coleridge.
David Warner (who was also the lead for the accompanying film in the series – which like this one – is 50 minutes long) plays Wordsworth with some accuracy. Felicity Kendal seems a good choice as Dorothy, but perhaps somewhat overdoes the northern accent clichés. However she looks the part.
The film’s opening scene shows Coleridge frantically searching for his Opium “stash”, in what is perhaps his Highgate home. It is nowhere to be found and he dashes here and there to retrieve it whilst a beautiful reading of the Mariner plays over the action. There are some delightful sequences to follow in which we see a delightfully camp scene between S.T.C, Lovell and Southey (Murray Melvin and Ben Aris play the latter) as they are thrashing out the Pantisocracy idea. It is the sequences in a huge lake with Coleridge arguing whilst rowing with his wife (and complaining to the world about all his fellow artists that betrayed him) that strike one as showing that Ken Russell clearly knew his subject well and as usual he delights in shocking. However, any thoughts that this film has been “banned” due to sexual imagery or drug taking should be dispelled. However, the interplay between “Shot the Albatross” lines and Coleridge killing his wife are contentious. Hence you feel it is symbolism in a dream type sequence and despite sounding ridiculous, it does work surprisingly well.
The lake is really a metaphor for Coleridge’s lonely confinement within his mind and being isolated. It is his own mind that is his prison, rather than a Lime Tree Bower and he cannot find the urgently sought outlet of sympathy with others.
It is nothing short of a hideous tragedy that this film remains unseen and unreleased as it is far superior to Julian Temple’s “Pandemonium”. What is delightful to see with Russell’s film is that there is no need to embellish or change the facts. There is so much inspiration and drama in the facts as they are that Russell makes full use. The lighting and direction is masterful and makes tremendous use of the Lake District. The film’s most delightful scenes are the ones set in Somerset (though no filming was done in the West). A glorious recreation of the Nether Stowey cottage sees an excited Coleridge introduce the Wordsworth’s to Sara. What follows is my favourite scene in which Hemmings does a moving and superb performance of “Frost at Midnight”. It is quite beautiful.
Another deft touch by Russell is a scene involving more reading in the shape of the Ancient Mariner’s “Fog it came” lines, and he accompanies these with STC gazing through the window, as for the first time he meets “Asra”. This is priceless. Use of lighting and the endless (but fatal in terms of a commercial release is concerned) use of the music give her entrance great power.
Of course, Russell pushes Coleridge’s drug addiction to the forefront, rightly or wrongly – and this may infuriate some watchers but he also quotes an irritable Coleridge defending his prescribed medication to William and Dorothy in a picturesque Scotland. Hemmings is necessarily aged for scenes and as an older man the actor not only looks like himself as an older man in reality but also to Coleridge, particularly as pictured in the portrait of the real Coleridge which belonged to Tom Poole painted by Washington Alston.
There are witty lines of dialogue between the cast and a prim and proper Sara (played by Kika Markham) presides over STC, denying Coleridge his opium. Throughout the film Hemmings often shrieks passionately from his boat on the lake. He curses but also shouts with delight regarding his memories of Wordsworth but rues his luck too. There are telling scenes with DeQuincey also, that as always are intercut with an older Coleridge passing judgement on himself…usually for the worse.
As the film develops we find probably the most astonishing scene to be the one involving the “Death” spectre on a boat approaching Coleridge. It is breath-taking once more and up there with all the iconic images Russell produced with “Tommy” or his Elgar film.
The scenes at the end at Dr Gillman’s house are again, totally accurate to real life, and the film ends with an evocative last few lines from the Ancient Mariner poem again. The lines “wiser man” is read and Coleridge himself sits in his Highgate home as he writes his memoirs with a look of wisdom on his face. Indeed, from start to finish, parts of the poem are read and referenced with an endless obsession with Freudian parallels between Coleridge’s real life and the happenings and characters in the Ancient Mariner. This works to great effect and unlike Julian Temple, Russell sticks to the facts and embellishes them in a hinted sense that works very effectively. As for the photography – it is superb, making full use of the Lake District, though it’s a pity the Quantock scenes were not filmed in Somerset. The acting is funny and passionate and in the case of Hemmings, very heartfelt and it is uncanny how much he looks like STC. The cast do a fine job in accurately evoking a past age that seems to be a lost art in today’s filmmaking.
It is a real gem but will or would cause outrage amongst some Coleridgeans I am sure. This is Ken Russell after all and he thrived on outrage! But actually it is visually sumptuous and also pretty tasteful for a Ken Russell project. Russell is one of those film makers who was very patchy but when he made a great film it was better than other more consistent film makers. “Rime” and “William” are both surprisingly restrained but of course being Russell there has to be a focus on Coleridge’s Opium, and with Wordsworth perhaps a slightly off the wall interpretation of Dorothy and William’s closeness . However as I haven’t seen the Wordsworth film I cannot really know. Certainly the Coleridge film is pretty accurate and is sumptuous visually –again what is interesting is the parallels Russell and Bragg try to imply between Coleridge’s life and the Mariner. The casting is superb. I am pleased it was filmed because for me the 70′s were a heyday of TV drama never surpassed. Sadly a third film about Southey was never filmed due to lack of funds. It’s sad to think Russell ended up doing YouTube projects with students at the end. Ironic that Clouds of Glory should find a partial home there.
The cast are well cast and are an intelligent match for match with Wordsworth being convincingly portrait by David Warner. Even Southey and Lovell are uncanny, whilst Dorothy is also a good choice in Felicity Kendal. No doubt her name being the subject of many an on set joke or Coleridgean pun as most of the film was filmed in Kendal itself.
As a former volunteer at the home of Coleridge in Nether Stowey, it is thrilling to have uploaded clips to YouTube to many an appreciative comment as I have been searching without success for decades to find these two Russell/Bragg films.
Overall it is a must see for Coleridge devotees and for me is far more enjoyable than any other adaptation (though BBC Radio 4’s Spy Nozy and the poets is also superb) and for its slight failing is a wonderful visual feast of passion and imagination by a director clearly in love with the subject.
The Ancient Turtle and the Boy who loved him……
by Ben Manning
Based on the short story “The Boy Who Talked with Animals”
by Roald Dahl
Written in the style of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It is a native fisherman and he stoppeth one of three:
Say the others unto him,
“Why stops me my man?
Ah! I see a fine catch hast been caught by thee”
“There, Here Tis a Sea Turtle….The finest catch!”, quoth he,
From near boarding house the guests did gather,
“We will be rich! A treasured catch this be
For two hundreds years passed as have been enjoyed by he…
For he is an Ancient sea turtle…
His years worth more than thee or me…or all of us thrice round!”,
The sailors did care not for the large creature,
But only for selling it, pound for pound,
The men looked on,
The men did argue, the men did grumble and from great greed there words did stumble,
Round and round they circled and vainly did they prod,
Like a vulture round its pray they did discuss the turtle fate as it lay,
Provoking its venom and its anger,
Only to seek to slay it for reasons of danger
Its head did bob,
Its head did suffer, and its arms and legs scrambled, and did flutter,
There it lay as sad as a wounded albatross,
For on its back was it laid,
Its fate in the hands of a coin to toss,
From distance a boy doth come like the rich men that surrounded he,
He doth not cometh from lands of sea and sand, where fine men walk,
For in Jamaica are such men of palm trees and drums of steel, Honest and fine,
The boy he comes from the land of Albion,
As doth such men that taunt and barter
for this humble beast so old and fine to be used as a culinary starter!
This beast so wise and laboured,
So suddenly caught from waves of blue,
Soon to be eaten or sold as a catch so sought after,
Its fine sinews fleshed out and its soul sent to the thereafter,
But the boy he screams!
For he loveth the turtle that the men did slay
as it struggles its last breaths its life only a game for the men to play
The boy not more than a ten years child:
The Sea Turtle hath his will,
“Leave him be!”, sayeth he,
So loudly and clearly his words can be heard,
Like the winds on the waves and the wings of a bird,
Such natures wisdom from his mouth doth spring,
Approaching the turtle great kindness did he show,
Such peace and good fortune, love from him did flow,
“Be gone! Tame the boy!
For like a shrew he doth give cunning to the turtle,
He is ours to sell and to barter,
Take him whence
Let us decide its fate“,
The mans thoughts were wild, Such money and delights would be his,
From this turtle as his bait…
His thoughts so wild with greed and power,
His thoughts did ring,
“The money is mine, I’ve won! I’ve won!”,
Like a bird with its prey did the men look upon the sad turtle as it lay,
But the boy cradled its head in his hands,
Great kindness and love did he show,
For he loveth the turtle as lord god loves all creatures great and small,
Regardless of goods, money nor vanity,
The men looked on, fearing insanity,
The boy did speak to the creature, its Shell so wide,
The boy spoke on,
Meek gentle and so small,
“My son! You must let the Turtle go… for his sanity!
The turtle so shrewd from the ages so wise,
Leave him be to be free and roam far and wide,
On the painted ocean so wide with unknown depths so measureless to man”,
The men did extort great riches from the boys father,
Only to calm the man’s child from fear and wonder,
To dispel thoughts of death and destruction,
To a creature so wise, omnipotent and round,
Once restored did it stumble,
Into the ocean it went so humble,
The boy did look on his heart at rest…..
But for in his bed next day he could not be found,
For he was known for talking to the animals,
Talk he did on the wide ocean for ever more,
They did search and roameth high and low for the boy of special powers,
But Oh! One, Two, Three footsteps found in the sand
Can he be found, by god hand?
In the distance the boy is seen
The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came the boy!
And he and the turtle shone bright,
Clear as day on the back of the giant turtle he moveth toward the sun
The catchers did see him but natures law did tell them to follow the boy no further,
What a vision they saw!
As it came to pass did they let him be,
For they have found the child a’ riding on the back of the sea turtle,
On the sea, had they searched…… in a circle,
The boy saved the men from greed and avarice,
He had saved them from penance they might do,
Such guilt washed away into the ocean,
Oft! they pondered how a kind saint took pity on them, and blessed them unaware
Surrounded by love’s light does he ride the waves on the back of gods creature,
For he hath drunk the milk of kindness……….
The men left stunned as the sun rose,
The boys kindness and the sea turtle’s age old wisdom had brought such selfish gains to a close,
Such higher things were beyond earthly wisdoms,
Sadder and wiser men they rose the next morning ,
But there be no reason for any mourning…
The parents so clever and wise, left stunned…
Into the unknown there boy did he venture,
Water, Water everywhere,
A sea wide with adventure…….
This poem being a visualization from the story by Roald Dahl of perhaps Coleridge as a young boy, Instead of being nearly drowned in the River Otter we find him in a more exotic setting, with the Albatross’s place being taken by the Turtle.