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Tony Palmer Reviews

"No-one makes better films about musicians than Tony Palmer."

David Chater, The Times

- a small selection -

All You Need Is Love

“It’s subtitled ‘The Story of Popular Music,’ and it really is, in nearly 15 hours, on five discs… How great must this be? See for yourself.” (EW Pick, “A” Rating)

-          Ken Tucker  |  ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY


“Calling this five-disc, 17-episode walk through history of pop music ‘comprehensive’ is like calling the Bible ‘important’… All You Need Is Love is a musical education in a box.”

-          Ryan Dombal  |  BLENDER


“There's no shortage of ambition in this 17-episode series directed in 1977 for British TV by music journalist and filmmaker Tony Palmer. Subtitled "The Story of Popular Music," this is the closest we will ever get to a definitive portrait of such a sprawling topic.”

-         Sean Axmaker  |  MSN.com


“This rigorous and compelling documentary series is a one-stop shop for the wisdom and development of pop.”

-          Andrew Perry  |  MOJO (UK)


“For an entertaining and informative history of popular music up through the mid-70’s, you could    not do any better than this engrossing series.”

-          Curt Fields | WASHINGTON POST

The idea of documenting the entire in-depth history of something as mercurial as popular music is the kind of epic task that could make even Ken Burns blanch. And yet that’s exactly what British journalist and filmmaker Tony Palmer did in the mid-’70s, with the impossibly expansive All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music.”

            -          Bilge Ebiri  |  TIME OUT NEW YORK

“Tony Palmer's "All You Need Is Love" was hailed in its day and looks even better now, thanks to Palmer's blend of stock footage, electrifying performances and thoughtful narration.”

-          Noel Murray  |  LA TIMES


“…it’s the definitive musical history lesson for anyone interested in discovering just how dozens of different threads of sound can come together into one massive, magnificent musical tapestry.”

-          Neil Pond  |  AMERICAN PROFILE


 “…an impressive achievement, scholarly, opinionated and entertaining, seamlessly blending archive and fresh footage with an impressive cast of talking heads.”

-          Peter Kane  |  Q MAGAZINE (UK)


“A treasure trove for music lovers…”

-          Ethan Alter  |  GIANT MAGAZIME


“…Undeniably the most ambitious attempt to document the changing face of popular music ever to reach the TV screen.”

-          Terry Staunton  |  CLASSIC ROCK MAGAZINE


“…An astute, fine-tooth-combing through popular music in all its hues and ages.”

-          Linda Laban  |  BOSTON GLOBE


 “…Holds your interest throughout – though you’ll certainly need more than one viewing to absorb it all.” (4 stars)

-          Gillian G. Gaar | GOLDMINE


“It is difficult to find fault with the overall concept or it’s long, winding, and ultimately entertaining implementation.”

-          Lindsay Planner | ALL MUSIC GUIDE


“It's a miracle that the producers managed to secure all the music clearances for the DVD release.”

-          Warren Clements |  GLOBE AND MAIL


“…A welcome look back upon the long history of pop music as it evolved piecemeal... This is Ken Burns before Ken Burns… Palmer's 14-hour-plus odyssey is filthy with progressional details.”

-          Michael Atkinson  |  IFC.com


“"Music buffs, rejoice! British documentary TV maker Tony Palmer's energized and enlightening history of popular music has finally landed on our shores."

-          Jonathan Takiff  |  PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS


 “…A very impressive document on the history of modern music.”

-          Harry Thomas  |  SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS NEWS


“The show pops with original and archival interviews”

-          Rich Heldenfels  |  AKRON BEACON JOURNAL


“…an exciting five-DVD set from the 1970s that tells the history of popular music. A gold mine of rare footage, revealing anecdotes and exciting music making, it covers ragtime, jazz, blues and gospel, moves to vaudeville and music hall, Broadway, swing, R&B, country and folk, and finishes with rock. It shows their origins and how each music tradition influenced the next. “

-          Chris Ball  |  CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER


“…It's absolutely terrific -- a must-have for serious fans of music and documentaries.”

-          Michael Giltz  |  HUFFINGTON POST


“…Unspeakably ambitious, immensely satisfying and indescribably essential.”

-          Bernard Perusse  |  MONTREAL GAZETTE


“The exhaustively researched and brilliantly edited work, includes revealing glimpses at a who’s who of modern music.”

-          Darryl Sterdan  |  WINNIPEG SUN


“Tony Palmer has created a gem of a DVD collection with this 17 part series about popular music.”

-          Nick Nicholson  |  FORT BEND STAR


“…The definitive overview of 20th century popular music.”

-          Ken Sharp  |  FMQB


“Unquestionably necessary, All You Need Is Love is an inspiring, peerless document.”

-          Vish Khanna  |  EXCLAIM


“All You Need Is Love” is clearly Palmer’s most impressive video achievement.”

-          Robert Silverstein  |  20TH CENTURY GUITAR


a copy of this belongs in every school and public library to act as a visual and aural history course on both American and British pop culture for at least the first 3/4  of the 20th century. Nothing like this project will ever be attempted again, so this is the best we can hope for. HIGHLY recommended!"

-          Steve Ramm  |  IN THE GROOVE


“A visually rich exploration…”

-          Randy Williams  |  SANTA MONICA DAILY PRESS


“Music fans both young and old will find this package interesting and enlightening.”

-          Ricky Flake  |  SUN HERALD


“All You Need Is Love” is the epitome of the phrase “something for everyone” and will hold the interest of both young and old with its stories of vaudeville, the birth of ragtime, The Beatles movement and the origins of country music.

-          Mark Fisher  |  TIMES WEST VIRGINIAN


“A worthy compendium that takes the viewer through the early days of Vaudeville to jazz and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.”

-          Darren Ressler  |  BIGSHOT


“The interviews are solid, the newsreel footage to the point and the overall picture that emerges is fascinating.”

-          Tom Von Malder  |  COURIER NEWS


“…A remarkable overview of popular music and the sheer scope of the program is unbelievable.”

-          CURRENTFILM.com


“… A must for serious music aficionados.”

-          Jeffery Sisk  |   IN TUNE


“This is a set that any student of music history will find informative and entertaining.”

-          Bob Bloom   |  JOURNAL & COURIER


“…This is a priceless education – and euphoric brilliance – worth every penny…”

-          John M James  |  POSITIVLEY YEAH YEAH YEAH


“Each of the five discs is a total joy from beginning to end.”

-          TOTAL MUSIC


“Each episode brims with intelligence and humor.”

-          Dennis Seuling  | VILLADOM TIMES


"… brilliant exposition … magisterial style … magnificent "                   

            -          Sunday Times, 7th February 1977


"… a brilliant authoritative, historical study"    

            -          New York Library Journal


"… this beautifully–presented book and films are something of a triumph … the first well–planned … history of the people’s music in the people’s century, infuriating, stimulating, long overdue: and hugely welcome."  

           -          The Listener




Opera News, November 1981

by Richard Hornak

"Wagner can be mentioned alongside such exceptional film biographies as Gandhi, Reds and Abel Gance's Napoléon..... Wagner is one of the most beautifully photographed motion pictures in history."

The Guardian

The great thing about Tony Palmer’s film is that, on its epic scale, it takes over from real life and makes you submit totally… Richard Burton was the very embodiment of Wagner… this film is one of the truly great experiences of the cinema.           Edward Greenfield


Die Welt

An absolute bulls-eye... wonderful... technically brilliant.. musically and filmically on the highest level... it will surely set out on a triumphant procession around the world.


Der Spiegel

A monumental film... a complete work of art... truly visionary...


The Sunday Times

A remarkable event... hardly a minute too long... a British Film of glory... takes the screen by storm... a big spirited work.


Tribune de Génève

The music is sumptuously played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra  under the direction of Sir Georg Solti... Vittorio Storaro's photography is of the highest quality.


Corriere della Sera

Professionalism of the highest English standard... a virtuoso piece, inspired, and quite simply colossal.



An incredible achievement... on the screen, just as in the music of Wagner, the colour becomes action... an enormous and brilliant production.


Music and Musicians Magazine

Musically magnificent, dramatically stunning and visually awe-inspiring.      Denbigh Richards


De Telegraaf

A winner all the way.


New York Daily News, 3rd June 1985

Wagner – You’ve Heard The Music. Now You Can See The Man For Nine Brilliant Hours

Tony Palmer’s Wagnerian–length cinematic tribute to history’s most important composer bursts with just the sort of larger–than–life scope befitting its subject.


Women’s Wear Daily, 3rd June 1985


It is a work of such integrity, a landmark in the cinematic treatment of the way a man’s ideas govern his life, that one hesitates to suggest alterations as if it were something conventional.


New York Times, 16th June 1985

Wagner’s Life is in His Art

Positively indelible are a few scenes involving old stagers named Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier as the trio of court advisers.

'Wagner' is notable for the care it lavishes on the details of this strangely magnetic man’s extramusical as well as musical life.


Maria Callas


Daily Express, 3rd October1987

Breathing new life into Callas the magnificent

by David Fingelton

Tony Palmer’s truly superb film brings Callas back to life in an uncannily vivid way. [...] He uses the arias and their words to illustrate the state of Callas' life and her feelings, at each given time the effect is electrifying. [...] Do watch this marvellous film. It’s a deeply moving experience.


Financial Times, 5th August1987

Tony Palmer’s 'Callas'

by William Weaver

The Divina resists portrayal, but last week a capacity audience witnessed the world premiere of Tony Palmer’s persuasive Maria Callas. [...] Palmer’s film made an immediate, profound impression. Much of the material was familiar, but Palmer used it with insight. He also found some unexploited footage.



Testimony (Shostakovich)


Wales on Sunday, 19th March 1989

Men and women behind the myth

by Simon Mundy

Testimony has won him the Fellini Prize at the Europa Festival, the critics’ prize at Sao Paulo and Gold Medal at the 1987 New York Film and Television Festival, where that year he became the first director to walk away with the gold medals in all three of the categories in which he was entered. [...] Palmer has hit an emotional nerve, being praised by critics and audience all over the world but arousing considerable antipathy from those who try to keep the orthodox publicity myths alive. [...] In June both the National Film Theatre in London and the New York Institute of Broadcasting will be showing retrospective seasons of Palmer’s work, an unprecedented accolade for a maker of arts documentaries.

Films & Filming, June 1988


by Derek Elley

It is one of those comparatively rare events nowadays – a real piece of cinema. [...] Palmer’s prowess as an editor, his knack of juxtaposing image and music – something which has remained his forte since he first caused a stir back in the Sixties with Buddhist monks burning to The Beatles – has a field day in Testimony. [...] Most importantly for a movie about a composer (and something one often doubts with Russell), there is always the feeling that Palmer understands the music. For a start he puts to rest the hoary old cliché that the private Shostakovich is only to be found in his chamber music – try listening to the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth symphonies – but he also brings vividly alive musical details (like the composer’s use of unison scoring) in colour sequences showing the orchestra, as in the climax of the Fifth..... The best British film of the year - truly remarkable.

Time, 12th December 1988

"I Am the Enemy You Loved" – Stalin and Shostakovich fight a duel in a powerful new film

by Michael Walsh

British director Tony Palmer’s new film, Testimony, dramatizes the view that Shostakovich was a closet dissident who was bitterly resentful of the system that shackled him. [...] Palmer makes little pretence to literalism, preferring to relate the composer’s odyssey through stark images, shot mostly in black and white. [...] Testimony is a powerful drama, the tragedy of a man who had to betray himself in order to survive.


BBC Music Magazine, 1st April 2006

Shorn of the composer’s youthful iconoclasm or any scenes of happier private life, this is the familiar tale of Shostakovich v Stalin, but told with the individual flair of a born image-maker in black and white scenes tellingly lit and interspersed with flashes of colour (mostly red). Kingsley captures well the composers ironical tone as well as his nervousness under fire… As a concentrated dose of pure anguish, it’s compellingly done.

In From the Cold? (Richard Burton)


The Times, 21st September 1988

One man’s myth

by Celia Brayfield

Early in his career, Tony Palmer was one of a group of directors who created a new form of dramatic biography. With this film he has recreated the genre, exploring the extraordinary potential for complexity of a medium which is commonly dismissed as essentially simplistic. [...] The original material of this programme was photographed magnificently and used with restraint. The editing was masterly, a textbook demonstration of how to create a compelling narrative from source material which varied from dull to sublime.


Daily Telegraph, 1987

The case for Burton

by Gillian Reynolds

Palmer’s extraordinary film not only kept faith with his subject, it did something altogether more unusual these days. It took an argument about what makes great art to a mass audience and did so with a passion and conviction which might have belonged to Burton himself. It made marvellous television.


Menuhin - A Family Portrait


Chicago Tribune, 12th August 1991

'Menuhin' a fine portrait of an artist

by Rick Kogan

This is a wonderful and emotionally charged biography of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. [...] Filmmaker Tony Palmer has created something of a video biographical miracle. [...] 'Menuhin: A Family Portrait' is a fascinatingly detailed portrait of the growth of an artist.


The Star–Ledger, 12th August 1991

Tales of musical mastery, family friction commingle in profile of Yehudi Menuhin

by Jerry Krupnick

You will come away from these utterly fascinating two hours shaking from the emotional impact of its revelations; wondering how a filmmaker could capture and integrate this complex material. [...] This is an extraordinary family portrait. […] It brings tears to our eyes. Just the glorious music alone is worth watching of this eye-and-ear-boggling film.


The Harvest of Sorrow  (Rachmaninoff)


The Times, May 1999

Great music and no monks

by Geoff Brown

Exile, a sense of longing and loss: over the decades these have dominated the most reflective of Palmer’s portraits of 20th–century composers. Think of Walton in At the Haunted End of the Day (1981), marooned in old age and sunshine in Ischia, light years away from the grit and grey of his childhood in Oldham. Think of A Time There Was (1980), Palmer’s second portrait of Britten, resonant with the bleak melancholy of the Suffolk coast, and the pain of losing life and loved ones. [...] On reflection, lots of people could make a John le Carré film, but there is only one Tony Palmer to explore musicians' lives with passion, sensitivity and love.


Benjamin Britten and His Festival


The Daily Telegraph, 23rd November 1967

Brilliant film on Britten at Aldeburgh

by Sean Day-Lewis

This superb film by Tony Palmer, shot at (this) year's Aldeburgh Festival when the Queen opened... the Maltings at Snape, may well achieve the status of a classic, repeated again and again over the years… the brilliant editing (was) of the highest quality, making a natural partnership of music and picture.



A Time There Was (Britten)


The Daily Mail, 7th April 1980

Public Fame, Private Torment

by Martin Jackson

Tony Palmer proves once again he is a deeply intuitive, caring and thoughtful programme maker. This was a loving portrait of a most remarkable and gifted man.


Dallas Morning News, 18th September 1987

Trio of films on composers are works of art

by John Ardoin

Not only does (Palmer) make exemplary documentaries - he is a master of the medium - he takes us into the minds of men of music and explains why they accomplished what they did. This is the most absorbing film ever made about a composer, how he worked, what he thought and what made him what he was. It is as important as any book written on the man and his music.




Once At A Border... (Stravinsky)


The Times, 8th April 1982

Clinging to miraculous icons

by Paul Griffiths

A wholly wonderful programme.... Much of this filmed portrait is like a miraculous image, filled with the sense of Stravinsky as man and musician, above all as Russian and believer.


Financial Times, 13th April 1982

Tony Palmer's Stravinsky

by David Murray

Palmer's brilliantly organised (film)... All the virtues of the film seemed to stem from Stravinsky himself - and no higher tribute could be paid to the technical virtuosity of Palmer's film, which achieved miracles of compression, lucidity and respect.



The New York Times, 24th January 1988

An extraordinary portrait

by Allan Kozinn

This superb British documentary was one of the high points of CBS's music programming. It provided an excellent, thorough overview of Stravinsky and his music.


BBC Music Magazine, 1st July 2007

Tony Palmer has given us many remarkable films about composers, but this is probably the finest of them all...As an introduction to Stravinsky it would be hard to beat. The initiated too will learn plenty. Strongly recommended. *****

Stephen Johnson



All My Loving


Daily Express, 4th November 1968

Sordid, splendid - it's a mad world

by James Thomas

With hideous, clamorous force, Tony Palmer's film about the pop world burst out of the TV screen last night - a disturbing piece of television...which no parent could afford to miss. It was certainly not a film which will die, a psychedelic experience which 10 years from now will be the definitive document of its time. How often does TV really make you sit on the edge of your chair?



Disc & Music Echo, 9th November 1968

"All my Loving" showed us all the horror of war

by Vicki Wickham

'All my Loving' was magnificent - honest, accurate, unbiased and totally frank. As a comment on today, it was horrific and powerful, and as a protest it was stunning.


The Spectator, 8th November 1968

Loud loving

by Stuart Hood, former Controller of Programmes, BBC Television

I have no doubt that wherever it is shown the film will win professional acclaim. Remarkable for its virtuosity, its impact is inescapable. No wonder it has been the subject of passionate argument in the corridors of the BBC for months.





Hindemith - a Pilgrim's Progress


Daily Telegraph, 14th April 1990

The passion of Tony Palmer

by Gillian Reynolds

Magnificent - like no other documentary I have ever seen. The IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority), to which the film was referred on possible grounds of blasphemy, sent it back with compliments and the sole stipulation that it must be shown with no commercials within its 41 minutes. It is a superlative work, the best and most resonant thing to be seen on Easter Sunday in years.



The Listener, 25th April 1990

Hindemith - A Pilgrim's Progress

by Stephen Johnson

The combination of music and visual and verbal images struck me more powerfully than in any other Palmer film. I found the broadcast exhilarating, disturbing and very thought-provoking. It was a powerfully direct, visually superb, morally challenging statement - as one has come to expect from this director.




Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Górecki)


The Guardian, 2nd April 1993

In the shadow of the Nazi death camps

by Edward Greenfield

A major work of art in itself... Harrowing it may be, but this is required watching for anyone who has ever vegetated to music.





England, My England (Purcell)


The Australian, 23rd November 1995

Sumptuous with a capital sumpt

by Phillip Adams

Just when the telly seemed to have run out of vision, just when 'the box' seemed the perfect name for that coffin of creativity, along comes something that looks and sounds like a masterpiece. The production is as wonderful to hear as it is to behold. And the images! This is sumptuous with a capital sumpt. Here is a production that puts the spec back into tacular. The cinematography is overwhelming. It will blow you out of your seat.


Independent on Sunday, 1st January 1996

Blue is the colour, Purcell is the name

by Michael White

Remarkable - not pristine in its period sensibility, but powerful in its gut response. Palmer has a rare gift for humanising distantly historical characters - the film touches some profound truths about the personalities behind the music. As the titles rolled, so did this critic's tears.





At the Haunted End of the Day (Walton)


'NOW' magazine, 31st October 1980

A harmony of images and music

by Elkan Allan

Not many television programmes are works of art in their own right. This profile of Sir William Walton achieves the stature for which it aims. Visually, it is triumphant. The screen is kept vividly alive in quite a magical way. It is beautiful, dramatic, revelatory and illuminating. In short, a work of art.






The Listener, 29th November 1984

Score for scandal

by Derwent May

Palmer tells the story like a Puccini opera - getting brilliant virtuoso performances out of all the principal characters, yet always holding (the film) at a high pitch of emotion, with wave after wave of crescendo.


Hero - The Story of Bobby Moore


The Daily Mail

by Ian Wooldridge 

The most brilliant sports-associated documentary I have ever seen.



The (London) Times

by Alyson Rudd 

A beautiful and haunting work.


The London Evening Standard

by David Mellor

A powerful, noble film. I defy any man not to shed a tear when watching it. The taste and judgement (of the director, Tony Palmer) is apparent everywhere.



        Toward the Unknown Region - Malcolm Arnold, A Story of Survival

The Times

“Tony Palmer’s towering portrait of 83 year-old Malcolm Arnold is one of those rare overwhelming films that capture the trajectory of an artist’s life and personality – and what a personality – while paying homage to the immensity of their creative achievement. This complex, sad and subtle profile looks set, quite rightly, to win every award going.”


The Sunday Times

by Paul Driver

"An amazing film, the most rawly truthful of its kind that I've ever seen, though full of artistic subtlety. It's a totally dramatic entity, because from start to finish you're aware of two antithetical Malcolm Arnolds tugging in opposite directions and feel the tension between them constantly - yet the film manages somehow to be celebratory in the end. I think it must surely set the country alight when broadcast.”


Melvyn Bragg

“Tony Palmer has produced many great documentaries which have rightly been acclaimed around the world. Malcolm Arnold is another. Palmer at the top of his form and Arnold magnificently portrayed.”


BBC Music Magazine

by Stephen Johnson

"Astonishing....powerful....harrowing. It produced shocked silence".

Classical Music

by Richard Fawkes

 “A remarkable portrait...unmissable. The reaction of those who have seen the film has been one of stunned amazement".


Sunday Express

by Roger Lewis



Classical Music Web

by Christopher Thomas

“Tony Palmer has created a film that I have no doubt will attain legendary status not only amongst Arnold fans but in the wider musical world also. You simply cannot afford to miss it.”

Complete review on: http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2004/Oct04/Unkown_region.htm






About The House Magazine, 1st March 2006

Award-winning director Tony Palmer’s film, originally commissioned by Melvyn Bragg and The South Bank Show, casts a searching spotlight on a life that was at times stranger than fiction; using reels of archive footage and interviews with those who danced with her and knew her, it pieces together the story of one of the most iconic dancers of the 20th century.


Time Out, 1st December 2005

THE BEST DANCE DVDS FOR CHRISTMAS: ‘Margot’, broadcast as a two-part ‘South Bank Show’, turned out to be a TV highlight of last summer. What most people didn’t know at the time was that these broadcasts didn’t comprise the totality of director Tony Palmer’s three-hour documentary on legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Now the entire thing has been released on DVD by new company Digital Classics DVD.


Dance Now, 1st November 2005

There are few subjects more appealing to a documentary-maker than a suffering artist. And the greater the artist the more we want to see the price she paid when the rest of the world wasn’t watching. In the case of Margot Fonteyn that price was heavy, or so the film-maker Tony Palmer is determined to prove. His compelling documentary, to be released on DVD this autumn, portrays the world’s most famous ballerina as lonely, passive and exploited, a woman who ‘was deceived and betrayed by those closest to her’.


HMV Choice, 1st November 2005

THE LIFE AND PERFORMANCES OF THE BALLET GREAT CAPTURED BY DIRECTOR TONY PALMER: Tony Palmer’s typically comprehensive documentary (his previous works include the universally lauded Maria Callas and… Wagner) tells this tale [of Margot] and more. Coming in at over two hours and featuring interviews with those who knew her best, Margot is never less than compelling, and the mass of archive footage of Fonteyn’s finest performances make it an absolute must-buy for any ballet lover, or indeed anyone who wishes to recall when celebrity was inexorably attached to a pure and elegant talent.




The Salzburg Festival  


The Independent, 16th May 2006

The Salzburg Festival is a 195- minute celebration of phenomenal music making, power glory and the Nazis. Palmer’s film traces a compelling path across that space. And as this year’s Salzburg Festival begins its celebration of Mozart, presenting all of his 22 operas, this film may well prove a crucial part of the truth and reconciliation process that has never been completed.


The New York Sun, 26th May 2006

Palmer’s trademarks are insight, perspective and the hard-to-get interview. All of these are present in “The Salzburg Festival”, true to say that this Englishman has done it again. This is a rich, masterly, and stimulating film.


O Thou Transcendent - The Life of Vaughan Williams

Review By Simon Heffer :





O Fortuna! Carl Orff and Carmina Burana



THE TIMES, April 11th 2009

by David Chater

“Tony Palmer is a giant among documentary makers. His films about artists combine a profound understanding of their work and an unflinching dissection of their characters. Here he tells you everything you need to know about the Bavarian composer Carl Orff, whose choral work Carmina Burana is performed somewhere in the world every day. Orff was pursued by demons and wracked with guilt. He would wake in the night screaming that he had seen the Devil. A former wife says he despised people and was incapable of love. His conduct towards a friend arrested by the Gestapo was despicable. The greatness of this film is that you get the whole man, cancerous warts and all.”



By Simon Heffer

O Fortuna! Carl Orff and Carmina Burana  – A Magisterial and Brilliant Study

Tony Palmer film explores the life and work of Carl Orff, the unknown Nazi composer of one of the world's most popular classical pieces, Carmina Burana.


Carl Orff, the German composer of Carmina Burana Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Every day, somewhere in the world, someone puts on a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. If you want a recording of it, there are apparently 300 to choose from. Orff’s most celebrated work – we should hesitate to call it his masterpiece, as there is quite a lot else, much of it unheard, to choose from – is held in critical disdain. It can be interpreted as pastiche, or cod-medievalism. It was famously used as the soundtrack to an aftershave commercial in the 1970s, a rather excellent joke about which launches O Fortuna! Carl Orff and Carmina Burana, Tony Palmer’s film about the composer, shown last night on Sky Arts 2 (and to be repeated on the channel three times this week).

Palmer does not deal with lightweight or inconsequential composers. He once made an eight-hour film about Wagner (and it was still not long enough), and has been through most of the interesting British masters (his film on Vaughan Williams was a hit last year, during the half-centenary celebrations, and he has also produced memorable and award-winning documentaries on Britten, Walton and Arnold). Orff, as he shows during this two-hour exploration, is well worthy of serious attention.

It is debatable whether Orff was more interesting as a composer or as a man; the balance in Palmer’s film seems to be towards the latter. He got through four wives (three of whom appear in the film, as does his much-put upon daughter) and seems to have spent much of his life in penury. As one wife says, he married because “he wanted to be looked after”. He certainly made a business of using people. One morning he visited the house of one of his collaborators to find that he had been hauled off the previous day by the Gestapo for his involvement in a German resistance movement.

When Orff was told this by the man’s distraught wife, his first and it appears only reaction was to lament the problems this might cause for Orff.

Palmer quite rightly concentrates on the question of whether Orff was a Nazi. This is an interesting point that must be settled for all prominent artists who lived in the Third Reich, but even more interesting in Orff’s case: he had Jewish ancestry, something he never discussed and about which the authorities seemed to be unaware. One expert interviewed in the film speaks of Orff jockeying to become the Third Reich’s chief composer, once Richard Strauss had died. When he grovelled to the regime, it was for what he considered to be high stakes. Whatever can be said about his talent, his vanity was epic.

Orff’s daughter relates how when he ditched her mother she, too, was simply remaindered out of his life.

Yet this most callous of men, who saw paying lip-service to one of the most poisonous ideologies in history as an acceptable price to pay for advancement in his artistic career, had at least one other remarkable facet to his character. He was enormously interested in musical education, and using music as a way to educate children. He offered his services to the Hitler Youth, who, luckily for him, passed up the opportunity. But his methods of using music as a vehicle for learning – Schulwerk – were taken up by other teachers, and have proved especially useful in teaching seriously handicapped children: so Orff, the Nazi monster, turns out to have done something useful after all.

Aficionados of Palmer’s films will recognise his usual methods, which take the viewer directly to the heart of the subject, pull no punches, and contrast the excellence of the subject’s art with the often vile aspects of his character. Orff’s music, which aside from the well-known passages of Carmina Burana is certainly rather good, if a little histrionic, is juxtaposed with pictures of the liberation of concentration camps.

There is no compartmentalisation in a Palmer film, and rightly so. Whatever the merits of the music, they must stand against the milieu of the composer, and the consequences of the views to which he subscribed. One is left in no doubt at the end of the film that Orff’s reputation has been so constrained because of the company he kept in the 1930s and 1940s. Film of him being feted as an old man by other giants of the German musical establishment does not alter that perspective. His is a reputation that will continue to struggle to get outside Bavaria – from which, as an old interview with him that Palmer uses makes clear, he drew so much of his inspiration – never mind Germany.

But Palmer’s film, a work of art in itself, opens up so many new considerations about this strangely unknown composer.




The Wagner Family



Palmer is one of the era’s best art-documentary makers; The Wagner Family is a superb film.

Andrew Billen THE TIMES


An extraordinary achievement. A superb piece of work.



A storming curtain-raiser. Palmer casts narrative convention to the wind, instead immersing us immediately in the bewildering genealogy of the Wagners. It’s an astonishing tale which Palmer’s tells with all his usual brilliance.

Gabriel Tate TIME OUT


The half-sisters Katharina Wagner, 30, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 34 years her senior. are the unlikely duo (that) will inaugurate a new era (in Bayreuth). But neither should be resting comfortably after they have seen the provocative first episode in the final season of The South Bank Show. In Tony Palmer’s ferocious and coruscating documentary, The Wagner Family, dark revelations are piled on from the first minute to the last.

Neil Fisher THE TIMES




THE TELEGRAPH – September 13th 2009

The South Bank Show: the last bastion of civilisation on ITV

Tony Palmer's magnificent new film on Wagner shows how much ITV will lose when the South Bank Show finishes its run,

argues Simon Heffer

My article last week about Jonathan Meades's superb work for television drew a number of comments from readers about how such quality used to be relatively routine, but is now remarkable. It is about to become more so. The final series of the South Bank Show begins on Sunday on ITV. For 30 years it has shone ever more brightly on a network that has progressively become less and less distinguished in the quality of its output. Soon there will be no light at all.

The final blow was struck by ITV's bosses determining that they would simply not fund the programme in a way that made it possible to continue with integrity. So Lord Bragg, whose baby it is, decided to administer the humane killer. What a terribly depressing estimation ITV must have of its viewers.

 The final season could not get off to a better start: a film by Britain's leading director of musical documentaries, Tony Palmer, about the Wagner family and the Bayreuth festival. Palmer has dealt with the life of the Master already, and in appropriately epic form: a stunning eight-hour film made in 1983 with Richard Burton in the title role and Vanessa Redgrave as Cosima. (It also has a walk-on part for Sir William Walton, in one of those entertaining tricks of originality with which Palmer marks his films.) This new film deals with the theatre Wagner had built at Bayreuth and the festival he inaugurated there in 1876, and how the legacy seems to have poisoned successive generations of his family.

It is a subject that, like most of Palmer's films, could have commanded the attention for two or three hours: all the South Bank Show could manage was 48 minutes. That the film seems to be over before the viewer has even sat back in his seat is a tribute to how gripping it is, how perfectly constructed, and to its astonishing narrative pace. It is also a reminder that to deal properly with subjects as lacking in superficiality as most of the arts are, one needs space and time. Luckily, Palmer is also a first-rate DVD industry. With luck, a director's cut of three times the length of tonight's programme will be available before long.

 The quality of Palmer's work, much of which has been showcased over the years on the South Bank Show, will also remind viewers of how big the void will be on ITV once this series finishes, and how little there will be on the network to interest the sophisticated or intelligent. Three of his films particularly stick in my mind. Thirty years ago, in the infancy of the South Bank Show, he made A Time There Was, a penetrating, moving and intense account of the life of Benjamin Britten, perhaps the only genuine genius produced by the English musical renaissance. Shortly after that he made At the Haunted End of the Day, an appropriately vigorous film about Sir William Walton. Finally, there was his two-part film about Sir Malcolm Arnold, a prolific composer wrecked by drink, which achieved an almost frightening intimacy in shots of Arnold in addled old age snarling like a wounded beast.

Palmer has never taken the easy road or avoided the difficult angle: his films about musicians are searingly honest and stripped of sentimentality and special pleading. He also understands the power of music as well as he understands the power of film. That is why, 30 years on, his films have not dated at all, and are as direct now as they were when first broadcast.

Yet once the South Bank Show has gone, Palmer and his genius will be confined, it seems, to satellite channels. He is as unsentimental about his trade as about his subjects: he has gone on record as saying there was never a golden age of television. However, he has also pointed to the decline of the BBC as a serious cultural force in television, and has branded Mark Thompson, its present director-general, as a catastrophe.

Palmer has the self-respect and the self-confidence not to worry about burning his bridges in this way, but it should matter profoundly to the rest of us that he has. Two years ago, he made a superb film about Vaughan Williams, almost three hours long, that really got under the skin of the music of one of our most popular composers. The BBC were not interested: as Palmer himself has recounted, his approach to the Corporation offering the film occasioned a reply from a functionary stating that there was no interest at that moment, but that if Mr Williams did any new work of interest, the BBC would be delighted to hear about it and reconsider. Perhaps it is quite understandable why, after such an absurdity, Palmer should have found it necessary to describe the man who presides over such a culture as a "catastrophe".

His latest film is an object lesson in why he is such a successful documentary-maker. There is a rich mix of archive film and of contemporary interviews. They are woven together with an expert understanding of the subject. No area is ever out of bounds: in this case, the Wagner family's umbilical attachment to Hitler before and during the Third Reich.

Winifred Wagner, the Master's English daughter-in-law, supplied the writing materials with which Hitler created Mein Kampf. Her children called him "Uncle Wolf", and when the war came he got one of them a cushy job helping out at the local concentration camp. Winifred, having been widowed at the age of 33, was considered to have a tendresse for the Fuhrer. He attended Bayreuth almost as an act of religious observance until 1940. Thereafter, until 1944, the Nazis funded the event as a recuperation centre for wounded soldiery, though the only opera Hitler would allow to be performed there was Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, which he considered to be sufficiently upbeat and which ends with a paean to the magnificence of German culture.

Long after the war, long after Winifred had been sent to outer darkness for her Nazi activities (for which she had been lucky to escape serious punishment) and her sons had taken over the running of the festival, she unwisely gave an interview in which she said that if Hitler were to walk into the room she would greet him like an old friend. The smell still lingers.

Enjoy this superb piece of film-making: it signifies the end of an era in the commitment to using mainstream television as a conduit of high culture. What comes next hardly bears thinking about.



THE SUNDAY TIMES- September 6th 2009

Hitler planned invasion with 'Wagner' atlas

by Richard Brooks


His passion for the operas of Richard Wagner is well known. Now it can be revealed that Hitler planned the invasion of Poland with the help of an atlas borrowed from the German composer’s grandson.  The Fuhrer turned to the Wagner family for assistance during one of his regular visits to the annual Bayreuth music festival in the summer of 1938.  Hitler wanted to illustrate his plans for a possible Polish invasion while in discussion with some of his henchmen.  “He just asked for a geography map and we found one which was my my brother’s,” recalled Friedelind Wagner, the composer’s granddaughter. Her brother, Wolfgang, was a teenager at the time. Friedelind went on to explain how Hitler drew a series of lines on the map to show potential German troop movements. The invasion of Poland took place a year later, and last week its 70th anniversary was commemorated.  Unlike most of her family, Friedelind was not sympathetic to the Nazi cause and fled to America during the Second World War.  She was interviewed by Tony Palmer, a British documentary film-maker, before her death in 1991. Her recollections will be broadcast for the first time next Sunday (Sep 13) on ITV1 as part of a South Bank Show special on the Wagner family.  “People knew that Hitler was a huge fan of Richard Wagner’s music and so they were not surprised that he would go to the (Bayreuth) festival,” said Palmer, who has uncovered footage of the Fuhrer at the event. “But what most did not realise was that he also used Bayreuth regularly as camouflage. In other words, people thought he was there for the music but in fact he was there as much, out of the public eye, to plot Nazi expansion plans.” While in Bayreuth Hitler stayed in a house owned by Wagner family.


Next weekend’s programme also shows how the Fuhrer was romantically linked to an English woman. The object of his desire was Winifred Williams, an orphan from Hastings, who was adopted by a musical family in Germany and later married off to Siegfried Wagner, one of the composer’s sons. Hitler got to know Winifred in the late 1920s during his trips to Bayreuth. The couple fell in love and there was serious talk of Winifred divorcing her husband, who was gay. However, Hitler, as “a good Catholic”, felt he could not be seen to break up the marriage.




          Wigan Casino






          Review on  modculture



          Review on  Daily Express     



          Wigan Casino  directed by Tony Palmer showing at Space in Hackney

By the time I left school at sixteen in the late-seventies the big sound was disco. That said, the real hipsters among the kids who underwent the same non-education as me were into northern soul (rare mainly American and mainly 1960s records that sounded  like Motown but never made the pop charts). I first came across northern soul in the mid-seventies because a school friend shared a bedroom with an older brother who was obsessed with a handful of northern soul platters. This big brother would come in from his factory job, put Tainted Love (later a huge hit when it was covered by Soft Cell) or some other northern favourite on a record deck, then flop on his bed to listen to the music until his mum had made his tea. For some reason this particular teenager also liked prog, so he was also the first person to play me Greenslade!

By the end of 1976, I was into punk rock (one of only two pupils in my school into that scene then), while a couple of kids in my class were regularly going to Wigan Casino for its northern soul all-nighters. I can remember them saying to me: “You should come to Wigan, it’s great, we drop a load of blues and dance all night!” My reply was: “Why would I got all that way to listen to records? I like seeing live bands.” There were plenty of blues (amphetamine tablets) around at punk gigs too…

And so that was that, I blew my chance to go to Wigan – possibly the worst decision I made at the age of 14 or 15. Tony Palmer’s 1977 TV documentary makes it very clear there was a truly extraordinary youth culture blossoming there. Space put it this way: “Wigan Casino documents an idiosyncratic scene based around the weekly club night that ran from 1973 to 1981. From elegant slow motion dance shots to fervent scenes of vinyl swapping, Palmer precisely captures the bustle and energy, as well as the overarching subcultural strangeness, of the Northern Soul phenomenon.”

If you have any interest in soul music you should have seen Palmer’s incredible dance shots used by other film-makers or simply posted on YouTube. But it is worth seeing those scenes in context, with a record dealer talking about the prices paid for northern vinyl and a girl who works in a hospital laundry explaining that going to Wigan is the only meaningful thing she does in her life. There is also an interview with the manager of The Casino and a couple of elderly Wigan residents giving their take on life. Cut into this are old photographs of industrial Wigan, and shots of factory machinery that turn with an almost Brion Gysin-like flicker effect. The contemporary scenes of Wigan, particularly images of terraced houses by a canal, make it look every bit as derelict as the rest of England in the late-seventies.

Wigan Casino may be a 32-year old piece of TV, but it’s the best thing I’ve seen in an art gallery for some time!



Holst - In the Bleak Midwinter



A marvellous, epic film.

The Sunday Telegraph


Magnificent and mesmerising… a seamless blend of beautiful photography, penetrating insight and sublime music.

The Times


Overwhelming, stunning…passionate and moving.

The Independent


A masterpiece.

Barry Millington




THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH - 17th April 2011

Explore what lies beyond Holst's Planets

Tony Palmer's brilliant film about Gustav Holst reveals the range of that other strange brilliant man,

says Simon Heffer


One of the more tiresome misconceptions about English music is that Gustav Holst is simply the man who wrote The Planets. In fact, that remarkable work is neither the beginning nor the end of what he did and, magnificent though it is, it is not even in my very humble opinion his finest piece of music. It is, though, the pigeonhole in which many people who know only his name and his most famous work have chosen to place him. It is time to yank him out of it.


When I wrote here in February about the retrospective of Tony Palmer’s films about music that was being shown on the BBC, I mentioned that Mr Palmer had one more to add to his oeuvre, on Holst. It is to be broadcast next Sunday on BBC Four at 9pm, so if you are going away for Easter, do not forget to set your recorder. It is a marvellous, epic film of almost 140 minutes’ duration, and tells the story of this strange, brilliant man who, effectively, worked himself to death just before his 60th birthday.


Mr Palmer uses a combination of contemporary and archive film but, as with all his films, saturates the subject in the music itself. There are fine performances of long excerpts from many of Holst’s works, not least by the orchestra of the Royal College of Music, where Holst taught for many years.


Yet the best thing about the film is how Mr Palmer brings out the diverse influences that operated on Holst. He was deeply interested in what we now call “world music”. The man who wrote what many would consider to be the most English tune in existence – the part of Jupiter that was hijacked as the music for the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country – was also soaked in Indian music and Oriental mysticism. He produced largely unknown but captivating works, such as Savitri and his Hymns from the Rig Veda, as a result of it.


Yet more powerful, in many ways, was the power over him of music from North Africa. Holst was immensely susceptible to experience: he heard a man playing a tune on a flute in a street in Algiers that consisted of the same phrase repeated over and over again. It inspired Holst to write his suite Beni Mora, in whose hypnotic finale, The Street of Ouled Nails, that very phrase is used as the thread that runs through the movement.


Even more important in Holst’s life was his politics. He and his friend Vaughan Williams considered themselves socialists, though, I suspect, not in a way that Ed Miliband would recognise. Vaughan Williams was a rich man who did not need to work for a living; Holst was a professional musician who lived entirely on his talents and, for part of his life, on subventions from Vaughan Williams. His involvement with Morley College in London, where he conducted scratch orchestras and choirs of working people, was typical of his commitment to the unprivileged. This went side-by-side with his work at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Brook Green, Hammersmith, where he taught the daughters of the well-to-do and, incidentally, found the peace and quiet at weekends and in the evenings to write much of his music. They still have a room at the school called ‘Mr Holst’s Room’: it is rather astonishing now to think that a composer of his greatness for so long earned a living as a simple schoolmaster.


Holst’s political awareness, as Mr Palmer’s film shows, did not really take off until he rented a weekend house at Thaxted, one of the most beautiful villages in north Essex. His arrival there coincided with the outbreak of the Great War, and a time of heightened suspicion in small communities. That he was called von Holst at this stage (he was of German descent, and the “von” was quickly dropped), and used to walk around the surrounding hills inspecting the landscape, had him pulled in for questioning by the police. However, once they realised he was about as English as they were (he was born in Cheltenham in 1874, into a family of professional musicians) he was allowed to go.


Holst befriended the radical vicar of Thaxted, Conrad Noel, who was constantly in trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities because of his refusal to conform to the notion that the Church of England was the Tory party at prayer. Holst imbibed the heightened, Left-wing atmosphere of this apparently most conservative of communities in a way that simply strengthened his commitment to write music for the masses to enjoy and to perform.


The Planets, which had its first complete performance in 1918, at last brought him some measure of financial success and recognition. It is not the least of Mr Palmer’s achievements that he takes this supposedly well-known work and, thanks to the context that he fleshes out for it and the quality of its performance in his film, makes us think about it afresh.


The last phase of Holst’s life, from The Planets to his death in 1934, was one of true greatness, not least in his choral writing, and there is much of that in this film, too. A new warmth seemed to enter his writing. He was a better orchestrator than Vaughan Williams (and VW knew it, asking Holst always to look over his new works before he regarded them as complete). When Holst died, he left an unfinished symphony, the scherzo of which was published posthumously as a stand-alone piece: it suggests all too frustratingly what genius still remained to be expressed.


I wish Mr Palmer had had another hour for his film. Almost all of Holst’s greatest works are in it, and properly presented. But there was no time for my own favourite, his Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo, written in 1930. Again, Holst had a real-life inspiration: he heard a boy whistling a tune as he walked down Hammersmith Broadway one day, and it is the great theme that emerges in the work, first played on a piccolo to imitate the boy’s whistle, then taken up by the whole orchestra. The piece begins and ends with the slow, relentless passage of the river under Hammersmith Bridge. Like so much of Holst’s music, it is revelatory of the place that made him write it; Egdon Heath, A Somerset Rhapsody and the Brook Green Suite are other examples.


Mr Palmer’s film deserves that adjective too. It is revelatory of a man too many have come to know through one brilliant but well-worn piece of music. Few who watch it will come away without wanting to know more, and explore more widely. And it is, frankly, about time too. The neglect of Holst as one of our musical masters has lasted far too long.













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