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Tuesday November 28th 2023

The Music Lovers | 1970

The Music Lovers filming location: West Wycombe House, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
The Music Lovers location: Madame von Meck’s ‘Brailov’ estate: West Wycombe House, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

Purists looking for a dryly factual biopic of composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky were – and still are – outraged by Ken Russell’s magnificently overheated and overpowering fantasia. Anyone who loves cinema or music will be blown away by Russell’s passion and inventiveness.

The production was based at Bray Studios (yes, the home of Hammer Films), in Bray, near Windsor, in Berkshire where a huge section of 19th century ‘Moscow’, including the opening fairground and the glittering golden domes of the Kremlin, was built on the backlot.

The 'Moscow Conservatory', where the young Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) plays his First Piano Concerto to a mixed reception was the old Concert Hall in Bath, Somerset. The room now functions as the Reception Hall of the famous Roman Baths, Stall Street, Bath.

The deliberately kitschy country idylls around the Davidov house and the fields and forests for the concerto's fantasy sequences, were filmed in Milford-on-Sea, just east of Christchurch on the Hampshire coast, as well as in Salisbury and in Russell’ s native Southampton.

The late arrival, wealthy widow Madame Von Meck (Izabella Telezynska) is in no doubt about the music and becomes Tchaikovsky's patron.

The lavish interior of ’Brailov’, her country estate, is Wilton House, in the town of Wilton, two and a half miles west of Salisbury on the A30, Wiltshire. Originally a Tudor manor house, it was remodelled in the 17th century by Inigo Jones. His spectacular white and gold Double Cube room, perfectly proportioned as two cubes (30 feet by 30 feet by 60 feet), provides Mme Von Meck's sitting room, where Rubenstein (Max Adrian) visits her. The huge group portrait dominating one wall is of the Earl of Pembroke (owner of Wilton) and his family, claimed to be the largest Van Dyck painting in the country.

Now a National Trust property, Wilton is a veteran of many movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon; The Madness of King George; two Jane Austen adaptations – the 2005 film of Pride And Prejudice and Ang Lee’s Sense And Sensibility; The Young Victoria and The Bounty, with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

The Music Lovers filming location: Wilton House, Wilton, Wiltshire
The Music Lovers filming location: the interior of Madame von Meck’s ‘Brailov’ house: Wilton House, Wilton, Wiltshire

The exterior of the estate, however, is another National Trust property, West Wycombe Park, in the village of West Wycombe, on the Oxford Road (A40) a couple of miles west of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. The entrance, to which Tchaikovsky delivers the scores to his patron, and the scene of the disastrous fireworks party at which he is outed by the spiteful Count Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable), is the two-storey colonnaded south front of West Wycombe House itself. The distant Madame von Meck, determined never to meet the composer, writes to him while sitting, appropriately, in the faux-classical Temple of Music, on a tiny island in the centre of the gardens' great lake.

The Music Lovers filming location: West Wycombe House, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
The Music Lovers location: Madame von Meck’s ‘Brailov’ estate: Temple of Music, West Wycombe House, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

The lake also forms the backdrop to the alfresco performance of Swan Lake seen later in the film.

You can see the house as a ‘Russian’ estate again in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, and in many other films, including Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly; Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart; and Oliver Parker’s adaptation of The Importance Of Being Earnest. The Temple of Music crops up again briefly in 2008’s The Duchess, with Keira Knightley.

The Music Lovers filming location: St Sofia, Moscow Road, Bayswater, London W2
The Music Lovers location: Tchaikovsky marries the romantic Nina: St Sofia, Moscow Road, Bayswater, London W2

Tchaikovsky, eager to put his homosexuality behind him, unwisely marries the hopelessly romantic Nina (Glenda Jackson) in St Sofia’s Cathedral, a Greek orthodox church, appropriately enough in Moscow Road, Bayswater, London W2. The richly-decorated cathedral also supplies the interior of the ‘Russian’ church seen in GoldenEye, and it's where the king lies in state in Matthew Vaughn’s imaginative 2007 fantasy Stardust.

The Music Lovers filming location: Colonnade, Queen's House, Greenwich, London SE10
The Music Lovers location: the 'St Petersburg' honeymoon: Colonnade, Queen's House, Greenwich, London SE10

Pyotr and Nina's honeymoon in 'St Petersburg' sees the ill-matched couple sitting at a terrace cafe, which is actually the Colonnade at the Old Royal Naval College, King William Walk, Greenwich, London SE10. The extensive grounds have been seen as 'Paris' in the 2013 film of Les Misérables, as the streets of 'Victorian London' in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, an even older London in Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, as 'Regent's Park' in Cruella and as Greenwich itself in Thor: The Dark World, among many other productions.

Another Colonnade, nearby at the beautifully restored Queen’s House, overlooking the Naval College, became the pillared walkway where the relationship shows signs of strain and the pair agree to return to Moscow. The 17th-century royal villa was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, as a make-up gift from the monarch after he'd sworn in front of her when she accidentally killed one of his favourite hunting dogs. So the story goes.

When completed in 1636 (17 years after Anne died, incidentally) by the same Inigo Jones who decorated Wilton House, it was the first wholly Classical house in England, superseding the traditional red-brick style.

Charles I gave Greenwich to his wife Henrietta Maria, and the house was used by the royal family until 1805, when George III (the monarch portrayed in The Madness Of King George) granted it to a charity school for the orphans of seamen. When the school moved in 1933, the house was taken over by the National Maritime Museum, which stands alongside.

The Colonnade also appears as a bustling London street in Ang Lee's 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense And Sensibility, and is used as the setting for an energetic fight scene in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.

The Music Lovers filming location: West Wycombe Park, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
The Music Lovers location: the camera obscura in 'St Petersburg': Temple of the Winds, West Wycombe House, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

The 'camera obscura' in the ‘St Petersburg’ park, where the newlyweds join tourists giggling at the sight of a frisky couple outside, is actually the Temple Of The Winds – another folly in West Wycombe Park. A camera obscura (Latin for 'dark room') was an attraction which used a rotating, angled mirror on top of the building to reflect an image of the surroundings onto a white circular table. It was the developed from the ideas of the 11th Century Arab physicist, Ibn al-Haytham, and represents the fore-runner of photography.

As the marriage becomes unbearable, the composer’s tragi-comic suicide attempt was staged on the Grand Union Canal, where Tchaikovsky steps into the murky water to find it only reaches up to his knees. Surprisingly, the site is only a few minutes away from the colourful crowds of Camden Lock, beneath the Euston railway line alongside Gloucester Avenue Bridge between Camden and Regent’s Park, London NW1. Railings have since been installed to deter further depressed Russian composers from imitating him.

The asylum, in which Nina is ultimately confined, is the disused Royal Artillery Barracks, Artillery Place, Woolwich, London SE18. The Barracks' frontage has been preserved but the site has been redeveloped.


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