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Beginnings


Price: £4.95


Out of the five films on this DVD the most important and well known to Crystal Palace historians is the 1957 Ken Russell short Amelia and the Angel starring Mercedes Quadros. The film is notable because a large section is set in around the closed (in 1954) High Level railway station that was to be demolished in 1961. Another local building features in the film - St. Anne's School in Vauxhall

What's immediately striking about Amelia and the Angel today is the way it presents so many of Russell's recurring themes and obsessions in embryonic form. The primary one here is Catholicism - Russell and his costume designer wife Shirley had recently converted, and planned the film as a statement of their new-found faith.

Funding was sought from the Catholic Film Office in London, but the project was too different from their usual short documentaries. The meeting bore fruit, though, in that one of the young priests who worked there, Anthony G Evans, offered to help on the film, ultimately securing credits as producer, co-writer and assistant director.

The nine-year-old daughter of the Uruguayan ambassador to London, Mercedes Quadros, played Amelia, and Russell recalled that while she was very co-operative it was clear that the best part for her was a high-speed tour of London that she insisted on as a condition of appearing. Nonetheless, she gives a winning, vivacious performance that holds our sympathy throughout, despite the lack of synchronised sound (we never hear her voice: the entire soundtrack consists of library music and brief snatches of narration).

Despite the film's minuscule budget, there are numerous imaginative touches: the choreography of the angel ballet at the start (drawing on Russell's own training as a dancer), the butterfly wallpaper mocking the loss of Amelia's wings, the hand-held camera mimicking a child's eye view of the crowded streets, the almost Expressionist treatment of Amelia's ascent of the stairs (including a surreal shot that initially appears as an empty dress descending of its own accord), and the ascent of the artist into the heavens on a ladder (against a backdrop of painted clouds) before descending with the precious wings.

This final image makes the film's allegorical purpose clear: in just 24 hours, Amelia has sinned (by taking the wings in the first place) but has absolved herself through guilt and confession, and her prayers are finally answered. As indeed were Russell's own - when Huw Wheldon, producer of the BBC's Monitor arts documentary strand, saw the film, he was impressed enough to offer Russell his first professional film-making job.

Amelia and the Angel - 26min
Whole disk - 2hrs 5mins