Talking Pictures

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Ken Russell

Posted by keith1942 on February 18, 2012

Ken Russell died on November 27th last year and now the critical re-appraisal has begun.

Linda Ruth Williams and Mark Kermode [the duo with an expertise on cinematic sexuality and violence] have a piece in February’s Sight & Sound, Mythomania Ken Russell 1927 – 1911. Williams had an earlier article, Sweet Smell of Excess, in S & S July 2008. She commented: “It may seem sacrilegious to compare Russell whom some now consider an unbankable joke to the canonised Michael Powell, but Powell’s visual energy and sense of fun and fantasy were also once sensed as an affront to British cinematic proprietary …”. Both directors loved to explore the world of imagination and provided a stark contrast to the far less exotic works of British realism.

In an accompanying article in that issue David Thompson discussed Russell’s television Portraits of artists. He commented on the boss at Monitor, Huw Wheldon, “The crucial and often fractious relationship between obsessive director and rule-book-wielding producer still lives on in television, but Russell was lucky to find a mentor who both tamed and nurtured him.” This offers another parallel with Powell, as his career took a qualitative leap when he joined up with writer Emeric Pressburger. One should not over-emphasise the parallels but there is an intriguing similarity in their careers.

Michael Powell started in the 1930s ‘quota quickies, Ken Russell in the critically disparaged 1960s television. Both had a period of commercial success whilst at the same time critics were frequently much less enthusiastic. Powell suffered comments about his idiosyncratic ‘glue man’ in A Canterbury Tale (1944) and over the scarcely suppressed sexual feelings in Black Narcissus (1946). Russell experienced numerous critical blasts, including over the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love (1969) and the varied examples of religious violence in The Devils (1971). Finally both overreached themselves, or at least the accepted limits of the contemporary cinema: Powell with his Peeping Tom  (1960), Russell with several features but most notably Altered States (1980) with Hollywood: and Lair of the White Worm (1988) for the British film establishment. Powell ending up directing films in Australia, Russell went back to Television. Here his films for the South Bank Show benefited from the support of friend and admirer Melvyn Bragg: only somewhat dissimilar to the support that Martin Scorsese provided for the later Michael Powell. Russell himself was an admirer of Powell and remembered going to the opening of the classic The Red Shoes (1948).

Of course, Ken Russell is more extreme than Michael Powell was in his work. This is partly a matter of character, temperament and upbringing but it is also due to their circumstances. Russell began his career in the 1960s when the mores of film had changed radically from the 1940s and 1950s, and when the limits set by censorship had shifted radically,

Russell showed an early interest in film, screening amateur shows for friends in the family garage. The films that he noted and remembered from that period where those of German Expressionism and of Fritz Lang. The influence of the expressionist style can be clearly seen in his later features. Whilst Lang’s rigorous moral gaze is something that is paralleled in Russell’s films.

He had a varied early job portfolio and in the late 1950s worked as a freelance photojournalist with some of his work appearing in the iconic Picture Post. The photos already display Russell’s distinctive flair with composition and often-unconventional approach. In his later film work Russell always worked on camera set-ups and the composition of the film image.

He made a couple of amateur films. He had also become a Roman Catholic, and the second short feature, Amelia and the Angel offers both the style and moral concerns that will re-appear later.

He was then successful in impressing Huw Wheldon and joining his Monitor team. These arts programmes were at the cutting edge of British television programming: Russell actually succeeded another talented British director, John Schlesinger. Russell recalls that Wheldon taught him to handle language and how to work on the construction of the programmes. He comments that only Eisenstein or Welles could have been better teachers. The choice is interesting. Eisenstein was the master of montage or discontinuous editing, and Russell’s work makes frequent use of cuts that combine surprising and even shocking images and scenes. Welles was the master of the sequence shot [a travelling shot of long duration], and such camera movements grace many of Russell’s films. Both feature in his early television work.

Two masterworks from these days were screened recently on BBC, 100 Elgar (1962) and Song of Summer  [Delius, 1968}. The Elgar was a seminal television event: in what was thought of a documentary programme slot Russell used actors to recreate the characters of Catholic composer Elgar, his family and friends. Russell also made extensive use of location filming in the Malvern Hills and of Elgar’s music. There is a commentary read by Huw Wheldon, but what strikes one now is the combination of great images and striking musical accompaniment. The subversive rendering of the post W.W.I use of Land of Hope and Glory is achieved partly by a series off discontinuous sequences of the composer. And the film has a number of striking sequence shots of the composer in his beloved Malvern Hills. The final five-minute montage of the film is reminiscent of the earlier film work of Humphrey Jennings. Whilst the Elgar had no dialogue and was mainly composed in long shot, [at Wheldon’s insistence] the feature on Delius has dialogue and character; whilst the music is strongly embedded in the narrative of the relationship between Eric Fenby and the composer. Russell suggested in later years that this was his best work and it is indeed a striking film and a powerful portrait of a particular type of artist.

Portraits of artists figure largely in Russell’s work, especially musicians and painters. One of the other memorable features for Monitor was Dante’s Inferno, which dramatised the lives and work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This, like Russell’s feature on Debussy, featured the actor Oliver Reed, who was to become almost an alter ego for the director. Both were excessive characters in their personal lives and in their professional work. When controlled they were impressive, when uncontrolled they could end up as ‘calculated to outrage’ and taking ‘no prisoners’.

Russell managed this with what was to be his last Monitor feature Dance of the Seven Veils (1970). This portrait of the composer Richard Straus included ‘a bear-skinned superman, rampant nuns and goose-stepping military officers.’ The outraged Strauss family removed the rights to the composers music from the BBC and the film was [and remains until 2019] effectively banned. This also effectively terminated Russell’s career in television.

He had in fact received offers to work in feature film production. His first two essays were rather mediocre: French Dressing (1963) was a comedy and commercial failure. Billion Dollar Brain (1967) performed better at the box office, though the combination of Ken Russell and Len Deighton’s spy Harry Palmer now seems bizarre. Women in Love was the film that established Russell, and for a period it seemed he could do no wrong. This film deserves fuller treatment, but there is a strong correspondence between the filmmaker and the writer. Russell remembers that until then he had not read Lawrence. But the screen adaptation renders much of Lawrence’s novel, including the unconventional sexuality, the importance of landscape and the composers pre-occupation with death. Lawrence’s political comments are less overt, but can still be discerned in the mise en scène.

Women in Love - the Alpine sequence

The Devils provided a serious headache for the British Board of Film Censors and a cause célèbre for Mary Whitehouse and The Festival of Light campaigners. The film was cut in the UK, and cut even more in the USA. It featured graphic sex and violence as it depicted the suppression of a C17th religious ‘cult’. But it also had a strong emotional feel for the side of rebels and the anti-authoritarian. Russell commented that it was his only political film, which is true in the sense of it having overt political themes. The film was a box office success.

He followed this with a series of films centred on music and art. The Music Lovers (1970) offers a portrait of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky, perfomred with as much melodrama and excess as is found in the original music.  The Boy Friend (1971), an unlikley subject, was a light musical comedy, which tended into pastiche, especially of one of Russell’s hero, the choreographer Busby Berkeley. Savage Messiah (1972) is one of Russell’s best works, with some splendid visual sequences. It is graced by a tremendous performance by Dorothy Tutin as the Polish artist Sophie Brzeska, but is let down by Scot Antony in the lead part of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the sometime Vorticist and sculptor. Mahler (1974) saw Robert Powell cast as the composer. The film included a number of fantasy sequences; reminiscent in some ways of the sequences Russell had created in his earlier Strauss film.  Tommy (1975) had Roger Daltrey play the lead in rock opera composed by The Who. At times over the top, it contains some of the most vivid sequences in British cinema.  Lisztomania (1975) starred Roger Daltrey again, this time as the C19th composer. It clearly aimed to cash in on the success of Tommy.

Valentino (197) was a Hollywood biopic of the famed silent era star. The dancer Rudolf Nureyev was hopelessly miscast as the star. Russell writes of trying to reduce the star’s dialogue whilst Nureyev responded by trying to increase it. It had some success in the UK, but not in the USA, where Russell’s films generally performed less well.

His 1980 film Altered States was a failure, but acquired a cult following for the sequences featuring hallucinogenic experiences. And Crimes of Passion (1984) saw Russell working well with the star Kathleen Turner, but the dark satire of the film did not appeal to audiences.

In Britain Russell directed Gothic (1988) about Mary Shelley’s telling of the Frankenstein tale: and in a similar vein an adaptation from Bram Stoker, Lair of the White Worm. Neither made a great impression. Russell then returned to D. H Lawrence with an adaptation of The Rainbow, the novel that precedes Women in Love. This time Russell adapted only part of the novel, that which deals with the coming of age of Ursula, a central character in the subsequent novel. Once again Russell focussed on Lawrence’s sense of earthiness and nature and on his overt sexuality: but the film lacked the boldness of the earlier foray. By now Russell had run out of opportunities in British cinema, in his own words he had become ‘unbankable’. He returned to work for television, especially the South Bank Show. And in 1999 he directed a four-part version of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The series again featured Russell’s ability to capture the pre-occupation with nature and sexual explicitness: the series performed well with an audience of about 12 million. However, by this time Lawrence’s breaking of conventions had been overtaken by the cultural changes.

In the last few years Russell almost returned to the start of his career, setting up independent productions, located in an outhouse at his cottage, using video technology, and a range of pros, amateurs and friends for characters.

Generally there is praise for Russell’s visual sense in his films. The films are often poetic and musical visions. The style he favoured was to become the bedrock of the later format of pop videos, though Russell’s works run to hours not minutes. As Williams’s points out one’s most vivid memories are particular sequences: the final montage of the Elgar, with the composer musing over his life. Elton John, in his vast shoes, pounding rhythmically as Roger Daltrey ‘plays a mean pinball’. And an image of Ann-Margaret swims into view every time I see a tin of baked beans. Tchaikovsky’s performances have bizarre additions and there are the memorable passages in Mahler (1974) accompanying the fantasies of the composer.

Other comments criticise his lack of consistency, his tendency to excess, parody, pastiche and even kitsch. This is clearly the case in some of his films. Thomson’s comments on his relationship with Huw Wheldon are important. Russell also worked successfully several times with Melvyn Bragg as his scriptwriter. I think when he was not restrained he could be carried away. The clips from his later independent films, where he was in complete control, suggest this.

And I also wonder how good he was with actors. With certain actors, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Robert Powell, the performances are impressive. However, this is a cast that has the benefits of the rigorous training found in British theatre. Russell also used non-professionals on a number of occasions, with varied success.  On Valentino, the comment was made that the ‘acting is hopelessly under-directed’ and this also applies to Savage Messiah.

In a sense, one must take Russell as he was, with both strengths and weaknesses. What is undeniable is that he was a key innovator for British film in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is acknowledged in the appraisals is how important and influential Russell has been in British Cinema and Television.  Right back in his early work for television Russell was trail blazing. It is difficult to realise now how innovative were the programmes he made for Monitor, because the style and approach has been so copied since. And he repeated this when he moved onto the big screen. One remembers the shock that films like Women in Love and The Devils produced. But at the same time they extended the themes, situations and character actions treated on film. And the mise en scène and the camera work were often astonishing. Equally notable was the way that Russell used music, bringing an emotional intensity and panache into the sound experienced by audiences.   Russell was, for a period, immensely successful. He topped the British box office several times in the 1970s: all the more impressive as this was a low decade for British film and film going.

His work also depends on frequent collaborators. His first wife Shirley Kingdon [Russell] was Costume Designer on his best and his best-looking films [her other work includes Yanks (1979) and Enigma (2001)]. He was especially well served by Billy Williams on Women in Love (1969) and David Watkin on The Devils. The latter film also benefited from the designs of Derek Jarman, getting a start in British film. And there is Russell’s long-time editor and friend Michael Bradsell.

Unfortunately it is quite difficult to see Russell’s best work, or to see it as it was made. The BFI are bringing out a DVD with the UK cut of The Devils in March. 35mm prints of this and other masterworks seem in short supply. The fine Savage Messiah (1972) did receive a restoration and new print last year. Bradford’s National Media Museum screened Women in Love in a pretty good 35 mm print recently and their TV Heaven facility have the 100 Elgar and Song of Summer on their hard drive, as well as the South Bank Show profile of the director.


Ken Russell’s A British Picture An Autobiography 1989 [revised 2008] is mainly about his personal life with some discussion of his film career. Directing Film From Pitch to Premiere, 2000, has a certain amount of reminiscences about the making of his films.

Ken Russell by Thomas R. Atkins, 1976, offers sympathetic discussions of his early films.


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