Michael Brooke

Talk: Auteur of the Arts – Ken Russell at the BBC

This talk was first given at BFI Southbank on 11 July 2007, and then repeated at the 2007 Chichester Film Festival in August.

I’m Michael Brooke, Content Developer for Screenonline, the BFI’s online encyclopaedia of British film and television history, and I was asked to give this talk because I spent a very happy few months in 2004 ploughing through Ken Russell’s television output and writing about it, in the process uncovering a vast amount about the career of a filmmaker I thought I knew well. I’d previously gone along with the rather film-centric career overview offered by most film guides, which goes something like this: after an apprenticeship in television, he graduated to feature films, hitting the critical and commercial jackpot with Women in Love in 1969.

This version of events says that Russell’s career essentially begins here, and that his most interesting work came in the years immediately afterwards – The Music Lovers, The Devils, Savage Messiah, Mahler, Tommy and many others. And then there’s a trip to America to make Altered States in 1980 and Crimes of Passion in 1984, following which he returned to Britain to make Gothic, Salome’s Last Dance, Lair of the White Worm, one of the towering masterpieces of its era, and a lower-key return to D.H.Lawrence with The Rainbow. Finally, after Whore in 1991, he abandons the cinema altogether to potter around the margins of the television schedules before a brief return to the spotlight with his four-day stint on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year.

Now I’m not proposing a revisionist look at that part of Russell’s career, because none of what I’ve just said is essentially untrue, apart from the bit about Lair of the White Worm being one of the towering masterpieces of its era. But it does heavily gloss over a massive chunk of his output, not least those all-important formative years at the BBC. And over the course of the next seventy-five minutes or so I’m going to argue that the 1959-70 era, far from being some kind of journeyman period that’s only really of interest to television historians, is a time that’s at least as creatively fascinating as the 1970s, despite the fact that all but one of the films he made at the BBC were commissioned as arts documentaries – the only one billed as a work of fiction from the outset was his adaptation of Diary of a Nobody in 1964.

Because they’re his most accessible films, in terms of both availability and audience-friendliness, Elgar and Song of Summer get a disproportionate amount of attention compared with the rest of his BBC work. Even people who normally loathe and despise Russell’s films concede that those two are pretty damn good, and Russell himself has said on several occasions, not least the DVD commentary, that he regards Song of Summer as his finest work in any medium. But the easy access to those two titles and the near-invisibility of the rest has created another misperception – that Russell’s BBC work was far more demure than what came later, and that he only went completely bonkers when given big budgets, major stars and cinema releases.

So I think the best corrective to that view is to show you part of The Debussy Film. In it, the composer Claude Debussy, played by a promising young actor named Oliver Reed, pays a visit to the poet and dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck to discuss the possibility of his writing an opera libretto. And this was nominally part of a documentary made for Monitor, the arts magazine programme that’s the great-grandfather of things like Omnibus, the South Bank Show, etc. right up to today’s Culture Show – I stress this from the outset as it’s not at all obvious from the clip itself!


(The scene in which Debussy visits Maeterlinck in quest of a libretto, which rapidly degenerates into an orgy of abuse and physical violence, ending with Maeterlinck getting shot repeatedly with suction-cap arrows, intercut with dodgems crashing.)

Now I’m willing to bet that if you were to show what you’ve just seen to an audience of reasonably well-informed film buffs and asked them to guess the director, a pretty fair proportion would get it right first time, and wouldn’t have to spend too long thinking about it. That was broadcast on May 18, 1965, at more or less the halfway mark of the period under discussion. And, as you can see, he is already making films that are clearly and unmistakably identifiable as Ken Russell films, in that they’re loosely based on the lives of real-life artists, they contain just as much imaginative speculation as fact, they regularly erupt into wild flights of fantasy, and they are entirely untroubled by things like good taste and restraint.

So how did he get to this stage, and why did the BBC let him, given that it wasn’t exactly renowned back then for taking creative risks, especially with non-fiction subjects? Until 21st April 1964, when BBC2 came on the air, there was just one BBC channel, and it was widely seen as the respectable alternative to the independent young upstart ITV. Although he was no longer involved with the BBC, its founder Lord Reith was still alive, and the BBC still very much adhered to his original mission statement of delivering high-minded morally-upright impartiality. In fact, when ITV was created, Reith famously said at the House of Lords dispatch box:

Somebody introduced Christianity into England and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting … Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake.

Reith died in 1971. One hopes it wasn’t from delayed shock at seeing Ken Russell’s Dance of the Seven Veils, shown the previous year.

Aside from upholding moral values, another thing the BBC was renowned for in the 1950s and 1960s was its failure to preserve much of its output for posterity. Most of its programmes before the late 1950s were broadcast live and never recorded, and even after videotape was invented in 1957, it was expensive and cumbersome, meaning that only a small proportion of programmes were recorded, and they were often wiped after they’d reached the end of their perceived usefulness – domestic video, and the lucrative secondary markets that would bring, were still many years away. So if you want to see, say, Alan Bennett’s first and only sketch comedy series, On the Margin, you’ll have to build a time machine, as it no longer exists in its original form. Talking of time machines, neither do many 1960s episodes of Dr Who.

But Ken Russell is, as so often, a happy exception. I haven’t seen all thirty-four of the films he made for the BBC up to 1970, but my understanding is that just one is no longer thought to survive – that’s Cranks at Work, a short Monitor item about the choreographer John Cranko. Because Russell invariably worked on film, there was no danger of his work being wiped by tape recycling merchants, and Russell himself preserved 16mm copies of many of them, which he donated to the BFI National Archive a few years ago. Even more happily, we also have access to one of his amateur films, Amelia and the Angel from 1958, and as that’s the film that got him a job at the BBC in the first place, it’s well worth examining here.

When he made it, Russell was already pushing thirty: up to then he’d had a somewhat chaotic career that had included a spell in the Merchant Navy and dogsbody work at Bond Street art galleries. He had spent several years training to become a ballet dancer before recognising his limitations, and finally established himself as a photographer, often in partnership with costume designer Shirley Kingdon, who became his first wife in 1957. He converted to Catholicism for the wedding, and felt the urge to make something that would cement his new-found faith, so he wrote a highly symbolic script about an angelic little girl who loses her wings and spends the rest of the film trying to find them – a kind of London-based, more fantastical spin on Bicycle Thieves.

The total budget was two hundred pounds, but Russell had difficulty raising it because it just didn’t fit the prevailing templates. The mainstream industry wasn’t interested, and the dominant trend in independent filmmaking was the Free Cinema movement, devoted to highly personal documentaries, and it didn’t fit that either. He approached the Catholic Office in London, which was naturally sympathetic but didn’t have a film funding programme – though one of its young priests, Anthony Evans, was so taken with the project that he ended up working on it in numerous capacities. And eventually the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund put in a hundred pounds for post-production.

The whole film is about 25 minutes long, but I’ve edited together a two-and-a-half minute whistle-stop tour to give you a flavour.


(A selection of short clips from the film: the opening in the dance school, Amelia taking the wings, her brother destroying them, her search in the market, the encounter with the performing dog, and finally the artist ascending to “heaven” to bring down a perfect set of replacement wings.)

Having made the film, not too surprisingly Russell had difficulty getting it shown, there not being much of a market for amateur 25-minute shorts with unsynchronised sound. But a friend tipped him off that Huw Wheldon, founder of the BBC’s Monitor arts strand, was looking for a full-time director following the departure of John Schlesinger for pastures new. Russell sent him a copy of the film, and was summoned for an interview. According to Russell, it didn’t go at all well, but the famously gruff and headmasterly Wheldon thought the film showed real talent and decided to give him a chance. He offered Russell £300 to make a short film with the poet John Betjeman – then years away from a knighthood and poet laureateship, but already a popular television presenter. If Wheldon liked it, Russell would get a BBC contract. If not, £300 wasn’t much of a gamble.

As it turned out, Wheldon did like it, and Russell became a Monitor contract director, spending the next few years producing about six items a year. I’m going to show you three clips from his first six months in 1959, partly to give you a flavour of the kind of things he did, but also to show that he found his feet very quickly indeed. The first is from the aforementioned A Poet in London, which understandably doesn’t have too many distinctive Russell touches, as he was effectively on probation, but it’s worth noting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the soundtrack, as this was a piece that obsessed Russell in his teens – apparently he used to dance around the house naked to it, and was once interrupted by his mother. The second clip is from Gordon Jacob, broadcast a month later at the end of March, which earns a very small footnote in British film history through its being the first of Russell’s many, many portraits of composers, though in this case it was a scrupulously polite effort made with the full co-operation of its subject, one of the elder statesmen of British classical music. This extract illustrates Jacob’s New Forest Suite – it’s the movement called ‘Pannage’, which was inspired by the practice of offering the local pigs free access to the forest to dig for acorns. Russell decided that the best approach was to treat it absolutely literally. And the third clip is from Variations on a Mechanical Theme, shown in September, and I’ll discuss it after you’ve seen it.

CLIP 3 – 1959 MONTAGE (4:33)

(A clip from near the start of ‘A Poet in London’, juxtaposing Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ with shots of the still bombed-out City, with John Betjeman reciting his poem about Aldersgate Station; the entire ‘pannage’ sequence from ‘Gordon Jacob’ with pigs shown hunting for truffles, edited to the rhythms of Jacob’s ‘New Forest Suite’; the sequence from ‘Variations on a Mechanical Theme’ that begins with a 1920s couple dancing in a woodland clearing to a large gramophone, and ending with Mussolini repatriating Italian organ-grinders.)

What I like about that last clip is that it shows that Russell was already starting to put little personal touches in his films – the invention of the gramophone is accompanied by a dancing couple that could have come straight out of later films like Women in Love or The Boy Friend, and what should have been a trivial aside about Mussolini repatriating organ-grinders becomes a full-scale set piece, complete with the juxtaposition of Mussolini’s speech over the monkey. Two years later, in his film about Prokofiev, he’d recut footage of Lenin to make him look as though he was conducting the composer’s violin concerto.

All of those films averaged about 10-15 minutes, and would have been screened as part of an hour-long magazine-style programme with two or three others. Russell averaged about six per year, or one every two months, and you can get a good idea from the filmography, his subjects included Spike Milligan, the great dance pioneer Marie Rambert, two Scottish artists that Russell had met in his art gallery assistant period in the 1940s, and a reunion with Betjeman for Journey into a Lost World, a nostalgic look at London’s great exhibitions, plus a trip up north to look at a traditional miners’ picnic.

But buried in the middle of 1960 is a film called A House in Bayswater, which is interesting for a number of reasons. At nearly half an hour, it was double the length of a typical Monitor item, and it was also the first of his BBC films not made for Monitor – he produced it himself during the programme’s summer break. It was also by far his most personal film to date – as the title implies, it’s a portrait of a house in Bayswater, but what it doesn’t tell you is that Russell himself lived there in the 1950s. Most of the film is straightforward reportage – we meet the eccentric landlady Mrs Collings and her current tenants, who include the photographer David Hurn, later the subject of Russell’s 1963 film Watch the Birdie – but at the very end there’s this extraordinary dreamlike coda, which is quite unlike anything Russell had done up to then. The house is about to be demolished, but just before it vanishes from the map, there’s a montage of its occupants and their defining characteristics, seamlessly dissolving into one another as if to cram as many of their memories as possible into what time is left to them before they’re irretrievably lost in the rubble.


(Almost the very last sequence in the film, the dreamlike montage of the house and its inhabitants, cut just before the shot of the house being destroyed.)

What’s also interesting about A House in Bayswater is that the Radio Times explicitly promoted it as a film by Ken Russell for the first time, and alluded to the fact that he was already beginning to get something of a reputation, even though up to then he’d exclusively made these short Monitor items. He carried on doing those into 1961 – we have films about the writer Shelagh Delaney, author of A Taste of Honey, an affectionate look at assorted forms of dance in The Light Fantastic, the self-explanatory Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill, which Russell co-directed with Humphrey Burton, and another ‘house’ film, this time a look at a pre-Raphaelite museum in Battersea.

And on 18 June there was another milestone in the form of Portrait of a Soviet Composer, a film about Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev differed from Russell’s other subjects up to then in that he had died some eight years previously, and so was unavailable for collaboration. Matters were complicated still further by the apparent absence of any moving images of him. Even at this early stage, Russell strongly favoured a subjective approach to his portraits of real-life artists, and was faced with the unappetising prospect of relying on still photographs and narration. The solution seemed obvious: get an actor to play Prokofiev, and put the composer’s actual words in his mouth, or at least the actual words translated into English.

But Huw Wheldon would have none of it. I should make it clear from the outset that it’s a mistake to characterise Wheldon as some kind of crusty Blimpish reactionary – this is, after all, the man who hired Russell in the first place and nurtured his early career, and Russell would repay the compliment by saying that Monitor was the only genuinely experimental film school that Britain had produced up to then, and paid Wheldon huge tribute by saying “he always polished my rough diamonds till they glittered, and when I disappointed him with a paste job, he worked even harder to make it shine – shaping and reshaping, cutting and chipping away until it was ready for his sparkling commentary.” Wheldon also seems to have been very protective of his protege – as Russell said “All the other directors in the programme had university degrees. I knew how to navigate and tie a double sheeps’ bend and I knew a bit about the arts, and that was all. My education proper began at the age of thirty-two with Huw Wheldon.”

But Wheldon did have strict views on what was permissible in a fact-based programme. This came to a head over the Prokofiev project, which Russell describes in his autobiography:

“I gather we’re planning to get out the dressing-up basket again,”, Huw Wheldon said.

“This time I’ve got better actors”, I said.

“Assuming you have, how do you propose to integrate them with all this old archive material?”

“By degrading the material I shoot myself so that it looks as grainy and contrasty as the real thing,” I said.

“That’s immoral,” he said. “You are deliberately setting out to deceive the public. I’m going to forbid you to have an actor impersonating Prokofiev and passing himself off as the real man.”

“How about his hands – playing the piano?”

“I will concede that.”

“How about his reflection in a pond?”

“So long as it’s a murky pond and the water is rippling.”

I’m going to show three short clips from Prokofiev illustrating the problems that Russell had. The first was his depiction of the jury assessing the merits of his First Piano Concerto – the commentary said there were twenty people, but as you’ll see, Russell couldn’t quite afford that many. The second is the Alexander Nevsky sequence, which looks forward to his similar tribute in his second cinema feature Billion Dollar Brain, though here he blends clips from Eisenstein’s film with Soviet war footage. And finally, there’s the aforementioned murky, rippling pond.


(The early sequence where the First Piano Concerto is premiered, with Russell using mirrors to create the impression that two actors multiply themselves into the far distance, and even have arguments with their reflections; the ‘Alexander Nevsky’ sequence in which clips from Eisenstein’s film are intercut with shots of tanks and planes from World War II; the shot almost at the end of the film in which Prokofiev reflects on the comparative failure of the later part of his career on the soundtrack while looking at his reflection in a pond.)

As it turned out, Wheldon wasn’t being unreasonably cautious, as a great many people apparently really did think that this was the real Prokofiev, and according to Russell’s autobiography – so how big a pinch of salt you should take this with is up to you – the Soviet Embassy complained to the BBC. As a footnote, it’s also worth pointing out that Wheldon didn’t seem to have a problem with the use of Eisenstein footage, even though this was just as inauthentic and reliant on actors as what he’d tried to prevent Russell from doing.

The final batch of Monitor shorts, from mid-1961 to mid-1962, show a definite move away from conventional documentary in favour of imaginative fantasy. Alongside more straightforward pieces on the architect Antonio Gaudi and the artist-cum-collector Bruce Lacey – though both of those subjects were fantastical enough in themselves – London Moods is essentially a trio of prototype music videos, taking three pieces of music inspired by London and cutting assorted images to them, some predictable touristy items, others decidedly more bizarre. Lonely Shore was even further out on a limb – it imagines a kind of alien archaeological visit to Earth, where a stretch of coastline has been strewn with everyday artefacts of life in early 1960s Britain, and the unseen narrator tries to make sense of them. Pop Goes The Easel ran 45 minutes, and was the first time Russell had been entrusted with an entire Monitor programme – ostensibly a portrait of four leading lights in the Pop Art movement, including the then 29-year-old Peter Blake, it ended up as an excuse for a wide and wild variety of set-pieces, including a startlingly Kubrickian nightmare involving long circling corridors and a sinister woman in a wheelchair – though this was years before Dr Strangelove, 2001 or The Shining. I’m going to show clips from Lonely Shore and Pop Goes the Easel, followed by a lovely sequence from Mr Chesher’s Traction Engines – it’s far less interesting cinematically, but the choice of music reveals what was preying on Russell’s mind:

CLIP 6 – MONITOR 1962 (4:40)

(The sequence from ‘Lonely Shore’ in which an abandoned mantlepiece suggests that its owners worshipped the cult of the dog, and then motorbikes and cars; Pauline Body’s nightmare from ‘Pop Goes the Easel’ in which she’s pursued down a circling corridor by an elderly woman in dark glasses and a wheelchair; the climactic traction engine show in ‘Mr Chesher’s Traction Engines’ scored to a famous Elgar piece.)

That was, of course, Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 by Edward Elgar, the subject of Russell’s next and most famous Monitor film. He’d been wanting to make a film on Elgar ever since he started at the BBC, but he was a desperately unfashionable subject and, as Wheldon pointed out, Catholic – this wasn’t necessarily bigotry on his part, but he was well aware from Amelia and the Angel that Catholic subjects generally led Russell to run riot with religious imagery that might well be totally out of place in a BBC arts programme. Anyway 1962 was going to mark the broadcast of Monitor’s 100th edition, and Wheldon decided to mark it with a one-off special edition. He also spotted that Russell had made twenty films for him (i.e. not counting A House in Bayswater) and thought it would be a good coming-of-age present to give the full fifty minute slot to Russell. He asked him for ideas. According to Russell’s autobiography, this is how the conversation panned out:

“I’m still keen to do Elgar’s Enigma Variations“, I ventured. Huw looked glum, his hands were touching in an attitude of prayer. “Tell me about him,” he said without enthusiasm, “though I must remind you as I have before that we are not the drama department, and it’s probably way outside our budget.”

Undeterred, Russell launched into the details, which I’ll mostly skip apart from the final bit, where he says:

“After the Great War Elgar’s music was labelled vulgar, pompous and jingoistic. Suddenly he was as out of date as Colonel Blimp. With the passing of his wife in 1920, he seemed to fade away. He died in 1934, a forgotten man. He still is. I think he’s due for a reappraisal.”

Wheldon said: “I appreciate your concern, but Monitor is not a rehabilitation centre. The story is a romantic cliché. It’s flabby, and has no backbone.”

Russell argued: “But it does have a backbone. It’s five miles long and it’s called the Malvern Hills. It’s a giant switchback on which Elgar took the joy ride of a lifetime – on foot, horseback, by bike and car. He lived first on one side and then the other and at both ends. He played golf on those hills, ate, drank and slept on them, made love on them and spent the happiest days of his life on them. He was born within sight of them and he died within sight of them. They were his inspiration and his solace and whenever the outside world threatened to crush him, he returned to the hills, from whenceforth cometh his strength”.

Sadly, it’s impossible to verify whether he really ended his pitch with “from whenceforth cometh his strength” as the only witness was Huw Wheldon, who is now dead. But it certainly had the desired effect. Wheldon said “Amen – forget the Enigma Variations idea. Film it as you told it – exactly as you told it. I suppose you’ll need actors? Treat them as figures in a landscape – no dialogue, and above all no acting. The hills are your stars here, the hills and Elgar’s music. And not too many bloody crucifixes.”

So Russell went off and made his film, in just three weeks with a crew of three – which he actually said was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed him to react very quickly to visual opportunities, particularly weather-related ones. The film is full of marvellously judged shots of landscapes and matching cloud patterns, not least in the justly celebrated opening sequence, one of the most famous in the BBC’s history.

CLIP 7 – ELGAR (2:02)

(The entire opening sequence with the young Elgar riding up the Malvern Hills, accompanied by ‘Introduction and Allegro’.)

Elgar was shown on 11 November 1962, Armistice Day, and caused an immediate sensation. It was greeted with such acclaim that the BBC even repeated it shortly afterwards, which was almost unprecedented, and it remains the most widely-shown of all Russell’s BBC films. It also achieved its aim of rehabilitating Elgar’s reputation, and though historians now think that Russell swung the pendulum a little too far in the direction of Elgar as misunderstood melancholy romantic, a big piece published by the Daily Telegraph earlier this year to mark the composer’s 150th birthday mentioned Russell’s film twice as being the linchpin of his rediscovery in the 1960s, which led directly to other iconic events such as the cellist Jacqueline du Pré adopting it as her signature work. Would the twenty pound note have featured Elgar’s portrait if it hadn’t been for Russell’s film? Who knows?

But what’s beyond doubt is that it cemented Russell’s reputation as the BBC’s first genuine homegrown directing star, an achievement that was all the more extraordinary when you consider that television was simply not regarded as a director’s medium: writers and performers reigned supreme. There were other great BBC directors who emerged in the Sixties, of course – Ken Loach, Alan Clarke, Tony Palmer – but in all three cases this was many years later. Back in 1962, Russell was really out on his own.

One immediate upshot of Elgar’s success was that Russell was offered a feature film, the seaside farce French Dressing, though it was both a critical and commercial failure. He wanted to make a cinema film about the composer Claude Debussy, but, as with Amelia and the Angel a few years earlier, it simply didn’t fit prevailing trends, so he went back to Monitor. As you’ll see from the filmography, though, he produced far fewer films – just four across a three-year period, two of which were special editions.

The first of these, Béla Bartók, was another composer portrait in the Elgar/Prokofiev mould, and made under the same restrictions – Bartók was played by an actor, but not allowed to speak. But what’s interesting about the film is that it combined the biographical approach of Elgar with the more fantastical elements of Pop Goes the Easel, restaging elements of Bartók’s work – notaby the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin and the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – in a highly stylised, recognisably 1960s context. Russell also attempted to psychoanalyse his subject in more depth, usually non-verbally – the best example is a sequence exploring Bartok’s increasing loneliness and isolation, and another excellent example of Russell’s ability to conjure up memorable set-pieces from the slimmest resources – in this case what is clearly recognisable as a London tube escalator.


(The sequence in which Bartók’s sense of loneliness and isolation comes to the fore as he descends a Tube escalator that’s otherwise populated by sinister, threatening figures, and scored to the third movement of the ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’ – later made famous by Stanley Kubrick in ‘The Shining’.)

A year later, he produced another Monitor Special in the form of The Debussy Film, though this represented a quantum leap in terms of ambition. By this time, Huw Wheldon had been promoted to Controller of Programmes for the whole of BBC Television, leaving Monitor in the hands of Jonathan Miller, who was both younger than Russell and just as inclined to take risks. In fact, The Debussy Film remains one of Russell’s most adventurous and experimental films to date. The title is significant – it’s not Debussy but The Debussy Film – because it’s just as much a portrait of a fictional director trying to make a film about the composer Claude Debussy as it is a film about Debussy himself, and an imaginative visualisation of his music, and these three levels are interweaved throughout the 82-minute running time – effectively this was Russell’s second feature.

Debussy is played by a promising young actor named Oliver Reed, though his acting abilities were less important to Russell than the fact that he bore a quite startling physical resemblance to the composer. Although Reed would go on to become one of the great Russell interpreters, most notably in Women in Love and The Devils, he’s given surprisingly little to do here, especially considering that it’s nominally the title role.

The real star of The Debussy Film is another great Russell interpreter, albeit a far less celebrated one, an actor named Władysław, or Vladek, Sheybal. He started his career in his native Poland – you can see him as the rather intense-faced musician in Andrzej Wajda’s 1957 masterpiece Kanal, where he’s trapped in the Warsaw sewers with other Polish Resistance fighters – and then emigrated to Britain, where he first made an impact in 1963 as a Russian villain in the second James Bond film From Russia With Love. The Debussy Film was his first appearance for Ken Russell, though he would go on to appear in Billion Dollar Brain, Women in Love, Dance of the Seven Veils (as Goebbels), and The Boy Friend, where he also plays a film director.

Sheybal is our guide throughout the film, staging scenes on camera, commentating on the footage, narrating key events in Debussy’s life, and pondering about how to incorporate facts that he’d dug up about the composer into the narrative. It’s very safe to assume that Russell himself had frequently wrestled with these dilemmas, especially when it came to packaging this material in a way that Huw Wheldon would find acceptable. Here’s a very typical scene where Sheybal invites his actors for a screening of the work in progress, explaining how he’s proposing to integrate the material into the final film.


(The director and his actors settle down for a screening of part of the still uncompleted Debussy Film, complete with commentary about his intentions for the various scenes. He also talks about his performance as Pierre Louÿs)

Russell confirmed that the line “They did play with balloons – I checked” was a dig at Huw Wheldon and his insistence on evidence-backed fact at all times.

The Debussy Film was the watershed in Russell’s BBC career – after it, all his films would be shown as separate attractions, generally lasting an hour or more, with Russell’s involvement pushed well to the forefront of any publicity. Although none of the six subsequent BBC films would be as formally adventurous as The Debussy Film, they all provide evidence that Russell had become a fully-fledged auteur, with his own recurring stylistic and thematic preoccupations and obsessions.

I haven’t seen Don’t Shoot the Composer, his portrait of Georges Delerue, and I suspect it may be an exception, but the other five are all biographical portraits of misunderstood outsiders – the Douanier Rousseau in the delightful Always On Sunday, Isadora Duncan, the self-styled Biggest Dancer in the World, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the rest of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the feature-length Dante’s Inferno, Frederick Delius in Song of Summer and Richard Strauss in Dance of the Seven Veils. All blithely interweave documented fact with speculative fantasy, borrowing liberally from other genres in the process.

Although he was still working within BBC arts documentary strands, such as the then newly-established Omnibus, the last thing Russell wanted was to convey the impression that these films were dry arts documentaries, and he generally sought to hit the viewer right between the eyes with a suitably startling set-piece, with the aim of preventing them from changing channels. Back in the Sixties, this was a more involved process than it is now – the remote control had yet to be invented so you actually had to get up to change channels, and in many cases this involved retuning the television, so Russell generally allowed himself three or four minutes to make a splash. The idea was that even if the viewer had no interest whatever in French impressionist music or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they’d have a look at, say, a woman being shot at point-blank range with arrows or a corpse being dug up out of the ground in classic Hammer Horror style and go “hello, there’s something interesting going on here” and hopefully stay the course. These images are unashamedly sensationalist, but they’re not entirely gratuitous – Debussy wrote a cantata on the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried the only copy of some of his poems with the corpse of his lover Elizabeth Siddal and then decided to retrieve them. And there’s a third sequence which for various reasons I’ll narrate as it’s playing:


(The opening of The Debussy Film, in which a woman is shot with arrows while doing a mime impression of Saint Sebastian, prior to the director calling “cut!”; the opening of Dante’s Inferno, in which a corpse is disinterred; the early sequence in Dance of the Seven Veils, described below.)

OK, this is Russell’s final BBC film, which we’re having to screen with no sound for legal reasons that I’ll come on to later. This is almost right at the beginning, with the composer Richard Strauss, clad in animal skins to represent Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, living hermit-like in a mountain retreat and being appalled by the excesses of people who claim to be spiritual – those of you who know your Strauss will have to imagine his famous tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, on the soundtrack – it also recently did service as the main theme of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though I don’t think that film used this particular passage. But the main point of historical interest, as you’ve already spotted, is that here we have the first sex-crazed nuns in Ken Russell’s output, and in enough quantities to rival The Devils, released eighteen months later. The woman with the red hair seems to represent the untrammelled, uninhibited life force, whom Zarathustra ends up following once he’s got those pesky nuns off his back.

I’ll return to Dance of the Seven Veils at the end of the talk, but before that I must just mention Song of Summer, which as I’ve already said is Russell’s own personal favourite of all his films, large screen or small. One reason for its success is that for once it was anchored in a very strong human-interest story – that of the blind, paralysed composer Frederick Delius being coaxed into producing more music by his devoted amanuensis Eric Fenby, which was used as the framework for a reflective look on Delius’s life as a whole. It had superb central performances from the veteran actor Max Adrian and the ballet dancer Christopher Gable as Delius and Fenby – both would go on to appear in many more Russell films – as well as Maureen Pryor as Delius’s long-suffering wife Jelka. And it’s also the film where Russell’s recurring obsessions coalesce into their most dramatically, emotionally and musically satisfying form. I don’t propose to spend much time discussing it as, like Elgar, it’s the easiest of Russell’s BBC films to see, but I will show a short clip of one of the earlier scenes, where the naive music student Fenby, having just volunteered his services to Delius, comes to realise that he may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew:


(The scene in which Delius attempts musical dictation, which Fenby finds incomprehensible. He yells to his wife Jelka that Fenby is useless, and Fenby runs away in shame.)

Now had Russell’s BBC career ended in 1968, it would have done so on a spectacular high, and would have provided a perfect segue into 1969’s breakthrough with Women in Love, his third cinema feature. But, as we’ve already seen, there was one more BBC film, and although I don’t think Dance of the Seven Veils as artistically successful as much of what came before, it is certainly the most controversial television film of his career, and one of his most contentious works in any medium. It’s also effectively banned from public screening – as you may have noticed, it’s not showing in the BFI Southbank retrospective, and in fact it has not been legally screened anywhere since 15 February 1970, when it was broadcast to a chorus of outrage that included questions being asked in the House of Commons.

Now that sort of thing is generally easy to laugh off, but another outraged party had rather more clout – and that was the estate of the film’s subject, the composer Richard Strauss. Although he was born in 1864 and first made his name in the late nineteenth century, Strauss lived well into the twentieth – he only died 21 years before Russell’s film was made. Which meant that his music was still subject to copyright, and this remains the position today – assuming existing legislation remains in force for the next twelve years, the film won’t be legally clear to show until 2019, unless Strauss’s family changes its collective mind. I have to say this is most unlikely to happen – in fact, when Russell wanted to use some Strauss on the soundtrack of his 1987 film Salome’s Last Dance, he applied for permission, but as soon as the Strauss estate found out who was directing it, the answer was a flat no. Given that Strauss’s music has featured in plenty of other films, not least countless parodies of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Russell was probably right to assume this was personal.

So what did they object to? Well, you’ve already had some idea from that clip I showed you earlier of the grand old man of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century symphonic poem being clad in animal skins and ravished by nymphomaniac nuns. There’s a lot more in that vein, but what they specifically objected to was pretty much the entire second half of the film, in which Russell pulls no punches regarding Strauss’s relationship with the Nazi party, which was in reality a lot more complex and ambiguous than Russell makes out. Here are a couple of particularly vivid moments – I should probably warn you that the second of these is pretty graphic even by full-blown early 1970s Ken Russell standards, but you can always shut your eyes as I’ve had to remove the screams, along with the rest of the soundtrack.


(Two clips from the later part of the film; where a violin-playing Strauss is courted by Hitler, and where Strauss is conducting an orchestra, hears a commotion behind him, sees a Jewish man being set upon by Nazi thugs, and urges the orchestra to play louder to drown out the screams.)

It’s worth pointing out that Strauss was pushing seventy when Hitler came to power, so he would have been very far from the blond Aryan Übermensch played by Christopher Gable here, and I doubt his cartwheels were up to much either. He certainly would have had difficulty giving Hitler a piggy-back ride.

This is the end of the next scene, with Strauss conducting the music for a silent film and hearing a commotion in the audience.

So according to Russell, not only was Strauss fully in cahoots with Hitler, but he was also a raving anti-Semite – or at least quite prepared to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitic atrocities by urging his orchestra to play louder to drown out the screams. Had Strauss still been alive, it’s a racing certainty that a hefty libel suit would have descended on the BBC – as it is, the only legal sanction available to his descendants was to withhold the rights to the soundtrack: they had previously been cleared for one-off broadcast by Strauss’s publisher Boosey and Hawkes – given that there wasn’t much spoken content, the script was infinitely tamer than the final film. And the Strauss estate controls pretty much the entire soundtrack, because even the passages with no music were sourced directly from Strauss’s own writings – he’s rather cheekily credited as co-author of the script, because Russell wanted to ensure that he damned himself out of his own mouth.

As you’ll have gathered, the main thing that sets Dance of the Seven Veils apart from its predecessors is that while his earlier BBC films were broadly celebratory, this one was a complete hatchet job. Russell hated Strauss as both man and musician, and all but announced this in the opening credits, by billing the film as “a comic strip in seven episodes on the life of Richard Strauss”. Now this kind of vicious full-on assault is very common in print, as the careers of celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and any number of tabloid columnists demonstrate only too well – but the problem of mounting an equivalent on film is that unless the subject has been conveniently dead for at least seventy years, you’re probably going to be reliant on the goodwill of the copyright holder – rumour has it that the reason we haven’t yet seen a Jimi Hendrix biopic is that the Hendrix estate won’t sanction any script that mentions drug-taking, and when John Maybury made Love is the Devil, about Francis Bacon, he couldn’t get permission from Bacon’s estate, so had to resort to devising a visual style that gave the impression of Bacon’s paintings without directly quoting from them. In fact, Claude Debussy’s estate had retrospectively objected to The Debussy Film, to the point of preventing a screening at the NFT in 1973, but Debussy is now safely out of copyright and therefore fair game. But Strauss is off limits for another twelve years, and the only way of legally seeing the film before then is to book a research screening at the BFI National Archive, which has an intact, if somewhat faded, copy. And as a postscript to the furore, Russell, perhaps emboldened by the Best Director Oscar nomination for Women in Love that would have been announced at about the same time, angrily resigned from the BBC because they refused to defend his work with sufficient vigour – and he wouldn’t work for them again until Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1993, some 23 years later. And that was the end of the first part of Russell’s career.

So, to sum up, Russell’s BBC career is a study of what happens when a filmmaker of exceptional talent but unconventional interests is taken on by an organisation with the clout to finance and promote his work provided he didn’t mind working within the confines of someone else’s agenda – his big break was being taken on by Huw Wheldon. Very early on, Russell had very strong ideas of what he wanted to do – he even pitched an Elgar project at his original job interview – but had to gradually negotiate his creative freedom, with three key stages marked by Prokofiev, Elgar and The Debussy Film. By the late 1960s, he had almost total artistic licence as far as the BBC was concerned, but as the Dance of the Seven Veils row proved, there were other limitations placed on what he could do.

But the crucial thing about his years at the BBC was that for the first and only time in his life he was working within an established system that could be exploited to develop his career as an artist. As he found later on, such systems simply didn’t exist either in the mainstream film industry of the 1970s and 1980s, or within the independent television companies that he worked for when he returned to the small screen in 1978. Melvyn Bragg commissioned eight South Bank Shows, but that was over a twenty-year period, whereas he made over thirty films for the BBC in half that time – when he also had access to the corporation’s vast infrastructure of accountants, lawyers, the film and music libraries, departments to borrow props and costumes from, and any number of similar advantages.

As we’ve seen, despite the creative restrictions imposed on him, Russell was able to establish a very strong and distinctive directorial personality very early on in his career – and it’s partly thanks to the fact that he didn’t have to spend half his time negotiating funding and other production facilities that he was able to be so prolific – I called this talk “Auteur of the Arts” because there are obvious parallels to be drawn with people like Howard Hawks and Don Siegel managing to make distinctively personal work while toiling in the salt-mines of the Hollywood studio system. The tragedy is that it’s virtually impossible to duplicate those working conditions in today’s fragmented film and television landscape – as the second half of Russell’s career so graphically proves.

But at least his early BBC work survives, and the good news is that after four decades of virtual inaccessibility it has at least become much easier to see. I’m not aware of any more DVD releases in the pipeline, but you can still catch most of the films I’ve mentioned in the current Southbank retrospective, you can watch Elgar for nothing in the Mediatheque, along with his 2002 South Bank Show followup. Mediatheque curator Robin Baker assures me that more will be added in due course – and as he’s a fervent Ken Russell fan, I believe him. I’ve also written about many of the films for Screenonline – you can get the text on any web browser, plus video clips if you’re accessing it from a school, university or public library. And with that shameless plug for my day job over, we should have a few minutes for any questions.




  1. An incredible work you’ve done here, just incredible. I agree that Russell probably went too far with “Dance of the Seven Veils,” but then, his point of Strauss making the orchestra play louder while human beings were roasted in the death camps doesn’t really strike me as inaccurate or unfair. Libel? I don’t think so. Crimes against humanity begin invisibly in the empty-hearts of the many. Russell was just pointing-out a common form of inhumanity: cowardly silence in the face of the unacceptable, which is happening today in other forms. The Strauss Estate are a bunch of the same kind of fools and cowards, but we would expect this anyway.

    Comment by Matt Janovic — September 21, 2008 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

  2. his point of Strauss making the orchestra play louder while human beings were roasted in the death camps doesn’t really strike me as inaccurate or unfair. Libel? I don’t think so.

    Unless such an event actually happened, and there’s evidence to back it up (and I don’t believe this is the case), Strauss could have sued for defamation on the basis of that scene alone. And I don’t think a court would have taken too kindly to a claim that it’s allegorical, otherwise any halfway decent defence lawyer would be trying that tactic all the time (“Your honour, when my client wrote that this distinguished public servant raped little boys, he was in fact being allegorical and is therefore innocent of all the charges against him”).

    Although your argument is perfectly fair in most other respects, there’s little doubt to my mind that had Strauss still been alive, he would almost certainly have won a libel action against the BBC. But then again, I doubt Russell would have made the film about someone still living, so it’s a somewhat metaphysical speculation.

    Comment by Michael — September 24, 2008 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  3. […] I’ve also given solo talks on Ken Russell’s 1960s BBC output and Andrzej Wajda at BFI […]

    Pingback by Introduction « Michael Brooke — October 1, 2008 @ 9:38 am | Reply

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