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Ken Russell: A Tribute

The film director Ken Russell died on November 27, 2011. The height of his fame occurred during the 1970s with such films as The Devils, Tommy, Women in Love and The Music Lovers, films of which some critics accused him of ‘going over the top,’ to the point where one critic while agreeing that Russell had talent nevertheless called it ‘an appalling talent.’ But above all, his films they were inspired by ‘the image,’ scenes so striking that they etched themselves into the eye and brain. Which maybe is not that surprising since he began his professional life as a photographer.

His film-making continued through the eighties and nineties, with films including Salome’s Last Dance, Altered States, The Lair of the White Worm, and Whore but in this tribute I’d like to draw people’s attention to his work in the sixties which, while today is far less known, is work which I feel was groundbreaking. It was during this period that Russell worked for a BBC television program called Monitor that was presented and run by Huw Wheldon. I recall that in this period Wheldon was asked if his policy was to give the public what they wanted, or what he felt they should see. Wheldon replied, ‘Neither’—he would hire the best talent and allow them to do what they wanted to do. (If only people would do that today—in any field from theoretical physics to television series.) The people he hired included John Schlesinger, Jonathan Miller, Melvin Bragg, John Berger and Humphrey Burton.

For Monitor Russell had a very small and dedicated crew, which was his ideal working condition. Initially he made short documentaries on a variety of topics, beginning with A Poet’s London, giving John Betjeman’s vision of London, but soon he was moving to documentaries about composers and artists: Bartok, Elgar, Debussy, Delius and Richard Strauss. Those films were beautifully characterized by the way in which images were edited to the music. What is more,  Russell engaged with Wheldon by insisting that they should not be dry documentaries but he should be allowed to use actors. In the end Wheldon agreed and the first of these, Elgar was broadcast in 1962. Also of note was his 1964 Watch the Birdie, about the photographer David Hurn which probably inspired Antonioni’s film Blow Up.

In A Flickering Reality: Cinema and the Nature of Reality (Pari Publishing, Pari, Italy 2011) I discuss Russell’s early work and argue, for example, that it was his film on Debussy, in which Oliver Reed played the double role of the composer Debussy and of an actor who is discussing the role he had to play, that gave Karel Reisz the clue of how to film The French Lieutenant’s Woman. https://www.paripublishing.com/books/a-flickering-reality-cinema-and-the-nature-of-reality/

One final memory. Many years ago while I was living in Ottawa, Canada there was a week long festival of Russell’s films with a reception at the British High Commission. Of course there was a lineup of people who wanted to shake hands with the famous director, but most of them knew very little about his films. I was an exception since I knew all of them, from his very first documentary for the BBC and so we talked and talked and I told him how much I enjoyed the way he edited to music and asked him if he had plans to do the same with dialogue. He told me of his desire to film Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for he felt the novel read like a film script. He never made it, I assume because someone else secured the rights.

Our final meeting was on the last night of his visit before a screening of The Dance of the Seven Veils  in which we discussed how his film ‘Mahler’ mirrored the way Mahler constructed his symphonies.