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Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988)
For The South Bank Show, LWT, tx. 2/4/1988
75 mins, colour
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyLWT
ProducerKen Russell
Written byKen Russell

Featuring: Ken Russell, Rita Cullis, Thomas Dolby, The Fairer Sax, Evelyn Glennie, Nigel Kennedy, John Lill, Julian Lloyd Webber, Eric Parkin

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An alphabetical tour through the history of British music, presented by one of its greatest television champions.

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A special edition of London Weekend Television's South Bank Show arts strand, Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (tx. 2/4/1988) fully matches its title, being an alphabetical trawl through both the history of British music and Russell's own likes and dislikes, the latter summed up by a scene in which he takes a phone call and listens for a bit before concluding that "it's either an obscene call or the beginning of Michael Tippett's Fourth Symphony."

Gleefully exploiting an already contrived format, Russell uses alphabetical coincidence as an excuse to throw wildly disparate material together: Elgar is fused with Elton John, Holst with Heavy Metal and Punk with Purcell. There's some blatant cheating - U stands for Urgh! Critics (a sextet of tiny pallbearers trampling on the graves of the mighty) - and Russell takes full advantage of a post-10.30 transmission slot to throw in gratuitous female nudity at every opportunity, whether footage of a stripper accompanying Noël Coward's famous advice to Mrs Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage, or a nude sword dance to symbolise Scotland.

Russell also appears on camera throughout, introducing each letter in a variety of exotic costumes, and his constant visibility (in contrast to most of his earlier documentaries) is a reminder that by this relatively late stage in his career he was as much brand name as film-maker. Although much of the programme fully lives up (or down) to his popular image (excessive, gaudy, indulgent, tasteless), there are several spellbinding moments - generally those where his obvious love of the subject wins out over the urge to go berserk with associative cutting and (then) state-of-the-art Quantel Paintbox effects.

He recycles footage from his Delius biopic Song of Summer (BBC, tx. 15/9/1968) and his earlier South Bank Show on Vaughan Williams (LWT, tx. 8/4/1984), but his Elgar piece is entirely fresh, consisting of footage of the composer himself and an impassioned rant about the way his memory has been neglected. He champions the forgotten (Billy Mayerl) and the never-famous (Havergal Brian), praises by name the record company executives keeping minor-league British music alive, and stages Top of the Pops-style top tens of conductors and performers with a particularly strong British track record. For all the mistimed gags and frequently groan-making verbal and visual puns, it's hard to deny Russell's passionate enthusiasm for his subject, or the demented verve with which he gets it across.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Conductors (1:56)
2. Elgar and Elton (3:32)
3. Ketelbey and Kitsch (2:57)
4. Punk and Purcell (0:40)
5. Urgh! Critics (1:32)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell and the South Bank Show
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell's Composers