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Ken Russell and the South Bank Show

Ken Russell's eight documentaries for the LWT arts strand

Main image of Ken Russell and the South Bank Show

Though he spent the first twelve years of his television career exclusively with the BBC, when Ken Russell returned to the small screen in the late 1970s, he would work for ITV companies until the early 1990s. Most of his documentaries in this period would be for London Weekend Television, whose arts slot The South Bank Show was edited and introduced by his friend and occasional screenwriter Melvyn Bragg.

Between 1983 and 2002 Russell directed eight South Bank Shows, mostly on the subject of British music. Following his definitive accounts of Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962) and Delius (Song of Summer, BBC, tx. 15/9/1968), he made programmes on Vaughan Williams (tx. 8/4/1984), Arnold Bax (The Secret Life of Arnold Bax, tx. 22/11/1992) and Elgar again (Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle, 22/9/2002), a moving portrait of the widows of four British composers (Classic Widows, tx. 5/2/1995), a found-footage illustration of Gustav Holst's best-known suite (Ken Russell's View of The Planets, tx. 12/6/1983) and a frenzied 75-minute grab-bag with a self-descriptive title (Ken Russell's ABC of British Music, tx. 2/4/1988). He also made a documentary about the German composer Bruckner (The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner, tx. 14/10/1990) and the autobiographical Ken Russell - A British Picture (tx. 15/10/1989).

While his early work for the BBC's Monitor programme was filtered through editor Huw Wheldon's numerous rules and restrictions, Russell's reputation in the 1980s assured him total creative freedom. His 1960s films featured the occasional Russell cameo (notably in Song of Summer and Dance of the Seven Veils, tx. 15/2/1970), but the South Bank Shows would be much more openly autobiographical, with Russell himself presenting most, and three even featuring his name in the title.

As such, they are just as effective as illustrations of Russell's own preoccupations as portraits of their subject. Vaughan Williams revisits territory first explored by The Debussy Film (BBC, tx. 18/5/1965), with Russell himself as a director trying to capture the composer's life and personality, while Ken Russell's ABC of British Music often looked like a series of snippets from favourite musical subjects that he never found the time, money or inclination to turn into individual documentaries. The far less flamboyant Classic Widows attempts something similar, as the widows of Sir William Walton, Bernard Stevens, Benjamin Frankel and Humphrey Searle (whittled down from a shortlist of thirteen) discuss how they keep their husbands' reputations alive.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988)

Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988)

Wild and (sometimes) wonderful trip through Britain's musical heritage

Thumbnail image of Vaughan Williams (1984)

Vaughan Williams (1984)

Ken Russell's study of the great composer's nine symphonies

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Ken Russell on Television

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Thumbnail image of Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor