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Always on Sunday (1965)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Always on Sunday (1965)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 29/6/1965
45 mins, black and white
Directed byKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC Television
Produced byKen Russell
ScenarioKen Russell
 Melvyn Bragg
CameramanJohn McGlashan
CommentaryOliver Reed

Cast: James Lloyd (Henri Rousseau), Annette Robertson (Alfred Jarry), Bryan Pringle (Pere Ubu), Jacqueline Cooke (Mere Ubu), Roland MacLeod (Apollinaire), Isa Teller (Josephine)

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The life of French painter Henri 'Douanier' Rousseau, whose work was constantly misunderstood and ridiculed by those who failed to recognise its originality.

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A dramatised portrait of the painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), known popularly as 'Le Douanier' because of his day job as a Customs clerk (he never reached the level implied by the nickname), both the film's best-known title and the one that actually appears on screen (Henri Rousseau: Sunday Painter) refer to the fact that his art had to be produced in his spare time, even after retirement.

Rousseau is played by the painter James Lloyd, the subject of an earlier Ken Russell Monitor documentary (The Dotty World of James Lloyd, BBC, tx. 5/7/1964), whose own career as a misunderstood naïve painter had many similarities. As Russell later told his biographer John Baxter, "He helped a lot with the atmosphere and the actors, because professionals have to adopt a different attitude when they're with someone like that. They can't do their 'acting' bit."

It was Russell's first fully dramatised biopic, without either the restrictions imposed by Monitor's former editor Huw Wheldon or the complex film-within-a-film framework of The Debussy Film (BBC, tx. 18/5/1965). Here, the actors use their own voices (Lloyd's Cheshire accent neatly paralleling Rousseau's provincial Breton) or, in Annette Robertson's case, are dubbed by a male voice to create an unsettlingly androgynous Alfred Jarry. The film also reunited Russell with Melvyn Bragg and Oliver Reed, who wrote and delivered the understated commentary.

Given Russell's own battles with both critics and producers, it's tempting to assume that Always on Sunday is exorcising personal demons, as the film is both by and about artists who operate on instinct, frequently puting them at odds with the expectations of the mainstream establishment. Although Russell had had a much easier ride than Rousseau (at least up to this point), his work had already undergone much criticism and creative interference.

Ironically, despite the greater artistic freedom that Russell now enjoyed as his own producer, Always on Sunday ultimately fell victim to contemporary television technology. While the black-and-white images of Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962) and Bela Bartok (BBC, tx. 24/5/1964) matched their subjects perfectly, the lack of colour here denies Rousseau's paintings their most distinctive feature. While those familiar with the gloriously vibrant originals can fill in the missing elements, those who aren't might be justified in siding with Rousseau's original critics. This is a pity, as the film is otherwise one of Russell's most delightful documentaries, his infectious love of its subject illuminating every frame.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Rousseau's critics (3:04)
2. Plea to the Mayor (1:41)
3. The 'Academicians' (3:40)
4. Rousseau's trial (3:31)
Production stills
Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)
Reed, Oliver (1938-1999)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years