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Ken Russell: The Monitor Years

The early years of an enfant terrible

Main image of Ken Russell: The Monitor Years

Between early 1959, when he was hired by Huw Wheldon (left), head of the BBC's Monitor arts strand, and late 1962, when he first achieved widespread fame with the groundbreaking Elgar (tx. 11/11/1962), Ken Russell (right) made 21 short documentaries in the most prolific period of his entire career. Remarkably, all but one exist to this day, having survived both the BBC's notoriously cavalier preservation policies (virtually everything was shot on film, which helped) and a serious fire at Russell's home in April 2006. Just three years earlier, he had presciently donated his 16mm copies (which in some cases were the only surviving ones) to the BFI National Archive, otherwise they would almost certainly have perished in the flames.

Typically running between 10 and 20 minutes, all but one were made for Monitor and broadcast as part of a magazine-style programme made up of several similar items. He and his fellow directors would pitch various concepts to Wheldon, who would duly veto most of them for being either uninteresting or impractical (such as a proposed Russell project about Albert Schweitzer playing the organ in the jungle whilst tending lepers), but once approval was given, Russell would be left alone until he'd produced his first rough cut, whereupon Wheldon would analyse it in depth, often pulling it apart and reshaping it before adding one of his inimitable commentaries.

Although the two would have a great many creative battles over this period (Wheldon was constantly reining in Russell's ambition by reminding him that he did not work for the drama department and that many of his ideas were unaffordable), Russell always considered Wheldon the single most important figure in his early career. As he put it in his autobiography:

Huw 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. (...) 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.

Russell's first year started with a visualisation of John Betjeman's poems (John Betjeman - A Poet in London, tx. 1/3/1959), before turning to his first love, music. His short study of one of British music's elder statesmen (Gordon Jacob, tx. 29/3/1959) has a minor place in cinema history for being the first of his many portraits of composers, From Spain To Streatham (tx. 7/6/1959) looked at the guitar craze sweeping the country in the wake of the success of the skiffle movement, and Variations on a Mechanical Theme (27/9/1959) was a wryly amusing overview of the history of mechanised music. He then interviewed Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun (Scottish Painters, tx. 25/10/1959), whom he had first encountered when working in a Bond Street gallery in the 1940s, before rounding out the year with a portrait of comedian Spike Milligan (Portrait of a Goon, tx. 6/12/1959).

1960 started with two documentaries about dance choreographers - Marie Rambert (tx. 17/1/1960) and Cranks at Work (tx. 28/3/1960). The latter, about John Cranko, is the only one of Russell's Monitor films that is believed lost. Journey into a Lost World (tx. 28/3/1960) reunited Russell with Betjeman for a film about London's great exhibitions. Miners' Picnic (tx. 3/7/1960) and Shelagh Delaney's Salford (tx. 25/9/1960) took him to the north of England, firstly to look at a colliery band contest in Northumberland, then to accompany the writer of A Taste of Honey back to her home town. A House in Bayswater (tx. 14/12/1960), his only non-Monitor documentary in this period, portrayed Russell's former landlady and her bohemian tenants, while The Light Fantastic (tx. 18/12/1960) returned to the grab-bag territory of From Spain To Streatham in its examination of traditional and modern dance forms.

In 1961, he co-directed Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill (tx. 26/3/1961) with Humphrey Burton (who would go on to produce Elgar), a record of a live performance. Old Battersea House (tx. 4/6/1961) was a tour of a Pre-Raphaelite museum, while the 28-minute Prokofiev, shown in the same programme, was his second composer biopic and his most ambitious film up to that point. This was followed by London Moods (tx. 5/11/1961), three musical interpretations of London, and a film about Barcelona's greatest architect (Antonio Gaudi, tx. 3/12/1961).

1962 opened with two of his most original films to date. Scripted by the popular archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, Lonely Shore (tx. 14/1/1962) imagined a party of alien archaeologists sifting through the artefacts of early 1960s Britain. Pop Goes The Easel (td. 25/3/1962) was his longest film to date, a 44-minute documentary about Pop artists Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty and Peter Phillips that filled the entire slot, and its unconventional structure and deliberately startling imagery triggered numerous complaints from more traditionalist BBC viewers. Preservation Man (tx. 20/5/1962) looked at the sculptor Bruce Lacey, the title referring to his use of everyday materials. This was followed by a film about the naïve painter A.W.Chesher and his favourite subject, Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (tx. 1/7/1962), after which Russell was granted the honour of both directing Monitor's 100th edition and filling the entire slot with a single programme. He had been trying to make a film about the composer Edward Elgar since his first meeting with Huw Wheldon, and jumped at the chance, making a 56-minute masterpiece that ranks amongst the finest television programmes of its decade, rehabilitating the reputation of its subject and firmly establishing Russell as one of Britain's brightest directing talents.

Ironically, Elgar's success meant that Russell had less time to devote to television documentaries, and between 1963 and 1965 (when the programme was axed), he made only five more films for Monitor. In 1963, he made a short documentary about his old friend, photographer David Hurn (Watch the Birdie, tx. 9/6/1963), though the year was dominated by his cinema debut French Dressing. Its critical and commercial failure sent him back to the BBC, where he made Béla Bartók (tx. 24/5/1964), a strikingly imaginative visualisation of the great Hungarian composer's music, and The Dotty World of James Lloyd (tx. 5/7/1964), about a naïve pointillist painter, which was also the last Monitor film to be supervised by Huw Wheldon.

After adapting The Diary of a Nobody with John McGrath (tx. 12/12/1964), Russell's final Monitor films were about two French artists, the composer Claude Debussy (The Debussy Film, tx. 18/5/1965) and the painter Henri Rousseau (Always on Sunday, tx. 29/6/1965). The first of these was originally planned as a cinema feature and ran nearly 90 minutes, its complex structure and interweaving of fictional and historical material so far removed from his earlier work that it demonstrated on its own just how far Russell had pushed the conventions of the television documentary in just six years.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Always on Sunday (1965)

Always on Sunday (1965)

Ken Russell's portrait of French primitive painter Henri Rousseau

Thumbnail image of Antonio Gaudí (1961)

Antonio Gaudí (1961)

Ken Russell's portrait of the great Spanish architect

Thumbnail image of Béla Bartók (1964)

Béla Bartók (1964)

Ken Russell's portrait of the great Hungarian composer

Thumbnail image of Debussy Film, The (1965)

Debussy Film, The (1965)

Ken Russell's film-within-a-film about the French composer

Thumbnail image of Elgar (1962)

Elgar (1962)

Ken Russell's remarkably imaginative portrait of the composer

Thumbnail image of From Spain to Streatham (1959)

From Spain to Streatham (1959)

Ken Russell documentary about the guitar craze

Thumbnail image of Gordon Jacob (1959)

Gordon Jacob (1959)

Ken Russell's portrait of the English composer at home and at work

Thumbnail image of House in Bayswater, A (1960)

House in Bayswater, A (1960)

Ken Russell's portrait of a bohemian Bayswater house

Thumbnail image of John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)

John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)

Ken Russell's first professional film, a visualisation of Betjeman's poems

Thumbnail image of Journey Into a Lost World (1960)

Journey Into a Lost World (1960)

John Betjeman remembers London's great exhibitions

Thumbnail image of Light Fantastic, The (1960)

Light Fantastic, The (1960)

A survey of various dance forms as performed across the UK

Thumbnail image of London Moods (1961)

London Moods (1961)

Three musical treatments of images of London

Thumbnail image of Lonely Shore, The (1962)

Lonely Shore, The (1962)

What alien archaeologists from the future think of early 1960s Britain

Thumbnail image of Marie Rambert (1960)

Marie Rambert (1960)

Huw Wheldon interviews the legendary dance teacher and pioneer

Thumbnail image of Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)

Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)

Ken Russell's look at an painter with an unusual subject

Thumbnail image of Old Battersea House (1961)

Old Battersea House (1961)

A house that keeps the Pre-Raphaelite flame alive

Thumbnail image of Pop Goes the Easel (1962)

Pop Goes the Easel (1962)

Ken Russell's kaleidoscopic impression of the Pop Art universe

Thumbnail image of Portrait of a Goon (1959)

Portrait of a Goon (1959)

A typically zany day in the life of Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Preservation Man, The (1962)

Preservation Man, The (1962)

Ken Russell's portrait of eccentric artist-collector Bruce Lacey

Thumbnail image of Prokofiev (1961)

Prokofiev (1961)

Ken Russell's portrait of the great Russian composer

Thumbnail image of Scottish Painters (1959)

Scottish Painters (1959)

Ken Russell films artists Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun

Thumbnail image of Shelagh Delaney's Salford (1960)

Shelagh Delaney's Salford (1960)

The author of 'A Taste of Honey' explores her birthplace

Thumbnail image of Variations on a Mechanical Theme (1959)

Variations on a Mechanical Theme (1959)

Ken Russell's look at the history of mechanical music

Thumbnail image of Watch the Birdie (1963)

Watch the Birdie (1963)

Documentary about the work of photographer David Hurn

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Ken Russell on Television

Ken Russell on Television

A colourful and controversial small-screen career

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor

Thumbnail image of Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)

Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)

Producer, Presenter, Executive