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Ken Russell on Television

A colourful and controversial small-screen career

Main image of Ken Russell on Television

Such is the ephemeral nature of most television that it's easy to overlook even a substantial contribution spanning several decades by an otherwise well-known figure. Though Ken Russell's Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962) is one of the most renowned programmes ever made in Britain, its creator has directed nearly 50 small-screen films (against fewer than 20 feature films), many not shown since their original broadcast and only a handful of which have been written about in any depth. The general assumption is that, Elgar and Song of Summer (BBC, tx. 15/9/1968) aside, Russell's television work is journeyman fare next to the achievement of the feature films, only really worth seeing out of curiosity

And yet Russell has said on more than one occasion that he ranks his best television work at least as high as his feature films, if not higher. He certainly seems to have derived more pleasure from the film-making process, observing that it's far easier to be spontaneously creative with a tiny crew. The budgets were invariably tiny as well, but that meant that the powers that be were less likely to interfere. In an interview with his biographer John Baxter he said "If I could feel that films I did for television were shown all over the world at frequent intervals, I'd probably never make a so-called feature film again."

Certainly, his importance in terms of British television history seems impossible to overstate. During his first decade (1959-70), he almost single-handedly revolutionised the small-screen documentary, rehabilitated the work of major cultural figures (Sir Edward Elgar had been largely ignored since his death in 1934) and provided venerable arts strands such as the BBC's Monitor and Omnibus and, later, LWT's South Bank Show with some of their most colourful and controversial programmes. If his subsequent television work (1978-2002) has had less impact, this is partly a reflection of the fact that he'd already pushed the medium about as far as it would go.

His prolific output notwithstanding, Russell was a relatively late starter, already in his early thirties when one of his amateur films impressed the BBC's Huw Wheldon enough to offer him a contract with Monitor to make short "filler" documentaries of around 10-20 minutes. Despite Wheldon's strict aesthetic rules, Russell had considerable freedom in terms of both subject and its creative treatment - he would describe Monitor as "the only truly experimental film school that Britain has ever produced".

Among his initial subjects were several of clearly personal interest, such as the work of Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun (acquaintances from Russell's pre-film career), a film about his former landlady, and a great many pieces about dance and music. By 1962, Russell's reputation as an unusually imaginative and resourceful director was such that Wheldon asked him to direct Monitor's 100th programme. The ecstatic reception of Elgar turned Russell into one of television's tiny handful of behind-the-camera stars and appeared to act as the launching-pad for his feature film career.

But his feature debut, French Dressing (1963), was a critical and commercial flop, so he returned to the BBC, to make longer and more ambitious programmes than before, with his penultimate Monitor item, the 82-minute The Debussy Film (1965) cross-cutting a portrait of the French composer and a fictionalised account of a film crew trying to capture his elusive life and personality. That he was able to make it at all shows how far he had stretched the boundaries of the TV documentary in just six years.

Between 1966 and 1970, he made five substantial documentaries (the last three under the Omnibus banner), about French film composer Georges Delerue (Don't Shoot The Composer, tx. 29/1/1966), the dancer Isadora Duncan (Isadora, tx. 22/9/1966), the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Dante's Inferno, tx. 22/12/1967), the last years of composer Frederick Delius (Song of Summer) and a deliberately grotesque caricature of the life and work of Richard Strauss (Dance of the Seven Veils, tx. 15/2/1970), whose stormy reception led to Russell ending his relationship with the BBC after his disappointment at the corporation's failure to defend his work. He would not make another BBC film until the early 1990s.

By this time Russell had firmly established himself as a successful feature film director, so he took an eight-year break from television, returning only after the box-office failure of Valentino (1977). The two-part Clouds of Glory (tx. 9 & 16/7/1978), made for Granada Television, depicted the lives of Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and contained some of Russell's most restrained and lyrical work since Elgar and Song of Summer.

Five years later, his former scriptwriter Melvyn Bragg commissioned a film about Gustav Holst's 'The Planets' for LWT's South Bank Show (Ken Russell's View of 'The Planets', ITV, tx. 12/6/1983). Over the next twenty years, he made eight South Bank Shows, usually on the subject of British composers, celebrated en masse in Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (tx. 2/4/1988) and individually in Vaughan Williams (tx. 8/4/1984), The Secret Life of Arnold Bax (tx. 22/11/1992), Classic Widows (tx. 5/2/1995) and Elgar - Fantasy on a Composer on a Bicycle (tx. 22/9/2002).

When feature film funding dried up in the early 1990s (he has not made a cinema feature since Whore, US, 1991, unless one counts the shot-on-video The Fall of the Louse of Usher, 2001), Russell returned to making television programmes full time. In addition to his South Bank Shows, his production company Dreamgrange produced the Freudian biopic The Mystery of Dr Martinu (BBC, tx. 16/5/1992); Alice in Russialand (Channel 4, tx. 1993), a celebration of Russian culture; Ken Russell's Treasure Island (Channel 4, tx. 24/12/1995), a musical adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel; and Ken Russell in Search of the English Folk Song (Channel 4, tx. 31/8/1998). He belatedly returned to the BBC to make Lady Chatterley (tx. 6-27/6/1993), a four-part adaptation of D.H.Lawrence's most notorious novel starring Joely Richardson in the title role, Sean Bean as the lusty gamekeeper Mellors and Russell himself as Lady Chatterley's father. All these projects were interspersed with commissions for American (Prisoners of Honor, 1991; Dogboys, 1998), French (Mindbender, 1993), and German (Die Unersättliche Mrs. Kirsch, 1996) television companies.

Ken Russell has also made numerous appearances on other people's programmes. He was himself the subject of various documentaries, including Russell's Progress (BBC, tx. 25/7/1971); Your Honour, I Object! (Channel 4, tx. 27/11/1987), about his legal battle over an aborted film of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders; Ken Russell and Salome (Thames, tx. 9/12/1988), Angels and Devils (Channel 4, tx. 20/5/1990), The Obituary Show (Channel 4, tx. 17/12/1991), The Country Set (LWT, tx. 18/1/1995) and The South Bank Show (LWT, tx. 11/2/2001), not forgetting the earlier self-directed Ken Russell: A British Picture (LWT, tx. 15/10/1989).

He has been a frequent guest on chat shows and other light entertainment programmes, having been interviewed by everyone from Russell Harty (LWT, tx. 5/4/1974) and André Previn (BBC, tx. 18/8/1974) to Michael Aspel (LWT, tx. 10/2/1990) and Gloria Hunniford (Channel 5, tx. 8/12/1999), along with appearances on Read All About It (BBC, tx. 29/2/1976), Star Test (Channel 4, tx. 5/9/1989), Sunday Sunday (LWT, tx. 22/10/1989), Plunder (BBC, tx. 6/3/1990), The Astrology Show (Channel 4, tx. 14/10/1990), Mondo Rosso (BBC, tx. 13/10/1995), My Favourite Hymns (ITV, tx. 14/7/2002) and others in a similar vein. But, by general consent, his most memorable television appearance was when he confronted the Evening Standard's combative film critic Alexander Walker, who described the then newly-released The Devils (1971) as "monstrously indecent". Russell's response was to hit him repeatedly with a rolled-up copy of his newspaper.

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 Béla Bartók (1964)

Béla Bartók (1964)

Ken Russell's portrait of the great Hungarian composer

Thumbnail image of Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)

Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)

Ken Russell's controversial caricature of the composer Richard Strauss

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 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 Isadora (1966)

Isadora (1966)

Ken Russell's dramatised documentary about dancer Isadora Duncan

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 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 Light Fantastic, The (1960)

Light Fantastic, The (1960)

A survey of various dance forms as performed across the UK

Thumbnail image of Marie Rambert (1960)

Marie Rambert (1960)

Huw Wheldon interviews the legendary dance teacher and pioneer

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 Song of Summer (1968)

Song of Summer (1968)

Ken Russell's moving drama about the last years of the blind composer Delius

Thumbnail image of Vaughan Williams (1984)

Vaughan Williams (1984)

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

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 and the South Bank Show

Ken Russell and the South Bank Show

Ken Russell's eight documentaries for the LWT arts strand

Thumbnail image of Ken Russell: The Monitor Years

Ken Russell: The Monitor Years

The early years of an enfant terrible

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor