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Variations on a Mechanical Theme (1959)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Variations on a Mechanical Theme (1959)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 27/9/1959
10 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerPeter Newington
ScriptAlex Atkinson
NarratorFrank Duncan

A look at the history of mechanical musical instruments.

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This delightful Monitor item offers a whistle-stop tour of the history of mechanical musical reproduction, starting with the various music boxes that arrived in the wake of the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century and concluding with a snapshot of the state of the late 1950s art. In between we are introduced to the barrel organ, the player piano, the Orchestrel and the humble but nonetheless revolutionary gramophone.

The central thesis of Alex Atkinson's commentary concerns the advantages this brings in terms of ease of use. In this version of events, the history of mechanical music is a constant struggle between the need for greater complexity (and human participation) and the desire to simply sit back and enjoy "the balm and solace of great music without the attendant drudgery of learning scales". Portability is also prized: the barrel organ and gramophone are far more useful than the wildly elaborate Orchestrel (a veritable musical factory intended for the well-heeled home) because they can be taken out in the open air to supply music for any occasion.

As one might expect from this subject and director, there are numerous witty touches. Queen Victoria is depicted purely as a regal bottom, sitting on what looks like a stool, but is in fact the musical bustle that was presented to her in 1887 (it would play the national anthem whenever she sat down on it). Mussolini's repatriation of itinerant Italian organ-grinders is both poignant and hilarious, the monkey at one point appearing to deliver one of the dictator's speeches (Ken Russell would make similarly cheeky use of images of Lenin in his 1961 Monitor film on Prokofiev), while the train that transports them home has a mechanical music of its own.

The conclusion is clearly polemical - Russell shows that the mechanical music of the (then) present has become a sterile affair, with white-coated scientific types dreaming (at one point literally) of the next arrangement of bleeps and whines before twiddling the appropriate knob to create them - Robert Moog's keyboard-driven synthesiser was still a few years away. It's impossible to miss the veiled sarcasm of the commentary's final aside. "Certainly, we have made great progress" seems to look forward, but the line is accompanied by a firmly nostalgic shot of a mechanical fairground organ playing popular show tunes. Kitsch it may be, but that's hardly a drawback in Ken Russell's universe.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The Victorians (2:08)
2. No bananas (2:11)
3. Brave new world? (1:39)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years