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Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)
For Omnibus, BBC, tx. 15/2/1970
55 mins, colour
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducerKen Russell
ScriptKen Russell, Henry Reed
ScenarioKen Russell, Henry Reed, Richard Strauss
PhotographyPeter Hall
MusicRichard Strauss

Cast: Christopher Gable (Richard Strauss), Judith Paris (Pauline Strauss), Kenneth Colley (Hitler), Vladek Sheybal (Goebbels), James Mellor (Goering), Sally Bryant (Life)

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A caricature of real and imaginary events in the life of the German composer Richard Strauss.

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If Song of Summer (BBC, tx. 15/9/1968) reached for the sublime, Dance of the Seven Veils (BBC, tx. 15/2/1970) aims straight for the ridiculous - and ridicule was Ken Russell's intention, as the programme's subtitle 'A comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949' makes clear. Comfortably his most extreme television film, its broadcast was preceded by a warning about its violent content, though it still caused widespread outrage.

Russell's composer biopics were usually labours of love. This was the opposite: he regarded Strauss's music as "bombastic, sham and hollow", and despised the composer for claiming to be apolitical while cosying up to the Nazi regime. The film depicts Strauss in a variety of grotesquely caricatured situations: attacked by nuns after adopting Nietzsche's philosophy, he fights duels with jealous husbands, literally batters his critics into submission with his music and glorifies the women in his life and fantasies.

Later, his association with Hitler leads to a graphically-depicted willingness to turn a blind eye to Nazi excesses, responding to SS thugs carving a Star of David in an elderly Jewish man's chest by urging his orchestra to play louder, drowning out the screams. Unexpectedly, Strauss is credited as co-writer, which was Russell's way of indicating that every word he uttered on screen was sourced directly from real-life statements.

Russell was well aware that he was entering difficult territory. As he told his biographer John Baxter, the film was:

a good example of the sort of film that could never be made outside the BBC, because the lawyers would be on to it in two seconds. I would have had to submit a script to the Strauss family and his publishers Boosey and Hawkes would have come into it, and it would never have happened. The great thing about the BBC is that the quickness of the hand deceives the eye. Before anyone can complain, the film is out. But the price you pay with a really controversial film is that it's usually only shown once.

This is likely to remain the position until Strauss's copyright expires in 2019. Much later, Russell was refused permission to feature the composer's music in Salome's Last Dance (1989), the same year that his autobiographical South Bank Show, A British Picture (ITV, tx.15/10/1989) included clips from Dance of the Seven Veils, but accompanied by the copyright-free waltzes of his namesake Johann.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Devils, The (1971)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Russell, Shirley (1935-2002)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell's Composers