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Prokofiev (1961)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Prokofiev (1961)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 18/6/1961
28 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
CommentaryHuw Wheldon

The life and work of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, from his precocious beginnings and early success through his international travels and controversial return to the Soviet Union.

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Prokofiev (BBC, tx. 18/6/1961), subtitled 'Portrait of a Soviet Composer', was the second of Ken Russell's composer biopics, though it takes a rather different approach from his first, Gordon Jacob (BBC, tx. 29/3/1959). Whereas in the earlier film Russell had access to the composer himself, Sergei Prokofiev had died eight years earlier (coincidentally, on the same day as Stalin), and there appeared to be no authentic moving-image footage of him in existence.

So Russell was faced with the challenge of trying to depict Prokofiev's life in a visually imaginative way despite being handicapped by a lack of materials other than stills. His solution, of getting an actor to play Prokofiev, seems obvious today, but Huw Wheldon, editor-in-chief of the BBC's Monitor arts strand, was resolutely opposed. Wheldon firmly believed that documentaries should only contain actual footage of their subject, and that reconstructing unfilmed events was tantamount to deceiving the viewing public.

After much argument, Wheldon agreed a compromise whereby Prokofiev's hands would be represented playing the piano and conducting, together with a shot of the composer reflected in water, provided it was both murky and rippling. Ironically, these strictures didn't extend to the footage that Russell used, even though Sergei Eisenstein's October (USSR, 1927), standing in for the absence of any actual footage of the 1917 Russian Revolution, arguably broke Wheldon's rules far more comprehensively.

Even under these limitations, Russell displays a striking visual and conceptual imagination. He uses mirrors to multiply a cast of two in the scene where Prokofiev's piano concerto is judged by an argumentative panel; wittily juxtaposes shots of Lenin's revolutionary speeches with Prokofiev's Violin Concerto in such a way that the Bolshevik leader appears to be conducting it; intercuts Alexander Nevsky (USSR, d. Eisenstein, 1938) with footage of German tanks invading three years later; and uses propaganda films to underscore the vacuity of Prokofiev's 'official' musical celebrations of Soviet life.

Wheldon contributes rather more narration than Russell would use in his subsequent Monitor films about composers (Elgar, tx. 11/11/1962; Béla Bartók, tx. 24/5/1964), and the film is the most conventional of all Russell's musically-inspired works, being essentially a respectful chronological trot through Prokofiev's life and career. But it's nonetheless a fascinating early example of Russell's willingness to break the rules of television documentary, as well as an illustration of the compromises that he still had to make with the powers that be.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Early brilliance (2:47)
2. International star (2:09)
3. A Soviet composer (3:29)
4. Denunciation (3:19)
Burton, Humphrey (1931-)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell's Composers
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years