Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Isadora (1966)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Isadora (1966)
BBC, tx. 22/9/1966
64 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerKen Russell
Scenario bySewell Stokes, Ken Russell
DialogueSewell Stokes
PhotographyDick Bush, Brian Tufano

Cast: Vivian Pickles (Isadora Duncan), Peter Bowles (Paris Singer), Jeanne Le Bars (Wilma), Alexei Jawdokimov (Sergei Yessenin), Murray Melvin (reporter)

Show full cast and credits

The eccentric life and bizarre death of the dancer Isadora Duncan.

Show full synopsis

Ken Russell always had a soft spot for Isadora (BBC, tx. 22/9/1966) also known as Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World), citing it as one of his favourite BBC films. It's easy to see why, as this portrait of a woman whose obsession with the importance of art and complete disdain for decorum chimes perfectly with Russell's own sensibility, as does Vivian Pickles' gloriously vulgar incarnation of the title character. Discussing her performance with his biographer John Baxter, Russell might well have been summing up his whole career:

It's strange that people can't reconcile vulgarity and artistry. They're the same thing to me. But don't get vulgarity mixed up with commercialism. By vulgarity I mean an exuberant over-the-top larger-than-life slightly bad taste red-blooded thing. And if that's not anything to do with Art, let's have nothing to do with Art. Let's have more of that.

There's plenty of over-the-top exuberance at the start, a breathless montage of speeded-up images, music and quoted newspaper headlines that crams all the best-known stories about the dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) into just two minutes. The remaining hour is spent examining the same material in much greater detail, attempting to explain the motivations behind her frequently scandalous life and career while conveying both her impossible ambitions and her actual achievements.

Russell presents this as a mixture of dramatised material and fantasy sequences that blend original dance numbers with footage from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (Germany, 1938), an ecstatic paean to the glory of the human body. The scale of Russell's set-pieces belies the film's television origins, with a jazz band playing on the roof of a hearse, a giant box breaking open to reveal half a dozen harpists, and the screen filling with hundreds of dancing children at the climax.

The film was co-written, introduced and narrated by the writer Sewell Stokes, a personal friend of its subject, whose authoritative presence ensures that Russell's more fantastic images don't obscure the essential facts. But these are strange enough: most fiction writers would think twice before killing off their central character by having her strangled by a scarf caught up in the wheels of a car.

Two years later, Vanessa Redgrave would play the same role in the big-screen biopic Isadora (d. Karel Reisz, 1968), co-written by regular Russell collaborator Melvyn Bragg. Unsurprisingly, it was a more sedate affair, though Redgrave's performance was Oscar-nominated.

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Marrying a millionaire (3:59)
2. Failure in Rio (2:00)
3. Arrival in Moscow (4:03)
4. The death of hope (1:53)
Topical Budget 525-2: Looks Very Jolly Doesn't It? (1921)
Topical Budget 859-2: Grace and Poise (1928)
Bowles, Peter (1936-)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Tufano, Brian (1939-)
Ken Russell on Television