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Gordon Jacob (1959)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Gordon Jacob (1959)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 29/3/1959
17 mins, black and white
Directed byKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducerPeter Newington
Commentary byHumphrey Burton

Cast: Gordon Jacob

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A portrait of the English composer Gordon Jacob, shown at home and at work and interspersed with visualisations of his music.

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This short documentary for the BBC's Monitor arts strand, originally broadcast on 29 March 1959, has at least a minor place in British film history in that it's the first of Ken Russell's many filmed portraits of composers.

Unlike virtually all its successors, it was made with the full co-operation of its subject, the English composer Gordon Jacob (1895-1984). He's shown going on his daily walk, pottering about at home, switching between desk and piano when writing, and discussing aspects of his life and work and his views on music in general: the importance of writing for amateurs and children, a lament for the decline of melody and the rise of artistic snobbery in musical circles.

This could easily have been a dry talking-heads documentary, but even at this very early stage in Russell's career, the determination to keep things visually compelling is all too apparent. He's constantly cutting from Jacob to imaginative visualisations of his music (drawing on shots of windows, dancers' legs, cyclists, trees and even pigs), and seems noticeably more confident in the latter department than he did with setting the poems in the earlier John Betjeman: A Poet in London (BBC, tx. 1/3/1959).

The essentially abstract nature of Jacob's medium gave Russell far more creative and illustrative freedom, and his work also draws on material that had long attracted the director: nature, animals, children (a lovely sequence has a small boy taking a jaunty walk while playing the harmonica), and recognisably 'English' pastoral locations as depicted by works like the 'New Forest' suite. The latter was premiered on 4 December 1958, less than four months before Russell's film was broadcast.

Given that this was Russell's first composer portrait and that its successors included some of the most memorable television programmes of the 1960s, it's tempting to read too much into Gordon Jacob, but one can certainly see the green shoots of what was to become his first undisputed masterpiece, Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962) beginning to appear. At the age of thirty-one, after over a decade of considerable uncertainty over his future, Ken Russell had finally found his true vocation.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. On arranging (2:29)
2. On amateurs (0:49)
3. On nature (1:31)
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