Ken Russell at the BBC Review

Given that the handling of Ken Russell’s output on DVD in the UK has been so hit and miss it perhaps shouldn’t come as too great a surprise to discover this much needed boxed-set hails from the US. Three discs housing six of the director’s most celebrated works for the BBC, this collection is bookended by Elgar (1962) and Delius: Song of Summer (1968), currently the only two of Russell’s television films to have seen a DVD release in the UK. Since deleted, those two discs (ably handled by the BFI) represent, alongside the two-disc edition of Tommy, the only truly essential DVDs Russell has seen to date. Otherwise we’re talking lacklustre transfers, incorrect aspect ratios and extras-free releases for a director who not only deserves better but also delivers some of the most engaging commentaries you’ll get the chance to hear. In part this poor showing may be owing to Russell’s indifferent critical standing, one that has shown signs of late of receiving some rehabilitation but still seems blighted by the films of the late eighties and early nineties – such as Salome’s Last Dance and Whore - which have had a detrimental effect on the key years, arguably 1961 to 1975, and the distinctive, singular output they produced. And yet, if any kind of upturn in this critical standing is to happen then that is why this particular set is so essential; any understanding of Russell must surely take in the BBC films as much, if not more, than the later cinematic efforts.

Happily DVD Times holds reviews for Elgar and Delius in their BFI incarnations and I’ll refer to them both as they offer more detailed individual consideration than this particular overview of all six titles will allow (see the 'related content' box on the left of your screen). Furthermore, whilst both Elgar and Delius represent key titles in the Russell oeuvre – the former famously being the 100th edition of the arts series Monitor and a mainstay in television ‘best of’ lists; the latter arguably the director’s straightest and most sedate work as well as his personal favourite – and therefore justify being released onto individual discs, the same could also be said of each of the films present on this set. Outside of a basic progression from the overtly documentary to the overtly dramatic, there is little sense of each film building upon those which came before, rather a collection of six standalone titles, each one understandable within the overall context of the BBC years but also strong enough and distinctive enough to impress, and indeed astound, on its own merits.

With that said, there is of course one aspect, other than that these films were all made at the BBC, which unites the collection, namely that each takes an artist as its subject. Elgar, Delius, The Debussy Film (1965) and Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World (1966) are all self-explanatory enough, whilst Always on Sunday (1965) focuses on the “Sunday painter” Henri Rousseau (with a touch of Alfred Jarry, author of King Ubu, too) and Dante’s Inferno (1967) the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In each and every case they make for shrewd choices such are the fascinating lives they led. Russell may not always go for the full lifestory, instead selecting specific periods as with Delius and Always on Sunday, or opt for an impressionist approach (The Debussy Film is subtitled Impressions of the French Composer), yet we’re always treated to subjects who provide plenty of drama and plenty of scope for their director. Hardly surprisingly, Isadora Duncan was also given the feature film treatment in the same year as The Biggest Dancer in the World appeared; Karel Reisz’s more simply titled Isadora receiving its premiere mere weeks after Russell’s version was first transmitted.

Yet if the biopic approach is the norm, then the methods in their telling differ greatly. The films encompass both straightforward documentary techniques and moments of quintessential Russell madness: The Debussy Film finds room for a recreation of the death of St. Sebastian with a group of skinny young T-shirted blondes; Isadora Duncan’s opening encompasses both a speeded-up nude reverie and a madcap representation of a hanged man; and so on. This is no auteur out to stamp his mark willy-nilly however, but a director who is aping his subject perfectly. The naïve style of Rousseau’s paintings that initially met with critical scorn is ably matched by Russell’s own naïve stylings; charming rather than cheap, whilst Jarry’s presence seamlessly allows for more offbeat moments. Likewise Isadora Duncan’s brash manner gets channelled into Russell’s own, Dante’s overwrought life proffers similarly overwrought imagery, etc. etc. Admittedly the director would be guilty in some of his later features of occasionally going overboard, but here it all feels perfectly correct; whatever the energy of his subject or their art, so be the energy of his interpretation.

Indeed, what makes the BBC films arguably more critic-proof than Russell’s cinema work is their greater attention to structure and approach. (I’ll make clear here that I personally don’t see this as a great disadvantage. One of the pleasures of Tommy, say, or The Music Lovers is the very fact that they resemble very little else; late-period Fellini is the one usual critical point of comparison, but you never see Russell’s films as having been influenced by previous filmmakers or indeed directors nowadays being dubbed “the new Ken Russell”, even those who worked under him such as Tony Palmer or Derek Jarman.) In part the structural elements are unavoidable given the documentary basis of so many of these films - Elgar being cemented to Huw Weldon’s voice-over; Isadora Duncan and Delius co-written by those who had known their subject, namely Sewell Stokes and Eric Fenby, respectively – though this isn’t always strictly true. The Debussy Film is the key example here, a startling piece of post-modernist filmmaking long before it became fashionable. The film of the title refers not only to Russell’s but also that within the narrative, in other words we’re dealing with a film-within-a-film here. As such our on-screen director also becomes our narrator, discussing the background and motivation with our actors thus opting out of conventional voice-over techniques. (Although we do hear the immediately recognisable voice of Melvyn Bragg, also Russell’s co-writer, on a couple of occasions.) Similarly, the actors not only act out the various recreations of Debussy’s life but also provide their own dramas, inevitably to be viewed as a counterpoint to those they are enacting. And then there’s the music which Russell allows to occupy whole passages as a means of representing and understanding it. No need for standard biopic practices such as seeing Oliver Reed (playing the actor who’s playing Debussy) slaving over reams of paper or a token instrument – Russell has more assured ways of interpreting the man and his music.

In terms of scope and imagination The Debussy Film is the arguable standout of the entire collection and undoubtedly a highpoint in Russell’s entire career. The fact that he was working to limited budgets at this time only makes such matters all the more astounding. Indeed, there’s an argument that says Russell would be held in much higher esteem nowadays had his career ended with the BBC and not made the leap to the big screen. (This does of course play with chronology a little given that French Dressing, his little-seen feature debut, was made in 1963, whilst Billion Dollar Brain figures just prior to the last of his Omnibus films.) Yet if this collection can find the director a new audience or prompt a re-think of such an argument then this can only be a good thing. The likes of The Music Lovers, Mahler or Lisztomania were never that far removed from the Monitor and Omnibus films (the sheer bombast of Dante’s Inferno in particular) and so perhaps a viewing of this set would lead to a proper reconsideration of the later works. Of course, this would also mean that such titles gained the proper DVD releases too: Altered States, Valentino, Women in Love, and so on, not forgetting The Devils which surely has got to come out sometime soon…

The Discs

Ken Russell at the BBC is released by 2Entertain onto three Region 1 encoded discs in the NTSC format. This latter element is important as it causes the only flaw on this otherwise excellent set. Unfortunately, having been sourced from PAL masters we get the expected standards conversion issues which, whilst by no means the worst I have seen, do prompt interlacing and a softening of the image. It’s a shame given that the prints are, in every single case, near perfect. The Debussy Film, in particular, stands out as being particularly excellent whilst it’s easy to see that the BFI discs of Elgar and Delius used the same sources. As such print damage is at an absolute minimum, 1.33:1 aspect ratios are correctly maintained and the soundtracks are spotless. (The only instance when the latter do show any occasional flaws are with the music itself, though no doubt such concerns were inherent in their sources.) Furthermore, optional English subtitling is also available on each of the films – and the extras – and, pleasingly, they’re of the white variety rather than the yellow which has a tendency to blight American discs.

As for the extras Ken Russell at the BBC is unable to live up to the BFI discs and their more specific features, not to mention director’s commentaries, but it does provide a pair of welcome additions. A newly filmed interview with Russell is typically laden with anecdotes as he discusses his career from the early amateur shorts (specifically Amelia and the Angel) through the Monitor years and up to Song of Summer. There’s no mention of The Dance of the Seven Veils, his infamous final Omnibus on Richard Strauss, though no doubt the protracted rights issues with the film play a part here. (Indeed, it had been initially mooted for inclusion on this set, except now it looks like we’re going to have to wait until 2019 when the Strauss family’s copyright finally runs out.) The other extra comes from the archive, namely a Late Night Line-Up special on the director entitled Ken Russell at Work. Shot at the time of Isadora Duncan’s production it offers valuable behind the scenes footage and plenty of interview material. Perhaps the most intriguing thing is just how serious Russell took himself at this point in his career, a stark contrast to the jovial 81-year old we find elsewhere on these discs.

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