Ken Russell: The Great Passions
Ken Russell, born in 1927, was a relatively late starter as a filmmaker, being twenty-nine when he made his first uncompleted short film Knights on Bikes. Largely self-taught, he had been a ballet dancer, a stills photographer and had served in the Merchant Navy. His short Amelia and the Angel (1957) won him much praise and by the end of the decade he had been hired by the BBC and started to make documentaries, many on arts subjects, especially for the magazine programme Monitor. He worked for the BBC for eleven years, during which time he had broken into cinema features, making thirty-three films in total, both short and longer.
By that time, his BBC films had expanded in scope (and had reached feature length) and there was the sense that his work had outgrown the confines of the small screen. The BBC was certainly aware of Russell's worth – in 1968 they repeated six of his films as a mini-retrospective, billed as "The Ken Russell Festival" – but the reality was that work for the BBC involved much tinier budgets than were available for the big screen – and, until the end of the 1960s, colour was not available. Some of them make use of stock footage to get round the fact that filming in Russia, say, was out of the question. But given that many of them were shot in 35mm, they are feature films in all but name, even though ones intended to be viewed on TV screens often as small as nine inches, and – as they were often shown on BBC1 rather than BBC2 – 405 lines rather than 625. Given their origins on film, watching them in high definition is revelatory.
Another issue which Russell found frustrating was that his films were usually shown just the once, with maybe but not in all cases a repeat within two years, as per Equity contracts of the time, and then the films were all but impossible to see outside visits to the archive. Some of them tested the boundaries of TV censorship – which, as these films show, was sometimes ahead of what the BBFC allowed in cinemas to adult audiences. (See the use of – fairly discreet – nudity in these films and, in the case of Always on Sunday, language, of which more below.)
His approach, wildly subjective in an attempt to get inside the heads of his subjects, often preferring the spirit of the story rather than documented fact, certainly didn't sit well with everyone. In two cases, copyright holders of source material objected to Russell's treatment which prevented any repeat showings, such as his 1964 version, shot silent-film-style, of Diary of a Nobody. (This is claimed in the extras on this disc, though BBC Genome does list a repeat showing in 1967. In any case, this situation is no longer applicable, as the original novel is now public domain.) Another is his last film for the BBFC, Dance of the Seven Veils (1970) about Richard Strauss, which had questions asked about in Parliament and attracted the disfavour – to put it mildly – of the Strauss estate, who will not license the use of his music for any further broadcast or commercial distribution, a situation which will last until 1 January 2020 when Strauss's music goes out of copyright in the UK. On the other hand, there's an argument that restrictions can be a stimulus to creativity and find that a meeting point between Huw Wheldon and Russell's less restrained big-screen style resulted in his best work.
The BFI are releasing six of Russell's mid-length-to-feature-length work for the BBC on two dual-format editions. The present set contains Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora (1966) and Dante's Inferno (1967). I will be reviewing the companion release Ken Russell: The Great Composers separately.
Always on Sunday (45:11)
This film is a test case for filmographers everywhere, as it is usually known as Always on Sunday (a nod to the 1960 film Never on Sunday with its hit theme song) and was billed as such in Radio Times but is in fact called on screen:
Russell had previously made short documentaries about painters, including the feature-length Pop Goes the Easel (1962, and to be found on the BFI's release Visions of Change: The Evolution of the British TV Documentary, Volume 1, BBC 1951-1967) and, in 1964, The Dotty World of James Lloyd. The latter is particularly relevant as it led him to cast Lloyd, a real-life “sunday painter”, as Rousseau, not the only bold casting choice which works. (The BBC repeated the Lloyd documentary to accompany both showings of Always on Sunday to date.) Lloyd was not an actor, but is directed by Russell to underplay his role. He has little dialogue and instead contributes one of the two voiceovers, the other being a traditional “objective” narration from Oliver Reed. If his strong Yorkshire accent – in a sea of BBC RP – may jar, it's a choice which works when you think about it: the characters would have been speaking French and Rousseau was known for his strong provincial accent. He was a “Sunday painter”, making his art around the demands of a day job in the civil service (hence his nickname “Douanier”, or customs official) and that of his family, and at the time was patronised by the French art establishment for his “amateurism”.
Another bold casting choice is that of Rousseau's friend and anarchist Alfred Jarry. Russell casts a woman, Annette Robertson, in a false moustache and with her lines dubbed by a man. This may have been due to the difficulties of finding a similarly-statured male actor to Jarry (often referred to as a midget but at five feet nothing actually a little too tall for that) rather as the makers of The Year of Living Dangerously cast Linda Hunt in a male role, but it works. Jarry dominates the first third of the film, which ends with the once-scandalous opening night of his play Ubu Roi. with its notorious shouted opening line “Merdre!”. This is rendered as “Shitter!” in Russell's film, which is not something you expect to hear in a TV production from 1965. (Is this the first use of the word on British TV? To put this in context, this was two years before a major-studio release used the word in a film, in a film passed for adults only by the BBFC, In Cold Blood.)
Jarry departs the film after this, and the remaining two thirds are on a quieter register. Rousseau marries for the second time but his wife dies. He continues to paint despite his impoverished circumstances, earning a little money as a music teacher. He was championed by Picasso but dismissed by many others, though his paintings now are worth seven-figure sums.
Always on Sunday packs a lot into its three-quarters of an hour and is unfailingly inventive. It's hard to imagine a film like this, as a hybrid between arts documentary and biopic, being made for the BBC today. It clearly had an impact, and gained a repeat showing in 1968 as part of the "Ken Russell Festival" referred to above. But Russell had further to go.
Isadora (64: 36)
Made in 1965, this is another one for the filmographers to argue over. It's often referred to as Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World, but on screen it's just Isadora, with a chorus of voices shouting out each letter as the word is spelled out on screen. Look closely and you'll see that the drawing of each letter tells the story in broad outline. We then fast-forward through the story by means of a narrator (Sewell Stokes, Isadora Duncan's biographer and the film's cowriter) before the film "settles" into the story. This is another example of how Russell's films gain from repeat viewings, something not easy to achieve in the days when there were just single or two showings of the film and for the great majority of people no means to record them. In the event, Isadora had three: the original showing in 1966, a repeat in 1967 after Vivian Pickles had won Best Actress at the Monte Carlo International TV Festival, and its final showing on the BBC to date in 1969.
Angela Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was an American dancer. Her influence was considerable due to her unconventional style, and also her unconventional lifestyle, bisexual and bearing children out of wedlock, spending time in a Russia just after the Revolution with a man sixteen years younger than her. Her approach to her life and art clearly chimed with the Sixties zeitgeist: as well as Russell's film, Duncan's life was also given the big-screen treatment in the 1968 film, also called Isadora, directed by Karel Reisz and with an Oscar-nominated performance by Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. The fact that the cinema film was in development put more than the usual constraints on Russell. The rights to the available books on the subject had been taken so that certain events and anecdotes could not be dramatised in Russell's film. So there are several scenes which work because they are in the spirit of the events if not the literal truth. For example, Isadora's lover and father of two of her children, Paris Singer (Peter Bowles), the sewing-machine tycoon, bought an orchestra to play during one of her dancers. In the film, a giant box opens to reveal six harpists: undeniably striking, arguably over the top, but having an effect on a deeper level than the literal. As the budget was much lower than Reisz's film – which was generally regarded as a disappointment when it was released – shooting in some of the foreign locations in the story was not possible. Not for the first time, he resorted to stock footage and extracts from feature films – Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia makes an appearance near the start.
Russell's approach, by aiming to enter his subject's head via their art, which, in the case of the composers, involved listening to their music incessantly, meant that he identified with them to an extent. (Possibly a very conflicted identification in quite a few cases.) While the majority of his artist biopics are of men, Isadora shows that this heterosexual man could just as easily identify with a woman clearly seen as a fellow free spirit. Vivian Pickles (who had worked with Russell previously on Diary of a Nobody) was not a dancer – but then Duncan's dancing was decried by the dance establishment for not following conventional technique but her performance dominates the film, giving a flamboyant reading of the role which matches the flamboyance of Russell's visuals. (Appearing briefly as the younger Isadora is a trained dancer, Judith Paris. She continued to act regularly for Russell, including major roles like Elizabeth Siddall in Dante's Inferno, of which more below, and Pauline Strauss in Dance of the Seven Veils and on the big screen in The Devils, Savage Messiah and The Rainbow.)
Shot on 35mm, not the usual for TV drama, Isadora was undeniably a prestigious production and regarded as such from the outset. Its first showing was standalone – that is, not as part of the Monitor or Omnibus strands – and was followed by a profile of Russell at work the following night in Late Night Line-Up, discussed below among the extras. It ranks among the best of Russell's films for the BBC, an exhilarating film that constantly bursts the bounds of its small-screen origins – it's a feature film in all but name.
Dante's Infeno (87:35)
Made for Omnibus and broadcast for the first and so far only time in 1967, Dante's Inferno is subtitled The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti Poet and Painter. So you might expect an arts documentary, but we open with what could be a scene straight out of a Gothic horror film, in which a coffin is exhumed and opened, and a book retrieved from the clutches of the decayed corpse. It's the body of Elizabeth Siddall (Judith Paris) and Dante (Oliver Reed), a leading Pre-Raphaelite painter as well as a poet, is recovering a book of his poems, the only copy of many of them. It's a key scene, and it's Russell's way into the drama. The scene encapsulates the film, Dante's conflict between his idealisation of women, Elizabeth especially, and his lust for them.
After three quarters of an hour with Always on Sunday and just over an hour for Isadora, Russell has now reached a full feature length at a shade under an hour and a half. Dante's Inferno often featured in Russell retrospectives alongside his big-screen work, and it's worthy to stand in their company, even though intended to be watched on small screens in 405 lines. Russell's second feature Billion Dollar Brain opened in the same month as Dante's Inferno was broadcast and it was becoming increasingly clear that Russell's filmmaking was coming close to breaking the bounds of what was possible on a small screen and with BBC budgets. He wanted to make the film in colour, with lighting and palette varying according to which of the Pre-Raphaelite painters he was dealing with at various points of the film. If this had been a BBC2 production, he might have been able to, as that channel had started broadcasting in colour in July 1967, though most likely colour 16mm or video or both. But it was BBC1, and the powers that be, nervous of Russell blowing an already tight budget, would only allow black and white. Russell had to begin shooting in 16mm (Isadora was 35mm throughout) but technical problems with the cameras enabled him to angle for shooting the rest of the film in 35mm, which he did.
Even more than with Isadora, this is an unashamedly subjective and personal view of Russell's subject. He had been interested in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for a long time, having made a short documentary for Monitor called Old Battersea House (about a London house which was a shrine to the painters) and had tried to make a film about the movement, roughly equally divided between the various principals. However, Bryan Forbes (a very different filmmaker to Russell) passed on a script by Austin Frazer, which formed the basis of the present film, with the scenario credited to both Frazer and Russell and the commentary and dialogue to Frazer alone. Dante's Inferno is a very rich work, possibly too much for a single viewing – you can appreciate Russell's frustration that a film such as this could be seen only once. Earlier in the decade, the BBC had insisted on Russell following their rules in the arts documentaries he made, such as limitations on the use of dialogue and actors and a reliance on commentary. There are elements of these still, but what you sense is the considerable freedom Russell enjoys here, breaking rules with abandon (mixing pop songs with classical music on the soundtrack), filming several scenes effectively as silent cinema, with no dialogue but the music and direction and editing carrying the story instead, and some dizzying changes of tone. In the final third, which picks up the dark Gothic tone indicated by the opening, the line between reality and subjective fantasy has become thoroughly blurred. As before, Russell mixes actors with non-actors:: Judith Paris makes her dramatic debut, having been a dancer up to now, and contempoary artist Caroline Coon plays Holman Hunt's muse and lover Annie Miller. Given his latterday reputation as a sometimes boorish drunk, you can see how sensitive an actor he could be, in his second lead role for Russell.
Ken Russell: The Great Passions is a dual-format edition comprising one Blu-ray and two DVDs, encoded for Region B and Region 2 respectively. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray was provided for review. The disc's 12 certificate is due to Isadora and Dante's Inferno with Always on Sunday earning a PG.
All three titles were shot on black and white film in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and they have been transferred in HD from the original negatives, 16mm for Always on Sunday and 35mm for the other two, though Dante's Inferno has sequences which were shot in 16mm and blown up before being edited into the 35mm negative. As British television was PAL at the time, the films were shot at twenty-five frames per second instead of the cinema standard of twenty-four. For that reason, the Blu-ray transfers are 1080i50, to preserve the correct speed and pitch. I can't speak for 405-line sets, not being old enough, but the difference in grain between 16mm and 35mm was noticeable on a 635-line set and it is easy to spot the difference in Blu-ray resolution, but that's down to the original materials. The results are sharp, with strong blacks and a wide greyscale and natural grain (with the 16mm-originated material a little grainier and softer). To state the obvious, they've not looked as good as they do here.
The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered as LCPM 2.0, and they are clear and well-balanced, a tribute to the expertise of the BBC sound department. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are provided, and I have no complaints, though Isadora's "red husband" as opposed to her "Red husband" shows the difference a capital letter can make.
Each of the three films has a commentary, newly recorded for this release, by Paul Sutton on Isadora and Brian Hoyle for the other two. All are well-informed, if a little breathless at times, due to having to pack a lot into the shorter running times of the first two, but all worth listening to. Isadora has a second track made up of extracts from audio interviews Sutton made with members of the cast and crew, Vivian Pickles, Judith Paris, Murray Melvin and assistant director Tony Palmer among them. These were not intended for public airing and the audio quality in places is rough, but they do give us a different view of working with Russell, who comes over as demanding and at times even childish: Pickles tells how he tried to have her bare her breasts on screen and sulked when she refused. (In the event, a stripper was hired for the brief and discreet nudity in the film.)
The other extras on the disc begin with a special edition of Late Night Line-Up (30:41), the BBC2 arts magazine programme, broadcast the night after the first showing of Isadora. Russell narrates this film, which shows him at work. He complains about the challenges of making films on such tiny budgets, especially the reliance on what he describes as "rather second-rate library material" because of the impossiblity of filming overseas – and not just stock footage but extracts from pre-existing feature films. Such a reliance probably means that one of his composer biopics, Béla Bartók (1964), is unlikely to see Blu-ray or DVD release, but we see an extract from it here. We also see an extract from another film not on disc, The Diary of a Nobody, as well as from The Debussy Film (on the Great Composers release), Always on Sunday and Isadora itself.
Finally, there is an interview with Michael Bradsell (17:33), who co-edited Isadora and Dante's Inferno and became a longstanding Russell collaborator. He talks about Russell's work for the small screen, including these three films and others.
The booklet runs to twenty-eight pages, and begins with "My Life with Ken", a tribute to Russell by John Wyver, who credits him with inspiring his own career in the film industry, particularly concerning the films on this disc. There are more specific pieces on the the three films: "Always on a Sunday" by Kevin Jackson, "A Slightly Red-Blooded Thing: Ken Russell's Isadora" by Christophe Van Eecke, and "Dante's Inferno" by Brian Hoyle, with the last-named inevitably overlapping with Hoyle's commentary. Also in the booklet are credits for the films, credits and notes for the extras, a two-page biography of Russell by Paul Sutton, transfer notes and disc credits.