Russell redux

29th March 2016

Just released on DVD and Blu-ray by BFI Publishing are two sets of dramatised biographies made by Ken Russell at the BBC in the 1960s. The Great Composers contains Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965) and Delius: Song of Summer (1968), while The Great Passions features Always on Sunday (1965), about the painter Henri Rousseau, Isadora: The Biggest Dancer in the World (1966) and Dante’s Inferno (1967), featuring Oliver Reed (above) as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The appearance of these films, several of which have not been available on home video before, is hugely welcome, since they are both enormously enjoyable (even if I have reservations about aspects of them) and key documents of British television and pop culture in the 1960s.

Initial reviews have been very positive, including from Kieron Tyler at The ArtsDesk, Gary W. Tooze at dvdbeaver (with a host of screengrabs and tech-y stuff), mondodigital and dvdcompare. As these responses point out, the discs feature a host of great extras, some of which I intend to engage with in more detail in forthcoming posts.  But I thought by way of introduction I would post here the opening of the essay that I contributed to the booklet of The Great Passions. The title is ‘My Life with Ken’:

Such as I am today is thanks largely to Ken Russell. Not, or at least not directly, because of any of the films featured in this DVD compilation. Rather, the epiphany that kick-started me producing arts and performance television was triggered by The Music Lovers (1970). Russell directed his feature film about Tchaikovsky three years after the last of the trio here. Yet the heady medley of sex and the church, rebellion and romanticism, the sublime and the vulgar that marks Russell’s musical melodrama is brewing up, bubbling within and not infrequently bursting out of these television films. Watching them once again was, by turns, engaging, thrilling, nostalgic and — just occasionally — a touch dispiriting.

I am a child of 1960s television. Scratch my sub-conscious and you will stumble on Blue Peter, Napoleon Solo, Dennis Potter’s Wednesday Plays and Civilisation. The first of Ken Russell’s small-screen artist biographies that I definitely saw on transmission was Song of Summer, about Delius and Eric Fenby, the repeat of which I am sure I watched in June 1969. Less than a year later, on a Sunday night in February, was I transfixed by – or have I imagined this — the calculatedly outrageous The Dance of the Seven Veils, with its sex, Strauss and Sieg Heils? But what stays with me from the autumn of that year is the tingling vividness of being swept away in the Canterbury Odeon by the opening of The Music Lovers. On the bus home that Saturday afternoon I was determined to work in film and television.

Within a month or two, I had luxuriated several times over in the London Pavilion double bill of The Music Lovers and Russell’s D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969). Within a year or two I haunted the Russell retrospective at the National Film Theatre. After that I could pore over viewing prints of the director’s television work on a Steenbeck at the British Film Institute. 81 Dean Street was where I first encountered each of the three films in this release, Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora Duncan – the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966) and Dante’s Inferno (1967). With these and other films, I could celebrate a true television auteur, and I could believe in a British film industry, albeit on the small screen, of passion and provocation. Not too long after that, following a eulogistic speech about Ken at my interview, I was as astonished as everyone else to be offered a job writing about television for Time Out. Within days I was fielding as a response to my Kenomania the bemused condescension of fellow critics Tony Rayns and Chris Petit. Such, such were the joys of my early life with Ken.

Lest we forget, the past was a different country then and critics had to do things differently. With no YouTube, no DVDs and not even any Philips V2000 video cassettes, archive television was hard to see, You mostly had to wait for a broadcasting anniversary for the BBC to retrieve Russell’s Elgar (1962) from the vaults. But exceptionally (for few other archival arts programmes were available) the National Film Archive, as it then was, had made those precious viewing copies. Almost all of Russell’s oeuvre could be accessed, although the humourless meanies of the Strauss Estate ensured that Seven Veils stayed well and truly “banned”. Those reels were invaluable in keeping alive the films that Russell made for the arts strands Monitor and Omnibus and in prompting the critical writing and modest myth making that has given these films their canonical status. Finally, fifty years on, we can again be home alone with the films in this set – none has had a previous VHS or DVD release in Britain — and that is cause for celebration.

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