How many BBC arts documentaries of the 1960s do you think begin with the exhumation of a mummified corpse, lit by flickering torches and soundtracked by booming horror-movie music? Not many, I’ll wager, but then there weren’t many directors walking the corridors of Broadcasting House who resembled Ken Russell. For all his early television work is held in higher esteem by many critics than his later films, fans of the man who made Crimes of Passion and the utterly bizarre Lisztomania will find plenty to enjoy in this new British Film Institute set of three art documentaries – 1965’s Always on Sunday, 1966’s Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World and 1967’s Dante’s Inferno, from which the scene described above hails.
The films share plenty of common virtues. Russell’s close-ups are worthy of Bergman or Dreyer, and the spectacle he was famous for is achieved not through budget but through skill. A contemporary documentary included in the mammoth pack of extras, Russell At Work, shows him marshalling huge crowd scenes in the Isadora Duncan film without stinting on his visual perfectionism, yet it also begins with a burst of ‘Anything Goes’ on the soundtrack, hinting that even at this early stage of his career Russell’s reputation was for excess. The only thing in these three films that wasn’t lavish was the budgets, with Always on Sunday being made for only £9,000.
Always on Sunday is the only film in this set produced for Monitor, the BBC arts strand where he made his name. In his autobiography A British Picture – essential reading, for those who haven’t had the pleasure – he notes that Monitor’s producer Huw Wheldon was icily suspicious of any attempt he made to push beyond the confines of documentary. Russell is uncomplaining about Wheldon, and credits his stringent cutting with improving several of the Monitor films. At the same time, Russell found Wheldon’s distaste for re-enactment incomprehensible, and found his insistence that voice-overs be used to clarify what was factual in these reconstructions fussy and old-fashioned.
You can chart how quickly Russell was escaping the orbit of television documentary just by listening to the voice-overs in these three films. Always on Sunday is a film about the painter Henri Rousseau which faithfully narrates the facts of Rousseau’s life over some mischievous, accomplished re-stagings. The last film in the set, Dante’s Inferno, was created for Monitor’s successor Omnibus. Here all of the restrictions Russell worked under on Monitor have vanished. For a start, the film is twice as long; more significantly, its voice-over is clearly ironic and unreliable. While the soundtrack frets limply about the artistic radicalism and nonconformism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Russell introduces his subject leaping over a bonfire and roaring straight into the camera.
Rossetti is played, in a typically magnetic and rambunctious performance, by Russell’s regular leading man Oliver Reed. Reed also appears in Always on Sunday, giving a delicate reading of the Melvyn Bragg-penned voice-over. He was the blunt instrument by which Russell asserted the supremacy of drama over documentary; faced with a choice between learning about a painter through measured narration, or through Oliver Reed rampaging around shirtless and making out with every woman he sees, which do you think would be more entertaining?
That’s not to say that Always on Sunday is a safe film. The reconstructions are frequently very funny, showing signs of Russell’s devotion to Chaplin. More importantly, like all the films in this boxed set, it uses the life of one of Russell’s favourite artists to construct a self-portrait. Russell spent the beginning and the end of his life making amateur films with his friends and family, and in between he was the bad boy of the BBC, a critically acclaimed auteur compared to Fellini and Truffaut, and a reviled maker of tacky exploitation films. He filled all these niches without meaningfully altering his style or subject matter, and Always on Sunday prophetically tells the story of another visionary artist who ended up with multiple reputations he never asked for.
Rousseau was an untrained painter whose naive self-portraits and jungle scenes were laughed off the walls at exhibitions until he met Alfred Jarry, the controversial absurdist playwright. Jarry saw Rousseau as a groundbreaking, experimental artist, a reputation furthered when the Surrealists adopted him as a kindred spirit. Russell has plenty of fun with the antic, gun-happy Jarry, and faithfully recreates the scandalous premiere of his play Ubu Roi. Yet he also captures an ambivalence in his friendship with Rousseau. Rousseau was grateful for Jarry’s support, but he never saw his art as being in the vein of Jarry’s conscious provocations. Once Jarry leaves, Always on Sunday becomes more melancholy and gently paced, as though Rousseau has wrested control over his own biopic.
Russell, of course, has elements of both men. He was both a controversial maverick and an Elgar-loving traditionalist. Part of the reason why both sides come through so clearly in Always on Sunday is because of the perfect casting, using the gruff-voiced Yorkshire painter James Lloyd as Rousseau and casting a woman, Annette Robertson, to play Jarry as a tiny ball of chaos with a stick-on moustache. Elsewhere he calls back to his seminal film on British Pop Art, Pop Goes the Easel, casting that film’s subject Derek Boshier as Sir John Millais in Dante’s Inferno.
In between we have the best film of the set, and perhaps the most quintessentially Russellian. Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World, is a narrated biopic of the titular character, who Russell referred to as “half-genius and half-charlatan”, which coming from him might be all-compliment. It begins with a Citizen Kane-inspired newsreel, ticking off the scandals in Duncan’s life, hilariously illustrated with images such as legs kicking into the air from behind a couch to represent an orgy. Duncan’s nude scenes were performed not by lead actress Vivian Pickles, but by a local stripper, and the dance school she set up was reconstructed in a working men’s club.
If this all sounds rather disrespectful towards a woman who had many serious tragedies in her life, Russell is merely identifying a common attitude they have. The bisexual Duncan justified her taking of multiple partners by saying she had too much love for one person to accomodate, an image the film wittily illustrates when her suitcase of love letters erupts all over a moor. Russell’s appreciation of her similarly refuses to choose between satirising its subject and lusting after her and feeling her pain and simply worshipping the art and life she gave the world. Rousseau and Rossetti have plenty of Russell in them – even the names alliterate – but Duncan is perhaps his ultimate hero, and Pickles gives full-throated conviction to the line which may well be Russell’s motto: “Art is so much greater than government!”
And, one might add, greater than government-funded broadcasters. As well as Dante’s Inferno, 1967 also saw the release of Billion Dollar Brain, which was quickly followed by Women In Love, and from then on Russell was a film-maker who would occasionally dabble in television. Fun though it may be to imagine him staying on at the BBC and directing the odd episode of The Frost Report or Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who, it was clearly never going to happen. It’s a puzzle how television managed to contain him for so long, and it’s a miracle that he stayed there long enough to produce work as brilliant as this.
• Late Night Line-up: Ken Russell at Work (1966): documentary showing Russell at work on various BBC TV documentaries, discussing his methods and filmmaking philosophy
• Interview with editor Michael Bradsell (2015): the editor discusses his work with Ken Russell
• Illustrated booklet with essays and full credits.