Self-Portrait of the Artist


Those early BBC arts drama-documentaries directed by Ken Russell really are something. One almost hesitates to sing their praises in the UK since for years the perceived wisdom has been that they’re Mad Ken’s best work, that he went into decline (a) as soon as he started making feature films (b) as soon as he’d made THE MUSIC LOVERS (c) after he had his nervous breakdown and lost his catholic faith making THE DEVILS (d) after he went to America or, for all I know, (e) when he went on Celebrity Big Brother.

First into the Panasonic was Always on Sunday, AKA Henri Rousseau, Sunday Painter, scripted by Russell himself with regular collaborator Melvyn Bragg. In the very early films KR made for the BBC’s flagship arts show, Monitor, he was not allowed to show the artists except as a pair of hands, painting or conducting or whatever. Russell kept fighting for the right to use fully-fledged dramatic techniques, and by the time of his Rousseau movie he’d more or less won — the film is a combination of narrated passages (Oliver Reed intones Bragg’s commentary) and mini-scenes involving actors. Beautifully, Rousseau is portrayed as a Yorkshireman, seemingly to suggest his simple honesty.

vlcsnap-250728Alfred Jarry gets pataphysical.

Like a lot of Russell biopics, it’s in part a self-portrait, with Rousseau/Russell the misunderstood artist whose work is ridiculed during his lifetime. Poor Ken couldn’t have known how true this would be. Just wait till he dies — hopefully some decades from now — there’ll be a national outpouring of grief to rival the Princess Diana farce and the Valentino funeral rolled into one.  “Unappreciated” barely begins to describe the Russell oeuvre, which has been trashed, mocked, condemned as obscene, censored (“They took out anything that had to do with Art,” said Ken of the MPAA’s evisceration of CRIMES OF PASSION, whose Beardsley and Hokusai prints were the first to go) and banned outright (the zealots of the Strauss estate are still suppressing The Dance of the Seven Veils).


“Eh, ‘e’s a grand animal, a lovely animal, you are, a real… oh lovely one… Aaaaarrr! look out, he’s coming to get yer! Arrrrr! ha ha ha!”

A more iconoclastic production, Isadora, The Biggest Dancer in the World, features Vivian Pickles (Harold’s mom in HAROLD AND MAUDE, and if you’ve seen that film you can picture this performance) as the champion of free expression, and leaves one a little uncertain whether Ken has any respect for his subject at all. It’s a problem critics frequently had with his 1970s composer films. In fact, Russell adores Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt, but he blows their idiosyncrasies up to such a massive scale that he can come off as mocking or hostile. He isn’t really.

The film begins with a fast montage of the scandals and disasters in Isadora’s life, moving at Mack Sennett speed and changing style and tone with dizzying abandon. Here’s how Ken initially presents the death of her children in a car accident —


This opening is the equivalent of the newsreel in CITIZEN KANE, a frequent structural touchstone for Russell. The grotesque events treated as black farce in the opening are revisited more tenderly in the ensuing film. Although Isadora is frequently ridiculous — “In my heart I’ve been a communist all my life — I’m a queen of communism!” — I think Ken sympathises with her eccentricity, impracticality and inappropriateness. How could he not?


Ken obviously benefitted from his apprenticeship at the BBC. In producer Huw Weldon he had an authority figure whom he could rebel against and respect at the same time. Russell-haters will feel that the limited budgets and b&w photography of these films also kept him grounded, kept his outrageous visions within respectable boundaries. That may be true, but it wasn’t a stable, sustainable situation. Russell’s nature ensured his transformation into a gaudy butterfly of the cinema.

TVs Culture Show has placed a blue plaque at Ken’s birthplace, but I’m holding out for a fifty-foot-high marble statue in the Lake District. Might I suggest this pose?


US customers:

Ken Russell at the BBC

21 Responses to “Self-Portrait of the Artist”

  1. Ken Russell is a towering giant of the British cinema — Michael Powell’s randy bastard child. “Oh he’s quite a wonderful monster isn’t he?” Mr. Powell chuckled to me about Ken.” That he got to do HALF of what he;s done is amazing.

    I challenge any living filmmaker to produce something as mind-bogglingly brilliant as the first 30 seconds of Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers (its full and proper title.)

  2. I’m so glad Powell admired Russell, the feeling was mutual.

    No filmmaker today would go as far as Russell, or even think of it. And then we see his work and we’re envious. For years the critical mainstream lauded his TV films while deploring his best films, and in fact there’s little stylistic difference — it’s purely the extreme sex and violence and bodily function imagery that upset them. Childish to be so offended! The iconoclastic attitude is consistent throughout.

  3. Whatever you may feel about Mark Kermode (and many insults have been hurled at him from our sofa), he is at least a champion of Ken Russell’s work.

    I am old enough to have very fond memories of Monitor and Huw Wheldon’s hushed tones. We looked forward to each programme with a real sense of anticipation, and they were widely discussed, not just in the press, but by ordinary people in offices – sometimes with amusement, sometimes with puzzlement – but the point is they were discussed. It was a genuinely shared cultural experience. When I look at the BBC’s arts programming now, I could weep.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    I am a stranger to all things Ken Russell so I am included out of this, sadly. I have DELIUS at hand and have been wanting to see it. My local British Council Library has an excellent DVD collection(saw all my Archers stuff there!) and has Delius as part of a BBC Films series. What’s the take on that?

    From what I gather he seems to descend from the Michael Powell of THE TALES OF HOFFMANN and PEEPING TOM and BLACK NARCISSUS.

  5. Of course, Kermode is partly RESPONSIBLE for some of the BBC’s arts programming now. Although I’m sure everyone involved with The Culture Show would like to improve it. But BBC1’s Imagine strand shows no signs of any ambition to be better than it is.

  6. The Delius film is very nice, with Russell overcompensating for his talkie script with lots of hyperbolic camera movement. It’s positively mild-mannered compared to some of his later excesses, but probably tells you more about the music than most of his other composer films. You get some sense of the kind of very emphatic performances he likes, but Max Adrian really comes into his own in The Devils.

    And then there’s THIS —

    But that comes later.

  7. That’s Ken’s remake of Monster on the Campus — with a wonderful John Corigliano score.

  8. Some of these were shown on American TV when I was a kid — presumably on PBS, or “National Educational Television” as it was called then — and scenes from the Delius and Isadora Duncan shows took up lodging in my brain and have stayed ever since.

  9. Ahhh thanks for that picture of Ken. I watched TRAPPED ASHES this week, and was just wondering which of these lipstick-wearing false-breasted mad scientists was him (must be the one in the middle).

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    Great clip from ALTERED STATES, David C. with excellent score (as David E. points out). It is a shame we have to wait 10 years from DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS to appear as a result of the Strauss Estate copyright. I was one of the lucky ones who saw it on its first (and only) televised broadcast.

  11. Christopher Says:

    wouldn’t mind seeing his film , Isadora again..or The Boy friend,both were pretty regular on TV in the 70s…In fact I can remember seeing Isadora on TV as early as 1969.must have been one of those”straight to telly” affairs..

  12. Christopher Says:

    speaking of ART

  13. Fiona Watson Says:

    I love mad, old Ken. Wait till he pops his clogs, (which could be anytime soon if he goes any redder) then you’ll hear all the plaudits he should have had in his lifetime.

  14. The Boy Friend was the great Max Adrian’s swan song. In fact he was so close to the end he told Ken “Just put me in wheeelchair and if I pop off you can go right with the scene. Hence the wheelchair ballet in the “You’re Never Too Late To Fall in Love” number. But being the great trouper that he was Max made it straight through the shooting — and THEN died.

  15. So I take it that’s Russell with upraised arms, the last grab of your post? Looks like the conductor of a polka band.

  16. Well, Ken’s very musical.

    The movie Isadora with Vanessa Redgrave is another animal altogether, directed by Karel Reisz. Russell’s film was made FOR television. His career has a weird circularity — starting with home movies, into television, then British movies, then Hollywood, then back to Britain, back to TV, back to home movies. But with time out for adventures like Trapped Ashes, which I’m very curious to see.

  17. Trapped Ashes is a rather enjoyable go at the Dead of Night via Amicus Productions formula. Ken’s bit concerns a woman with blood-sucking breasts.

  18. And Joe Dante too? I’ll have to get this.

  19. david wingrove Says:

    Nothing illustrates the philistinism and petty-mindedness of the UK film establishment more than its criminal neglect of Ken Russell. He may have made a few bad movies in his time, but he has almost certainly never made a DULL one.

  20. He just doesn’t bother applying to UK film institutions anymore because you knows full well what the reaction will be. And he’s probably right. Although if Nic Roeg could get backing recently for a UK movie, maybe Russell could, although I’d hate to think of him going through the kind of “development” process that’s enforced nowadays.

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