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.
Alfred 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?
Ken Russell at the BBC