Thursday 5 July 2007


Where the hell does the time go?

It seems only a few years back (at most a decade or two) that Ken Russell was the enfant terrible of the cinema.

Then, a couple of days ago, he turned 80 and there he was holding court at the Proud Gallery in London's Buckingham Street, where an impressive turn out of the great and the good were in attendance for the launch of a new exhibition of 1950s Russell photographs from the TopFoto archives.

They are, unsurprisingly, compelling!

© TopFoto and Ken Russell

Introducing myself - immediately after he had been reunited Georgina Hale (one of the Russell Repertory Company regulars) - Uncle Ken did me the great courtesy of acting as if he knew who I was. This civility was greatly appreciated by someone who charts his early obsession with movies by the films of Ken Russell.

I was 13 years old when I saw his groundbreaking film about Elgar (1961) made for the BBC’s TV arts programme, Monitor. Revolutionary, in that it included dramatized scenes with actors, Elgar, scorched itself into the memory with searing black and white images such as that of the young Elgar galloping across the Malvern Hills on a white pony.

KEN RUSSELL! It was the name to watch --- and I watched!

In 1968 I saw Song of Summer, the achingly exquisite portrait of Frederick Delius with Max Adrian as the blind, crippled composer struggling to write his final compositions through the medium of his amanuensis, Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable).

It was a sign of the television times in which we then lived that an elitist art film was viewed by enough of the population to subsequently be the subject of loving spoof on The Benny Hill Show!

With these early programmes, Russell defined a new style in filmmaking that was quickly adopted by others, notably Jonathan Miller, Lindsay Anderson and Stanley Kubrick.

Ken soon moved on from TV to cinema and I followed... watching a string of brilliantly controversial films: his adaptation of D H Lawrence’s Women in Love with Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates – "Tut, tut!" went the critics in response to male nude wrestling by firelight with shocking full frontal views! – and Glenda again, on this occasion with Richard Chamberlain, in The Music Lovers which caused more tut-tutting, this time about Tchaikovsky’s much-loved music being irredeemably tainted by smutty references to homosexuality!

Next, I ran the gauntlet of local Christians picketing the Astor cinema in Bromley in order to see The Devils: Ken’s shocking take on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudoun in which Sister Vanessa Redgrave did unforgivably naughty stuff with a convent candle!

Ken was everything I loved about 'sixties and 'seventies cinema: bold, daring, dangerous and outrageous.

There were fantastic, dazzling flights of high campery with a 'twenties-style Twiggy in The Boyfriend and Roger Daltry, Elton John & Co in the rock folly, Tommy. There were also dynamic explorations of the entanglements of art and passion in Savage Messiah and in the monstrously magnificent Mahler which starred Robert Powell and Georgina Hale and swung hysterically – but unforgettably – from the beautiful to the banal and back again. But then Russell was never afraid to fall or fail, it was all part of the risk of flying to the sun on home-made wings!

Anyway, that – and, of course, much else besides – is the Ken Russell everyone knows; what comes as a revelation is this superb collection of photographs, Ken Russell's Lost London Rediscovered: 1951-1957, on show at the Proud Gallery until 21st August; 11.00-18.00, seven days a week.

Of course, we really shouldn’t be surprised that, during his years before breaking into filmmaking, he was already demonstrating such an exceptional skill in composing and creating memorable imagery. As Russell told the Telegraph: “In a way I was making still films, I suppose…”

© TopFoto and Ken Russell
The stunning photographs, which were originally published in Picture Post and other magazines, are candid glimpses of London life in the 1950s as encountered by Russell in the streets around his then lodgings in Portobello Road such as raggedy children playing amongst rain-drenched, post-war bombsites and four-square housewives in curler-disguising turbans and wrap-around aprons.

There are elderly women sitting in graveyards or playing cellos on the steps of the National Gallery; the forgotten cult of Teddy Girls modelling their modish home-made fashions; middle-aged men confusedly contemplating the inexplicable bizarreness of modern art; and - for good measure and pure whimsical delight - eccentric images of mock duels and expeditions by penny-farthing bicycles.

© TopFoto and Ken Russell

The photographs, all of which are available as signed limited prints, were found amongst a cache of boxes that TopFoto bought from Picture Post 30 years ago, but remained overlooked - until now. Mercifully, they were not in Russell’s thatched house in Lymington when it burned down last year, taking with it all the filmmaker's scripts and papers.

These dynamic pictures are a reminder for my generation (and an introduction to a younger generation) of Ken Russell’s extraordinary and extravagant genius behind the lens of a camera…

© TopFoto and Ken Russell

[Images: Photo of Ken Russell by David Weeks; all photographs from the exhibition © TopFoto and Ken Russell]


Andy Latham said...

As one of the younger generation, it's nice to see something of Ken, other than his stint in Big Brother! I think most people my age would no nothing else of him but that, and would never be interested (as is the case with myself) in watching one of his films.

Luckily it is infinitely easier to subject oneself to a photo than a movie, and so it's nice to finally see some of his work...and some excellent examples at that!
Visit Andy's Animation!

Boll Weavil said...

You forgot to mention his appearance in Big Brother, perhaps the hightlight of his career.

Andy Latham said...

Just realised my use of the word "no" instead of "know". How shameful! That's too much text messaging for you!
Visit Andy's Animation!

Brian Sibley said...

Big Brother... Hmmmm.... Well, I didn't/don't watch BB, so I really haven't anything useful to say about KR's (as I understand it) short stint in the House...

Of course Ken's reputation was raised and suckled by media whores and some might think that if his fate is solely to be remembered as a failed BB Housemate then that is brutal, but poetic, justice.

Personally, I think it would be a tragedy. Ken Russell was the most consistently exciting, stimulating and visionary filmmaker of the 60s and 70s and that fact deserves not to be lost in the mire of media mindlesness...

I wonder, Andy, why you say that you would never watch a Ken Russell film? Perhaps you don't like classical music which features (along with its composers) in many of his movies, but it is difficult to believe that, as an artist, you would fail to respond to Russell's extraordinary ability to capture dramatic and emotionally powerful imagery on film...

The BFI have recently issued ELGAR and SONG OF SUMMER on DVD and they are both unforgettable visual treats. These early films - lacking Ken's later excesses! - are quite simply exquisite pieces of storytelling and image-making.

WOMEN IN LOVE won the Best Actress Academy Award for Glenda Jackson and was nominated for three other Oscars (including Best Director); it garnered 11 BAFTA nimainations and won the Golden Globe for best Foreign Film in the English Language. We may have forgotten the fact, but it is, quite simply, a great film.

As for THE MUSIC LOVERS and SAVAGE MESSIAH, I think............

But, oh well, there we are...

ENOUGH! This is a task beyond the means of a humble blog comment! But watch out, because I may just turn up on your doorstep with a pile of DVDs, sit you down in front of a screen and watch you watch one of these exceptional works of cinematography!!

If you like Ken's STILL pictures, then you owe it to yourself (and your senses) to experience at least some of his MOVING ones!

Unknown said...

Unfortunately I saw Ken on BB and thought it was tragic that the maker of so many fine films was unknown by pretty much all the other residents.

The poor chap was incredibly self-effacing about his work, which still has the power to shock, subvert and entertain today, dismissing it as if his film-making career had been some little dalliance long ago that had never really amounted to anything. Alas, he did himself no favours in the house and so a life that should be celebrated is now relegated to remembrances of a God-awful reality TV show.

Pleased to see he's getting recognition from the BFI at least as he enters his twilight years. In his day he was far more shocking and reactionary than the so-called "rebels" sharing the BB house with him.

P.S. My excuse for watching BB was that he was on! Have thankfully managed to wean myself off it for the new series.

Anonymous said...

I was also blissfully unaware of KR's appearance on BB. I have always thought of him as a brilliant controversial film maker - my favourite being Tommy - and thanks to your blog, I have now discovered what a wonderful photographer he is too.

Unknown said...

... and don't forget The Boyfriend which is an absolue joy from start to finish and never gets shown...

Boll Weavil said...

Its funny that watching BB seems to be like voting Conservativein that nobody ever admits to doing it ! Who are the embarassed and shameful millions out there that do both and lead our country to such ruin and degredation ?

Andy Latham said...

Well that was a momentous comment Brian, and one which demands an equally bloated retort!

I think my comment on not being interested in his films came across incorrectly. I simply meant that I see Ken's films as coming from a period in British film making that has never interested me before. I admit my ignorance to his specific films, letting my opinion of others from his era cloud my judgment. I may well enjoy a Ken Russel film, I just have never felt the desire to sit down and watch one.

As for classical music, that is definitely not a reason. I very much like classical music (well a lot of it anyway), and enjoy it's use in many a movie.

I think what this all boils down to is that Ken's films have two properties which have prevented me giving them a chance.

Firstly (and I know I will be struck down on the spot for saying this) they are British, and while there are a lot of British films that I like, there are far more that I don't. I guess that comes from being brought up on big Hollywood productions. Secondly, his films are black and white. Now movies of the monochrome variety tend to slip us (my generation) by, regardless of how great they may be. This is of course a great shame since they are often better than those employing colour.

I should learn from my love of animated films. I love old black and white cartoons. Mickey Mouse somehow has more appeal to me that way.

Oh, and don't worry about popping round to subject me to DVDs. I've felt the same way about trying to introduce other people other things!
Visit Andy's Animation!

Brian Sibley said...

POLKADOTS - Yep, I did mention THE BOYFRIEND --- that's the trouble with long posts and skim-readers! I love the wonderful theatricality of it.

ANDY - I'm not going to keep trying to convince you, but you do need to know that whilst ELGAR and SONG OF SUMMER were filmed in b&w, WOMEN IN LOVE, THE MUSIC LOVERS, THE BOYFRIEND, TOMMY, SAVAGE MESSIAH, LISTOMANIA, MAHLER and all the others were in raptuous colour.

But, yes, they were made in the UK. So..........................